If you haven’t tried yin yoga yet, you’ve been missing out on a wonderful addition to your practice. And it’s great for any level of yoga experience, even for beginners.
Yin yoga is not “new”. It’s firmly rooted in the ancient forms of hatha yoga. What we now call “yin yoga” involves long-held poses that were first introduced to North America in the 1970s by Paulie Zink, a martial arts expert who taught Taoist yoga, a form of active+passive yoga.
In the 1990s, when very active forms of yoga such as ashtanga and vinyasa yoga were gaining in popularity, another Taoist yoga teacher called Paul Grilley modified the practice and began offered “full-yin” classes to his hatha yoga students. Thiswas similar to restorative yoga but designed for healthy students instead of those recovering from illness. Influential yoga teacher Sarah Powers, discovered the benefits of these long held poses within a more dynamic practice while studying with Paul Grilley. When she understood the power of this form of yoga to balance out the high energy created by an active practice, she coined the term “yin yoga” and began integrating it into all of her teaching. She added an element of mindfulness to it.
Yin yoga is a slow-paced and restful style, using a limited number of seated or supine poses that are held for at least 3 to 5 minutes or even as long as 20 if you feel like it.
But it’s deceptive. You think you are simply relaxing into a lovely long yoga pose, and you are, but in yin yoga you are also working your physical body quite deeply. The reason we remain so long in yin poses is so that we can have enough time to really release all muscular tension and to go beyond the muscles to improve the flexibility of the deeper connective tissues such as fascia, ligaments, tendons and joints.
And it’s not just your physical body you are working with. This extra time combined with a deep state of awareness also allows you to go into a deeper relaxation so that you can access and explore your emotional, mental and spiritual bodies.
Yin yoga is based on the ancient Chinese concept of energy (qi) that flows through the body in channels (meridians) and that can greatly impact our health and well-being. This energy flow is one of the foundations of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
My friend Sonja den Elzen* is the talented fashion designer who collaborated with me to create our new Shanti Collection. And she is also the founder of Cedar Healing Arts, a registered Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner with over 2200 hours of training, a 500hr RTY yoga teacher and a certified yin yoga teacher. Yin yoga is one of many tools she gives to her clients to help them create a healthy balanced lifestyle and also to find what makes their true soul essence thrive. And so I asked her to give us some TCM insight into yin yoga.
What is YIN and YANG, and why is this important for our health & well-being?
YIN and YANG are two opposing but interdependent energies:
Yin and yang are constantly transforming into one another, they are never stagnant. And they balance each other. You probably recognize the circular yin/yang symbol with its intertwined black and white forms. It clearly illustrates what yin and yang represent and how they interrelate to each other. The dots suggest that nothing is every purely black or white, yin or yang. Yin cannot exist without yang which is why it’s important to have a balance between the two.
A healthy body and mind is the result of a balanced interplay of energy. Yin yoga is one of the tools we have to achieve this balance.
How do we bring this YIN/YANG concept into a yoga practice?
Just like yin and yang energies balance each other, so do yin and yang forms of yoga.
YANG practice is active and often flowing yoga with invigorating poses that focus on building muscular tension and strength. They focus on engaging the movement of the body with the breath, on activating the breath. These are examples of YANG poses:
YIN practice is the opposite. Yin poses require you to release any tension in your muscles so that the work can go deeper into the tendons, ligaments and tissues between the muscles, specifically the fascia which is the connective tissue that surrounds all the muscles and organs and keeps them in place. Yin poses are still and receptive, they allow us to listen to what’s going on in our bodies and our minds, to access the deeper aspects of our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual bodies. These are examples of YIN poses:
Yin yoga is an attitude that you bring to seated or reclining poses. It’s not just about relaxation and stillness. It’s about being receptive and building awareness of your body energy as well as your emotional mental and spiritual energy.
Yin yoga can be a complete practice on its own. But too much yin practice can overstretch your tendons and joints. So you also need to balance the yin practice with some active, muscle-strengthening yang practice. And adding some yin poses to any yoga practice it is an ideal way to balance out the dynamic energy of yang poses.
You need both to find balance and harmony in your practice and your wellness. This balance will also depend on your experience and your body.
What are the main benefits of yin yoga?
1 - Find a deeper state of calmness within yourself
If you have anxiety or are often stressed and rushed, yin yoga creates the womb-like space you need to honour your body and spirit. A yin practice helps you to move out of your head and back into your body and breath, It's a tool to handle your daily life in a much more calm and patient way.
