- It helps increase flexibility.
- It is a perfect complement to other styles of yoga, not just through increased flexibility but by bringing a little Yin (calm, meditative focus) to your Yang (dynamic yoga or other sports) practice.
- It is a lovely combination of yoga and mindfulness meditation.
- It helps us to recognise repetitive thought patterns and start to consciously change the ones that no longer serve us.
- It’s a deeply calming practice.
What is Yin yoga?
Yin yoga evolved from Daoist Yoga and draws on the wisdom of Chinese medicine. It is a quiet, still, passive practice that complements a more dynamic or active ‘Yang’ style of yoga (or other activities). Seated or supine (lying down) poses are held for several minutes at a time to allow the body to come to stillness, open up and relax. It’s a great way to help increase flexibility and mobility in the joints and to really get into some of the knotty, tight fascia making us stiff. If you are new to fascia, it’s a collagen web that runs through our bodies, through muscle, tendons and ligaments and even through bones. It’s the stuff that keeps all of our organs separate and in the right places. When we move and stretch, the fascia is lubricated and stretches to accommodate the range of movement we need. If, on the other hand, we stay sitting or hunched over a computer for much of the day, then our fascia tightens and restricts to that shape. If we don’t move, stretch and lubricate those areas, then it can remain tight and get harder (collagen is crystalline in structure) over time. Harder in consistency and harder to change, restricting our range of movement, healthy energy flow in the body and overall physical comfort.
This is where Yin yoga comes in. Where ‘yang’ (most other) yoga styles target the muscles to build strength and increase flexibility, Yin yoga targets the fascia and other connective tissues (e.g. in the joints) through very gentle, passive and long held stretches. If you’ve always thought that you shouldn’t stretch joints, you are right, in the sense of traditional stretching, or active pulling. But Yin works in a different, much slower, way. Paul Grilley evolved Yin Yoga into what we know it as today and he explains it this way, “We must remember that connective tissue is different from muscle and needs to be exercised differently. Instead of the rhythmic contraction and release that best stretches muscle, connective tissue responds best to a slow, steady load. If you gently stretch connective tissue by holding a yin pose for a long time, the body will respond by making them a little longer and stronger—which is exactly what you want.”
In other words, when we practice Yin yoga, the stretches are passive. There is no active pulling our body into a pose and we use props to support our bodies in the poses. We remain within our natural range of motion and don’t risk injury by pulling too far. As we stay in the poses for anywhere from 1-20 minutes, but usually 3-5 minutes, the body gradually opens up to the new shape, increasing circulation, and lubricating the targeted areas.
Yin yoga doesn’t just help stretch you out again, at the very deepest levels of connective tissues, but an energetic level, different Yin yoga poses stimulate various meridians, or energy channels (also known as nadis in Indian yoga philosophy) in the body to increase the quality and flow of Chi (traditionally called Prana in yoga theory). Lots of fascinating research is just starting into fascia, how it works and whether it’s actually more important than previously thought (when it was discarded by medical schools examining how the body worked). Daniel Keown has written a fascinating book called the Spark in the Machine which explains how collagen can both transmit and create electrical signals and send these throughout the body via our fascia. What scientists are starting to notice is that fascia follows meridians in the body as described in Chinese medicine. And the electrical impulses transmitted by the fascia could actually be Chi, our vital energy.
This sounds great, but what do you do for all that time you are holding the pose? The challenge is to find stillness and remain in that stillness for the length of the hold. At the same time the yogi is challenged to bring their awareness into the present moment, into the posture, into their body, to their breath, and to any thoughts or emotions as they arise. “It marries meditation and asana into a very deep practice,” says renowned Yin teacher Sarah Powers, “Yin yoga challenges you to sit in the pure presence of awareness. It’s hard in a different way than active asana practice, but in a way that’s more profound and satisfying as well as more beneficial to the deeper tissues.”
We can think of this inner work, this inner attention, as the white dot of Yang (mental alertness) within the calm passivity of our Yin posture (see the Yin / Yang symbol). In the same way, a regular Yin practice (which should always complement, rather than replace a Yang practice) can help us to bring a sense of inner calm as we flow through a sweaty vinyasa sequence (or however we choose to exercise our muscles), just as the black dot of Yin sits within the white swirl of Yang.