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What is Yin Yoga? An Intro for Students and Teachers

What is Yin Yoga

Yin yoga works deeply into the connective tissues (ligaments, tendons, cartilage and fascia), in order to heal joints and increase flexibility through slow, gentle and sustained traction.  When you look at the elderly or injuries in athletes you will often see that the degeneration lies within the joints. Yin yoga focuses on slowly stretching the connective tissues around joints, which in turn also helps to strengthen them.

Yin yoga poses focuses on yin tissues (the connective tissues) as well as the meridians that end in the lower body including: the liver, gall bladder, kidney, urinary bladder, spleen and stomach meridians in order to support a balance within our subtle energies.

Though yin and yang are relative terms the practice of yin yoga has more yin like qualities. For instance, we practice with cool muscles, versus muscles that have been warmed up. This allows the focus to move from the belly of the muscles to the yin tissues around the joints as well as the fascia which is a thin spider web like tissue runming through the entire body (watch this video!). Yin yoga is also practiced slowly and quietly with a calm breath versus a more fast paced, yang yoga with more power in the breath.

How to Practice Yin Yoga

There are three main qualities to a yin yoga practice.

1. Reaching your appropriate edge

In yin yoga we are seeking to play with our edge. Finding an appropriate depth in the postures that allows for not too much sensation, but also not to little. I recommend that when you get into a posture, start out well behind your edge at a point where you are just starting to feel a sensation. Give your body a chance to relax and adjust, then allow yourself to get closer to your edge. The edge looks and feels different for everyone, as every body is unique. It is said by Bernie Clark that if you are feeling it you are doing it.

One of the most important aspects of yin is the slow and sustained pressure. When you stretch too far, too fast, the body reacts and contracts the muscles fibers. When this happens the stretch is no longer able to reach the connective tissue. Also if you keep stretching once the muscle has reacted and contracted then you are simply trying to stretch a contracted muscle and this is how we cause tears and strains that leave us feeling sore the next day. You should never be sore after practicing yin yoga. Pay close attention when you are practicing. When you are in a yin yoga posture you should feel the stretch, but there should not be any type of painful sensation. The more you practice, the more you will get to know your appropriate edge.

2. Committing to stillness

When practicing Yin Yoga, Sarah Powers teaches:

Stillness of the body…like a majestic mountain
Stillness of the breath…like a calm mountain lake
Stillness of the mind…like the deep blue of the sky

The effectiveness of yin yoga lies within a gentle and steady stretch. There is no bouncing up and down which can injure the muscles and especially the connective tissue.  When we get into our posture and find our edge we stay there. We become mindful, not only of stillness in the body, but stillness in the mind as well. If you get into a yin posture and start to fidget or drift away you will not be getting the full benefits. However, committing to stillness does not mean committing to stillness at any cost. You will find that there will be times when it is pertinent to move. For instance, you may start to move past your edge after being in a posture for a longer length of time. In which case you may need to ease off. You may also discover that after some time your body as begun to adjust and release. In this instance you can adjust yourself to go deeper and get closer to the new edge that has developed.

3. Sustaining the posture for a longer period of time

Yin tissues require reasonable amounts of time in gentle traction to respond in such away that injury does not occur and an effective stretch is practiced. This is very different compared to yang forms of yoga and exercise where movements are often quick or only help for a few breaths. Typical times for holding a yin posture are 3-5 minutes.  When you first start practicing you may find that it is easier to hold some postures for longer period of time than others. Over time you can begin to hold the posture for longer periods of time, even up to 20 minutes. By holding yin postures in a more gentle, steady manner for a longer period of time you may find that you can increase your flexibility more in that time than stretching for shorter periods of time over the span of several days. The time used in holding postures may seems slow, but you can quickly gain results.

When we get into our yin postures we go in slowly and consciously. Due to the length of time that we spend working on these specific tissues, there is a certainly level of vulnerability that is places on the tissues, so it is very important that you come out of your yin postures with the same slowness and awareness as you went into them. If you are stretching your tendons for instance and then you just “pop” out of the posture you can damage the tissue.

