What is Yin yoga?

What is Yin yoga?

You might have heard of Yin yoga. You might even have been to a Yin class. But if you’re still wondering, “What is Yin yoga exactly?” then you’ve come to the right place. In this post, I’ll share the principles and origin of Yin yoga, the benefits of the practice and what you can expect in a Yin class. But first, I’d like to briefly share how I found, and fell in love with, Yin yoga.

My journey into Yin yoga

I fell in love with Yin yoga 10 years ago on my first teacher training in Mexico. One of our teachers said, “Check out the wonderful Biff Mithoefer if you ever get the chance.” And I did… one year later at a yoga event in Cologne.

And so it all began, as I listened to beautiful poetry recited by Biff whilst sinking deeper and deeper into the long held Yin poses.

“You do not have to be good…
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
Love what it loves.”

These words from Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese, recited by Biff whilst holding ‘sleeping swan’ pose, were profound. I didn’t really know what Yin was yet. But in that moment I knew I wanted more and that I wanted to learn with Biff.

As I learnt more about the benefits of Yin yoga and went on to eventually train as a Yin teacher with Biff, I would come to understand the depth of this practice and how it can change people.

The difference between Yin and other types of yoga

All types of yoga offer a wealth of benefits that may help to alleviate pain and tension in the body, relieve stress and anxiety in the mind and improve overall physical and mental wellbeing.

On a purely physical level, most yoga practices will stretch and strengthen the muscles. The key difference with Yin yoga, however, is that we relax the muscles in order to work at stretching or ‘stressing’ the joints.

The word stress is used by my Yin teacher Jo Phee, senior assistant to Paul Grilley, as some people don’t like the idea of stretching the joints. But most people do need to stress or stretch their joints as they become tightened with age, dehydration and injury, causing pain and stiffness. In Yin, we prefer to use the word stress as a healthy way of rehabilitating and mobilising the stiff connective tissue in the joints known as fascia.

All yoga movements have the benefit of mobilising the fascia, but Yin yoga is specifically targeting the joints. When we practise Yin yoga we’re targeting the deeper layers of connective tissue in the joints. We’re rehydrating the layers of fascia in order to improve mobility.

The 3 principles of Yin yoga

  • Come into the pose to an appropriate depth.
  • Resolve to remain still.
  • Hold the pose for a period of time, usually 3-5 minutes.

The practice of holding a pose for an extended period teaches you to sit with and observe uncomfortable emotions, thoughts or physical sensations as they arise.

Whilst Yin isn’t an active style of yoga, the practice can be an intense experience physically, mentally and emotionally and is a great way to learn how to handle difficult experiences in life. As we practise handling the discomfort of the Yin poses by using the breath, we may also find ways to deal with everyday challenges by taking some deep breaths to handle the intense experience, to know that this will pass.

The origin of Yin yoga

Yin yoga is inspired by ancient Chinese Taoist practices in which stretches were held for long periods of time. Sometimes referred to as Taoist Yoga, or Tao Yin, these practices have been incorporated into Kung Fu training for thousands of years.

Paulie Zink first introduced the stretching martial arts technique to a western audience in the 1970s, combining it with elements of Hatha yoga. Among Zink’s students was the American Paul Grilley.

Grilley’s interest in yoga and the martial arts paralleled his meditation practice. With his desire to sit more comfortably in meditation, Grilley soon combined his familiarity with Zink’s Taoist Yin, Hatha yoga and the Chinese system of meridians into a practice of his own, which would eventually be called Yin Yoga.

Paul Grilley and his student Sarah Powers are among the world’s leading Yin yoga teachers today. While both have given the practice a spin of their own, it remains true that Yin yoga is all about balance and the partnership of body, mind and soul. My teacher Jo Phee is one of the senior assistants to Paul Grilley, and Biff Mithoefer is a student of Sarah Powers.

The meridian system

In Chinese medicine the channels that conduct energy throughout the body are called ‘meridians’.

These pathways form a network and if this is disrupted and blockages occur, the body will not function properly. Energy (Chi) will not flow as required, the organs will not perform their function and imbalance will arise. When the meridians are clear and open, energy flows freely and all is well once more.

In my classes, you’ll be introduced to some of the basic concepts of traditional Chinese medicine as taught by my teacher Jo Phee.

What are the benefits of Yin yoga?

Improved mobility

The aim of any movement practice, including Yin, is to see the body as 14 skeletal segments being moved by ten muscle groups and to learn how to improve mobility in all of these areas.

In my Yin yoga classes I’ll teach you how to effectively adapt the seven archetypal yoga poses to suit your own unique body so that you feel the target area for each pose and increase the range of motion in this area.

