What is Yin Yoga?

Aug 21, 2015 | Health, Mindfulness, Yoga

Paula Hines facilitates Yin Yoga workshops and teaches our Flow and Restore Classes, Embody Wellness, South London

What is Yin Yoga

‘Yin yoga’ is derived from the word ‘yin’ and comes from the Chinese philosophy of Taoism, where all is composed of the complementary elements of yin and yang. While yang is faster, hotter and more active, yin is slower, cooler and passive in comparison.

Yin yoga is a deep, meditative practice where physically the focus is on moving deeper into the connective tissues of the body (ligaments, tendons and fascia – the cling-film-like ‘tissue’ which holds our muscles together) in areas such as the hips and spine, for instance. This typically involves holding poses for three to five minutes.

The ‘god-father’ of Yin yoga Paul Grilley describes our muscles as Yang tissue and bone and connective tissue as Yin. Most of the physical yoga we tend to practise in the West is Yang by nature with an emphasis ‘doing’.  Yin yoga is much more about being and rather than doing or striving.  It teaches us to find a place of ease and acceptance as we hold poses that penetrate these deeper areas.

As it may look like we are not physically ‘doing’ much in a Yin practice it is sometimes categorised as an ‘easier’ style of yoga. But that’s somewhat misleading.  For some of us, slowing down and being still is a real challenge. Yet if that’s the case, it’s probably a sign that that’s exactly what we need. Also, unlike restorative yoga where the emphasis is on rest, relaxation and comfort, yin yoga can at times feel intense.

What to expect in class?

This will very much depend on the style of the teacher and their particular approach, but on the whole poses are mostly on the floor (seated, lying down, kneeling) and tend to be held for three to five minutes. Along the way you are invited by the teacher to go further into the pose, but this is not about forcing your body. Less is more. You find our own intelligent edge in each pose – there might be discomfort or intensity here (but certainly not pain) and that can be very humbling for the ego.  Yet, what invariably happens by staying here, and staying with the breath is that your body settles and opens up that bit more into the pose.   It’s a great antidote to other activities where we may rely on our physical strength to power through.  And it’s a great metaphor for how we can choose to respond to situations away from the yoga mat.

When I attended a workshop with respected Yin yoga expert Sarah Powers back in 2012 she invited us all to meet our limitations during our practice and to recognise where we were resisting. As Sarah put it, “Instead of needing to be comfortable to relax, we learn to relax with discomfort. That is a very transferable skill.” 

Just one of the benefits I find of this practice is that this slowing down allows you to really tune in and pay attention to what is going on with your body. With that awareness you are more likely to take your body only to the point where it is ready to go in any given pose.

You can expect to notice your breathing slowing down as you move through each pose and the meditative pace of the practice has a calming affect on the mind as well as the body. So, Yin yoga is much more than stretching. Other reported benefits of a regular Yin practice include, alleviating anxiety and reducing stress.

Is Yin Yoga for you?

There is an argument, if you are already hyper-mobile as to whether Yin is necessarily a good practice for you.  Yin by it’s nature will take you deeper and lead to more opening, but if you are already very open is this what you need?  My feeling is that it is hard to be prescriptive about these things as we are all different.  If you are hyper-mobile it is possible that you may not receive the signals that you are overstretching until it is too late, so mindfulness is key, I feel.  I would humbly suggest using the greater space for awareness that this practice provides and taking note of recognising your own edge to avoid that risk.  In this sense, part of your yin practice if you are hyper-mobile will likely be about learning to engage your muscles during the poses with support and stability for your body in mind – so, an opportunity to practise holding back, to a degree, rather than total surrender.

Also, if you already have a diagnosed condition such as osteoporosis I’d recommend seeking advice from your doctor first and if you are practising then being especially aware of your alignment. Speak to the instructor about modifying poses accordingly and note whether there are certain poses that you might want to omit. As my Yin yoga teacher, Norman Blair says, there is always an alternative. As ever, it is very important practice with awareness towards your own body.

In all classes I would say listen to your body – you are the one who lives there – and trust yourself first.

Overall, most people can benefit from incorporating a Yin practice into their routine.  If you already practice a lot of dynamic yoga styles or sports then this can be a wonderful complement.

We all need both yin and yang to be in balance in our bodies and minds. When we have this balance then contentment, better health.

For details of upcoming Yin Yoga workshop see our Workshops page.

Weekly Flow and Restore Class

Also, for a weekly dose of yin and restorative yoga in one class, you can also come along to Flow and Restore, Sundays 6pm – 7.15pm. The first half of this beautifully balanced class guides you through a series of flowing postures to develop strength and flexibility. The pace then slows for the second half of the class where the focus is on restorative and yin poses allowing your body to release both physical and mental tension).

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