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Yoga Essentials: What is Yin Yoga?

We first need a basic understanding of the terms “yin” and “yang,” which in Chinese philosophy mean something more specific than just “opposites.” In the context of movement, a yang practice is more heating, active, outward, and dynamic. A yin practice is more cooling, receptive, inward, and static. Yin and yang are relative terms, not absolutes, so a practice may be more yang than another, but no practice is ever 100% yin or yang. The term “yin” yoga was coined to describe a yoga practice that was more receptive, cooling, and static than the sweaty, active “yang” yoga styles like vinyasa or power that define “yoga” in many people’s experience. Although rooted in ancient Tibetan tradition, yin is a relatively new lineage, created in the 1980s by Paulie Zink and Paul Grilley, who are both still active teachers in the US and abroad.

There are three principles of yin yoga that influence how the class is structured and taught:

  • Taking the pose at the appropriate depth for you, aka finding your edge. Find the Goldilocks spot where there is sensation—often not pleasant–but one that is sustainable both physically and mentally. There should never be any pain, but there will very likely be some strong sensations.

  • Resolving to remain still, meaning stillness of body and mind, and smoothness of breath. Because of the focus on stillness, yin can be a very meditative practice.

  • Holding the pose for an appropriate length of time. To go deeper in yin means to hold longer, not necessarily to take the body into more extreme range of motion.

The anatomical focus of yin yoga is on connective tissue, and specifically fascia and the joints. Yin postures put a steady, sustainable, static load on the joints – in just the right amount–and the theory is that over time this practice will stimulate the tissue to reorganize, grow, and be healthier. There are no research studies specifically on yin yoga and this theory. There are some that support the benefit of steady stress applied to connective tissue but nothing that categorically supports what is a key part of yin yoga. There is also debate in the scientific community about whether fascia will stretch or what kinds of fascia can stretch. Regardless, fascia is pliable and can be moved, stimulated, and hydrated, which contributes to its suppleness and efficient function. Practicing yin postures can therefore contribute to healthy fascia.

In a typical yin yoga class, postures are held between three to five minutes, and sometimes up to 10 minutes. You may only get to five or six postures in a 60-minute class. Props are used more sparingly in yYin than in other styles. A sandbag is often used to create more stress in the posture. Props can also be used for traditional reasons – to make a pose more available, or to make it more comfortable so that you can stay in it longer. Class will normally end with Savasana, and Pranayama/breathing practice can also be offered.

Because the emphasis of the practice is not muscular effort, you won’t do warmups or cooldowns. But to say that because muscles are relaxed does not mean that there is not effort during the class. Yin yoga is not restorative yoga. It is more active because you are putting your body into a shape that purposefully creates sensation. In most poses, you are holding the weight of your body in resistance to gravity for three to five minutes or longer. The trick is to find the place where there is effort, but the pose feels okay.

Let’s take an example. In restorative yoga, you might hold reclined butterfly (lying on your back, soles of the feet together, knees wide) with the knees completely resting on blocks so that there is minimal sensation in the hips or legs, and you can breathe and rest. In yin yoga, the same shape would be held with blocks providing some support BUT you still feel just the right amount of sensation, mainly in the hip joint. There should be no pain, but there might be strong sensation in the hip joints as you hold the pose. You might also choose to put a sandbag on each thigh to get to that day’s edge.

Because muscle activation is not an emphasis, there aren’t really standing poses that are done in a yin style, since standing requires so much muscular engagement. There is only one standing pose in the whole yin repertoire. Otherwise, the class is done on the floor. The wall can be used as well.

The mental focus of yin yoga is working with aversion. Yin poses are not meant to be comfortable. The sensation of opening is sometimes intense. Yin asks that you work with your mind and delve into why it is telling the body to shift and move. It is an active practice of sitting with discomfort—not pain, but discomfort. We often suggest breathing techniques for students to keep the mind present, including Ujjayi/ocean breath, three-part breath, or 4-1-4-1 breathing. Repeating a mantra or affirmation is another technique that can help students wrestle the mind into the now. So in the example of reclined butterfly above, while holding the yin version of the pose, you might be really focused on the changing landscape of sensation in the hip, what stories are present in your mind, investigating if those stories are true, listening for whether the present sensation feels productive or is verging toward pain (in which case you would shift the body.)

It is also really challenging for many of us to stay completely still for one minute, let alone five or six. Yin yoga helps to strengthen the muscle of stillness.

Energetically, the joints are considered to be gateways of energy, or chi. This comes from traditional Chinese culture. Holding yin postures is thought to open the gates/joints so that chi can flow throughout the body. Yin shapes are designed to activate specific meridians, which is another way you know you are not dealing with an Indian yogic practice, but with something rooted in China.

Why choose Yin yoga? I’ve asked some regular students, and they usually report feelings of deep relaxation. “Deep rest in the body.” “Release muscular tension, especially large muscles.” “Less pain and stiffness.” Just as important as the physical effects, they also talk about the effect on the mind. “Mentally revitalized.” “I sleep wonderful after yin.” “I enjoy the quiet time to myself.” And then sometimes, students feel more like this–“I find it fascinating how energized I get after class, as if relaxing and going deep into poses releases trapped energy inside me.”

Join us on Tuesdays at 6:30 p.m. if this practice sounds intriguing to you. Feel free to comment below with questions.Text content

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