2- Rehydrate your body by releasing stagnant fluids
Sonja explains that the fascia tissues are like sponges surrounding our muscles and organs, locking in fluids. These fluids can stagnate. The yin poses are like a way to squeeze the fluids out of the "sponge", allowing the body to absorb them back into the muscles and the organs. It’s a way of moving any stagnant fluids and stuck energy through the body.
3- Get to know your energetic body
Yin yoga provides the time and space to contemplate and build awareness of more than just your physical body. It allows you to become intimate with your emotional body. You begin to notice how energy flows, where you feel different things both physically and mentally, what thoughts and emotions arise. From there you can learn how to control these energies and work with them.
What do you do while you are holding the pose for 3-5 minutes?
A yin pose is not the place to go over your to-do list or to plan your day. This is the place to let go of all the things you carry on your shoulders, to relax into awareness of what is happening in your body and mind. It’s the long hold coupled with awareness and exploration of your experience that makes a pose “yin”.
Ideas to help to stay present to your experience:
How to work with discomfort in a yin pose?
If you feel intense feelings in your body, notice what emotions and thoughts are coming up, acknowledge and experience them, and then release them. This will train your mind to not create stories around what is happening. And also remember to listen to your body enough to know when to pull back a bit or go deeper, go into the poses carefully and be mindful that it feels safe.
You can also use your breath to work through the sensations. What does it feel like when I direct my breath to a specific place in my body? Can I feel into that space? Do a deeper exploration of the experience.
Note that a little discomfort during the practice is a good thing, a sign of effort and of release. But pain is not good. If you notice pain in any pose, yin or yang, adjust your pose or come out of it. Pain does not equal gain!
Practical tip - use a yoga bolster
A yoga bolster and yoga blocks can be very useful to create good alignment and added comfort in yin poses. They can be especially useful if you can’t yet comfortably rest your entire body on the floor.
3 yin poses you can add to any yoga practice
Sleeping Swan Pose
From hands and knees, bring your right knee forward and place your right shin and knee down on the floor approximately parallel to the front of the mat. If this is too intense, place it at a comfortable angle. Both hips should be on the floor, and your back leg should be extended straight back if possible, but it is also fine to bend the back knee if this helps your hips come to the floor. Come down to rest on your forearms or directly on the floor if you can. If you need extra height for comfort, place your forearms and forehead on a bolster. To protect your right knee, flex your right foot if the shin is parallel with the top edge of the mat.
Note if your right hip doesn’t reach the floor, you have options:
When you’ve finished on the right side, be sure to practice on the left side.
Meridians: Gall bladder and liver meridian
This is good if you feel: frustration, impatience, stuck. This pose moves stagnation, calms the mind, creates patience.
Supported Wide-Legged Child’s Pose
Child’s pose is a gentle forward bend that stretches out the back body, and also calms the nervous system to relieve stress. From hands and knees, begin by bringing your big toes together and your knees wide, then sink down to sit on your heels. In the classic version of Child’s Pose, you would place your forehead on the floor between your knees and your arms down at your side. It you can’t quite reach your forehead to the floor, rest your forehead on stacked fists or forearms. You can also rest your upper body along the length of a yoga bolster; this makes the forward bend less intense and more restful. Relax and release completely.
Meridian: Bladder meridian
This is good if you feel: fear, exhaustion, anxiety. This pose offers peace, calm, rest.
Supported Reclining Butterfly Pose
This pose allows gravity to create a comfortable hip opening position and gentle stretch to the inner thigh and groin muscles. You can do this lying flat on the floor or support your back with a yoga bolsterto make the pose more restful. The bolster also creates spaciousness across the chest for a heart opening. Sit at the very end of the bolster with both knees bent, your feet together. Lean back to rest on the length of the bolster. Let your knees fall open and press the soles of your feet together. Your arms can be placed on your abdomen or alongside your body. Keep the pose soft and gentle, don’t try to push your knees down towards the floor, let gravity do the work.
Note that you make this more comfortable by raising the bolster onto a diagonal using blocks (this puts your spine into a neutral alignment) and by propping your knees on cushions or rolled-up blankets.
Meridians: Heart Meridian and liver meridian
This is good if you wish to open the heart, promote wellbeing and connection.
Multi-talented Sonja den Elzen is the designer who collaborated with me on our Shanti Collection of yoga and meditation clothes. And she is also the founder of Cedar Healing Arts, a registered Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner and acupuncturist with over 2200hr of training, a licensed Zen Shiatsu practitioner, a 500hr + RYT yoga and qi gong instructor, sound journey facilitator and lifestyle transformation counsellor. What an awesome and insightful combination! Visit her Cedar Healing Arts website to learn how she can help you with multiple life-transforming wellness services.
Yin Yoga: Principles and Practice, by Paul Grilley
Insight Yoga, by Sarah Powers
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