When to practice

Yin yoga is best practiced when the muscles are cool. The morning (even before you get out of bed) is a wonderful time to practice, as well as late at night for a calming effect. Yin yoga can be effectively practiced at any time of day, however the physical effects for your tissues will be greater in the morning and the effects for calming the mind and nervous system will be greater in the evening.  Yin postures are best practiced before more energetic yang exercises and it is a perfect balance to the demands of traveling, such as being in a static position while traveling on airplanes for long periods of time. The practice of yin yoga is also a great compliment to a woman’s moon cycle.

The Breath

The breath in yin yoga is typically calm, even and quiet. The breath can be used as a focus point for awareness. There are also times when you can deepen the breath slightly and move it to area of the body where you are feeling sensation. Once you get into your yin posture and you are feeling the right level of “not too much and not too little” sensation in targeted areas, the best thing you can do is to utilize the breath to relax and release the body around those sensations. The more relaxed the muscles are the better chance that the stretch will move into the connective tissue. One way to do this is with a conscious breath. You inhale the sensations of tension in your body and exhale release. At first you may find that the releasing exhale is only in your imagination, but with practice you can begin to become a master of physically releasing your muscles on the exhale. Not only will you benefits from this breath in your yin yoga practice, but you will find it to be a valuable tool throughout your day. Learning this breath and release technique through my yin practice and bringing it into the rest of my day as helped me cure almost two decades of back pain stemming from a childhood accident.

Asanas (Postures)

There are countless postures in the many varied yoga traditions, However there are really only about a couple of dozen (along with their variations) which are typically practiced in yin yoga. It is also important to note that many of the postures look the same as postures you may find in other forms of yoga, however they are not only given a different name, but will also have a different intention. You may practice a posture in one way in a vinyasa class for instance where the focus is on tightening and strengthening the muscle, where as in the yin form the focus is on relaxing the muscle and targeting the stretch around the joint.

Sequencing

When you prepare to practice yin yoga on your own, it is best to first decide your reason for practicing. It may be different depending upon the time of day and what you are experiencing in your body that day. Maybe you are feeling tension in your hips, or maybe you are experiencing a tightening around the muscles of your spine. Maybe you just want to calm the mind. Knowing what your intention is will be the most important step to picking which postures you will be practicing.

As far as sequencing the postures, there is no “law.” Most yin poses have a heavy focus on forward bends, back bends and spinal twists. It is best to always do a mix of all three. I often teach and practice in such a way that I alternate between forward bends and back bends, with a few spinal twists throughout or just at the end. However this is not an absolute. If I am really working on lengthening the back of my body, I may do mostly forward style bends with just one back bend and spinal twist at the end. You will learn with practice what feels right to you.

Most yoga sessions are done in 1 hour – 90 minute times blocks, however there have certainly been times at home when I only have the need or time to do one slow 5-10 minute, forward bend and one slow, 5-10 minute back bend. Don’t let lack of time stop you from practice. Yin yoga is such a portable and easy to practice form of yoga that you can do it almost anywhere at anytime!

Once you have decided why you are practicing and how long you are practicing for. Take a few moments to sit down and allow for the development of a meditative mind through breath awareness, move on to your yin flow and then end with Shavasana (or a final relaxation laying down on the back. After relaxation it is helpful to roll over onto the left side for just a minute or so to open up your yang energy channel and start to make your way back into the world. 

For more information about yin yoga as well as to find in depth trainings:

Paul Grilley’s Website / Buy the Book – Yin Yoga: Outline of a Quiet Practice / Buy the DVD Yin Yoga: The Foundations of a Quiet Practice

Sarah Powers’ Website / Buy the Book – Insight Yoga  

Bernie Clark’s Website (A great site for yin yoga postures!) / Buy the Book – YinSites: A Journey into the Philosophy & Practice of Yin Yoga / Pre order the Book: The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga coming this Fall. (I am greatly looking forward to this!)

Also check back with the Yoga of Travel next month in the Free Yoga Poses section for an extensive library of yin poses with photos and descriptions!

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The Wandering Yogi