“There are two aspects to health: to build up the body, make it stronger, make it more resilient; and to relax and restore the body. After you stress a muscle and it gets sore, Yin yoga can speed up the rehabilitation of the muscle so you can go back to your Yang yoga sooner.” – Paul Grilley (one of the founders of Yin)

Improved sleep

Yin yoga is a deeply grounding and soothing style of yoga involving long held passive stretches whilst also focussing on the breath. In turn, this helps to calm the nervous system so that we can sleep better, deeper and for longer.

Reduced stress and a calmer mind

The practice of Yin yoga can be incredibly calming, soothing and contemplative. It’s a great practice if you’re feeling anxious, stressed or exhausted from the struggles of everyday life.

When you hold the poses for 3-5 minutes, you may start to notice what’s going on in your mind when you become still. You may start to breathe more deeply, you may have beautiful music, poems or readings to listen to and often there’s a sense of slowing down. This way you bring some peace and quiet to the body-mind system, especially if the mind is overactive.

Release of emotions

You might find yourself thinking, “Why do I feel like crying, why do I feel sad or really happy? Where do these feelings come from during Yin yoga? What’s going on? I just came to stretch!”

It’s quite normal to feel emotional during or after a Yin class, especially if you’re a sensitive person. Trauma specialists Bessel Van Der Kolk and Peter Levine, as well as neuroscientist Steven Porges, have led the field in their research on trauma and the effects on the body. The idea that our bodies can hold emotional memory, often at the subconscious level, has been well researched and documented.

What does fascia have to do with emotional trauma? Fascia can harden and become dehydrated as a result of emotional trauma and the body’s response to extreme stress. A great book to read if this interests you is The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, one of my favourites.

It’s the releasing and letting go during a Yin practice or any fascial release technique that can bring up all kinds of emotions, including unexpected tears or even laughter.

“Trauma is not the bad things that happened to you, but what happens inside you as a result of what happened to you.” Gabor Mate (The Wisdom of Trauma)

Time for contemplation

When we practise Yin – or any form of yoga – we’re not just working with the physical body but also the astral and causal bodies, also known as the subtle bodies.

The long periods of time in which we hold the poses in Yin allow us to access these subtle layers. We have time to drop deeper into our experience of who we truly are, not just on a physical level. So, instead of simply working with the physical body, we need to address all three bodies for overall healing to take place.

The physical body
This is the one we’re all familiar with – the human body that breathes, eats and moves. We can increase or restore these elements through yoga postures and breathing exercises.

The astral body
The astral body is not a physical or material thing, but is made up of subtle elements that we can’t see. The astral body is responsible for functions like breathing, digestion, metabolism, circulation, muscles, nerves and the skeleton.

The causal body
The causal body is one of the most subtle bodies and records our past thoughts, habits and actions, as well as our memories. It’s the foundation of the physical and astral bodies and connects us to our true selves, to the senses and the way we feel or act. This body consists of five perceptive organs, five organs of action, five vital breaths, the mind and the intellect.

Is Yin yoga suitable for everyone?

Yes it is!

At SPACE we welcome everyone – all ages, beginners and experienced yogis alike. Many men have joined our Yin classes too, which is great to see. (For some reason this still seems unusual in most yoga classes.)

You should take some precautions if you’re pregnant (check with your doctor first) or hypermobile, but when practised with care I believe everyone can benefit from Yin yoga. If you have any health concerns, we need to know so that we can take good care of you. Always check with your doctor if you’re uncertain about practising yoga.

Can I practise Yin every day?

Yes, you can.

Every day our fascia and connective tissue is tightening with our daily activities, so the more we work at releasing this tension, the better it is for our long term mobility. Because we’re not affecting the muscles in Yin yoga, there’s no need to incorporate recovery days between practices. You might feel some soreness, but this is perfectly normal.

Most people tend to combine both Yang activities to build strength as well as a couple of Yin classes as part of their weekly fitness routine. I often find that more active people – who find being still a challenge – really benefit from the Yin practice and often say how much they love to be still.

Finding your own yoga path

There’s a lot of information to digest here! Many people start yoga to improve their flexibility or to reduce stress. There are so many different types of yoga that it can be mind boggling where to start. I always say it’s like a menu: taste a few different things and then decide which is your favourite. But always have a varied diet!

For me, I just happened to connect with a great Yin teacher, which is why I’ve continued to focus on Yin along with Rope yoga. Discovering Yin yoga has been life changing for me. The benefits have been improved mobility but also, more importantly, to create a much calmer mind, to reduce stress and anxiety and to make peace with some traumatic experiences in my life.

Along the way, I’ve loved diving deeper into the Yin practice and I love sharing it with others too. If, at the end of one of my classes, you leave with a feeling of greater ease physically, mentally and emotionally, you will have fulfilled my ultimate purpose.

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