Don’t let its slow pace fool you—practicing Yin yoga is a rich and meaningful experience.
Developed in the late 70s by American yoga teacher and martial arts champion Paulie Zink, Yin yoga is the balance to a full, active lifestyle. To fully understand Zink’s intention in creating this style of yoga, you must first understand its roots in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
In TCM, life force called qi (pronounced CHEE) flows through the body via energetic (non-physical) meridians in the body. In yoga speak, this is similar to the movement of prana (life force) through the body via pathways called nadis.
When it’s healthy and unimpeded, qi flows through the body cleanly. The blood is clean, the lymphs are clean, the breath is smooth and nutrients get to where they need to go all throughout the body. When qi is imbalanced, however, it shows up as discomfort in any number of ways, both physical and emotional. For example, qi stagnation in the liver might make you short of breath and congested; emotionally, it could manifest as restlessness and anxiety.
Though research has yet to catch up with the theory, it’s thought that qi/prana is linked most closely to the body’s fascia. Fascia, also known as connective tissue, is what literally holds us together. Resembling a delicate spider web, fascia surrounds all muscles, internal organs and bones to keep you in one piece. It’s similar to the pith of an orange that keeps the segments contained, as well as the delicate skin around each pod within a segment to keep the juice contained.
Yin yoga aims to correct any potential imbalance in qi by opening up channels of energy as they flow through the fascia. Whereas more yang (active) practices such as Ashtanga focus on muscular contraction and release, Yin works to release the deep connective tissue without any muscular contraction whatsoever.
A key distinction between Yin yoga and more active styles is that the muscles should never be warm. This is because the purpose of Yin is to stretch the connective tissue—not the muscles—which is much easier and safer to do with cool muscles.
Since there’s no warm-up, Yin classes usually begin with a very gentle pose to get students connected to their bodies and present in their practice. Connective tissue is more delicate and much easier to damage than muscles, so presence of mind to play your “intelligent flexibility edge” is key to a safe and healthy Yin practice.
The first pose is usually a symmetrical asana to loosen a specific area of the body for deeper opening further into the practice. For example, Butterfly (a loose version of Baddha Konasana) may be introduced to loosen the spine for deeper forward folds or Sphinx (a relaxed Salamba Bhujangasana) for deeper heart opening. Each pose is followed immediately by a counter-pose to encourage balance in the body. If a pose is asymmetrical, this simply means doing the same pose on the other side; if a pose is symmetrical, it means moving the body in an opposite direction, for example following a forward fold with a backbend.
Yin classes focus on long-held, at least five minutes or longer, passive poses. Comfort is key in getting into the pose, as once they’re held you’re to keep them held until you move into the next pose. Props are used to ensure this is possible. Fidgeting and adjusting once in the pose is discouraged, as it automatically creates muscle tension as well as distracting your mind. It is also potentially unsafe to the delicate connective tissue, as releasing at this deep level makes it vulnerable to tears that could come from muscular engagement.
Poses are almost exclusively practiced on the floor and, at five or more minutes per pose, there aren’t very many poses per class. The challenge of a Yin practice isn’t in the asana itself; it’s in your ability to transcend your mind as it tries to distract you from the intensity of deep opening into the fascia and tendons.
Is Yin yoga for me?
When he designed Yin yoga, Zink didn’t do so with the intention that the practice be a one-stop shop to meet all your yoga needs. He created it as a way to balance the active yang so pervasive in our day-to-day lives. With that in mind, you can see how a consistent, but not daily, Yin practice can benefit everyone.The only caveat to this is that, though it’s a slow, thoughtful practice, Yin isn’t for beginning yoga students. This is due to the body awareness required to intelligently and safely manage your flexibility edge to relax past the muscles and get into the connective tissues. Contrary to how it might seem, it actually takes a lot of skill to have the beginner’s mind necessary to keep you safe in this practice.
With that caution in place, Yin yoga is worth practicing especially if you:
- have an overactive mind
- want to complement and balance an active physical life
- struggle with erratic energy levels, whether too much or too little
- have particularly tight, inflexible joints
Yin yoga offers a multi-dimensional perspective on your overall yoga practice and your life in general. Because of its slow and deliberate nature, the practice of Yin prevents you from hiding from yourself. It’s a beautiful experiment in the mind-body connection as, after seven minutes in a particularly challenging pose without the opportunity to distract yourself, you start to honestly learn about your capacity for resilience, presence, and inner peace.