Yin yoga is a slow, quiet style of yoga, in which poses (typically floor-based) are held for several minutes. We allow the body to soften and relax while we are tuning into the internal aspects of each pose – bodily sensations, breath, thoughts, emotions. Yin yoga is not meant to replace other styles of yoga but was designed to complement other, more dynamic forms of yoga. Thus, Yin yoga provides a welcome ‘counter practice’ within the Hatha Yoga traditions.
Why Yin yoga?
‘Yin’ and ‘Yang’ are terms originating in traditional Chinese philosophy. They describe the duality of qualities within an object: Seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary and interdependent aspects of the whole. Yin is the stable, unmoving, hidden aspect of an object, while Yang is the changing, moving, revealing aspect. Therefore, with Yin yoga we are practicing skills such as patience, mindfulness, and surrender.
You have to try Yin yoga to really experience what it is like – just as you have to eat an apple to know how it tastes. As one of the creators of Yin yoga pointed out, Yin yoga is an art form not an exact science. There is no right or wrong or perfect way of practicing the poses. What matters is your individual approach to each pose. It’s about looking within rather than searching outside. This can be a difficult skill to learn if you are used to looking for certainties and accomplishing goals. But once you’ve got the hang of letting go, you’ll find out how wonderful it can be to be still, to connect with yourself, and to let the body decide how to get the most out of each pose.
Benefits of Yin yoga
Yin yoga can have many benefits: On a physical level, Yin yoga helps increase flexibility. It also helps stretch the muscles and the various layers of fascia. You’ll feel stretched, relaxed and loose. Yin poses gently stress the joints, ligaments, tendons, and bones – which is necessary to keep them healthy. On a mental level, we may find that our mind becomes calm and detaches for a while from the daily hassles of tasks and worries. Emotionally, we may release anxieties and other distressing emotions. Spiritually, it is a welcome opportunity to spend time with yourself to explore your life journey. Overall, Yin yoga is often accompanied with a satisfying sense of wellness and contentment.
A short history of Yin yoga
Yin yoga may seem the new kid on the yoga block, but it has his roots in ancient yoga practice. The way we practice Yin yoga today, though, was developed in the late 1970’s by Paulie Zink, a martial arts champion and Daoist yoga teacher. He created ‘Yin and Yang’ yoga classes, combining asanas and movements from Hatha yoga, Daoist yoga and martial arts. One of his students, Paul Grilley, modified Zink’s system, emphasising the extensive holds of the Yin part and bringing in his knowledge of anatomy and traditional Chinese medicine. Sarah Powers, a student of Grilley’s, evolved Yin yoga further, weaving in the meditative, explorative aspects.
Yin poses vs Yang poses
We can practice many poses both in a muscular, directive ‘Yang style’ as well as a relaxed, permissive ‘Yin style’. To emphasize this difference, no Sanskrit names are used in Yin yoga.
For example, the traditional Yang-style Bound Angle Pose Baddha Konasana involves taking the feet close to the body, lengthening the spine, and engaging the muscles of the legs and the abdomen to take the knees down towards the floor and the torso towards the legs. There is effort involved. The focus is on the inner thighs, and the gaze is forward-looking. We develop core strength, muscle tone, stamina, and balance. The immediate effect is energising.
In the similar Yin-style Butterfly Pose, we keep the feet further away from the body, the muscles are relaxed, and the spine naturally rounds so that the head moves towards the feet. Openness in the hips develops solely with the aid of gravity. Both gaze and mental focus are inward. We promote growth, free flow of energy, relaxation, and contentment. The immediate effect of the pose is calming and soothing.
Principles of Yin yoga practice
- Mindfulness: Go into the pose with care. Find a position where you feel steady and where there is a balance between too little and too much sensation.
- Slowness: No rushing during a Yin yoga practice. Move slowly as you place yourself into a position and also later when you come out of the pose.
- Stillness: Once you have chosen your position, remain still. Avoid the temptation to use muscular strength to ‘go deeper’. Rather, observe how your body and mind are reacting to the pose, adapt as necessary, then become still again.
- Softness: Allow your muscles to relax. Allow a sense of softness develop throughout. Allow your breath to soften, too. Breathe calmly, following your own natural rhythm.
- Surrender: Surrender to gravity, let go of muscular effort. There is no fixed end-result, it’s all about exploring your unique way of being.
- Acceptance: Refrain from comparing and judging yourself. Commit yourself to your practice fully, but always on the basis of compassion, kindness and love.
Relieving stress with Yin yoga
While a Yin yoga practice on its own cannot solve any stress-related problems, it is fantastic for alleviating the symptoms of stress, such as tensions, restlessness, and anxiety. As our muscles relax and our nervous system calms down, we feel more peaceful, more connected with ourselves, and more aware of our inner strength.
“Yin yoga is an art form not an exact science. The purpose of Yin yoga is to take us out of the systems of social convention, indoctrination, and mechanistic ways of thinking, not to reinforce them by demanding conformity to rigid, limited paradigms. Intellectualizing the practice of Yin yoga serves to obstruct a deeper understanding of its essence. The real power to authorize truth is contained within each and every one of us.”
(Master Paulie Zink)