You can separate yoga into two distinct styles of practice—yin and yang. In Taoist philosophy, these terms refer to the complementary opposites that define our universe—darkness and light, water and fire, stillness and movement. Yin describes phenomena that are passive, cool, static and therapeutic and yang refers to those that are dynamic, hot, bright and energetic.
Vinyāsa is one of the best-known forms of yang yoga. The literal translation from Sanskrit (an ancient Indian language) is “to place in a special way”. We flow from one pose to the next, synchronising breath and movement and generating heat in the body.
Yin yoga is a different beast. Instead of flowing from one pose to the next, we focus on just a few postures, holding each of them for a minimum of 10 breaths. In this style, time, not intensity, is the active ingredient. We work alongside gravity to release deeply-held tension, exerting as little muscular effort as possible and prioritising stillness and receptivity over movement and strength.
As yin yoga is a restorative practice, we typically use props to support us in the poses. These include blocks, straps and bolsters. Blocks and straps are inexpensive and well worth the investment and you can always substitute a bolster with cushions and pillows when you’re starting out.
All styles of yoga improve your overall sense of wellbeing but yin yoga is particularly effective if you are somebody always on-the-go who finds it hard to relax. If that is you, this technique may be just what you need to give your body and mind the time to properly rest and rejuvenate.
THE BENEFITS OF YIN YOGA
There are both physical and mental benefits to yin yoga that are really quite profound. I would argue that it is a fairly extreme practice which makes the effects particularly noticeable. These benefits include:
- Increased flexibility.
- Reduced stiffness.
- Greater range of motion.
- Mental calm and clarity.
- A reduction in stress and anxiety.
- Improved focus.
- Enhanced body awareness.
- The alleviation of aches and pain.
- Reduced risk of injury.
- Psychological balance.
- More restorative sleep.
- Time to relax.
HOW YIN YOGA IMPROVES YOUR FLEXIBILITY
From a physical perspective, the focus of yin yoga is releasing muscular tension to increase flexibility and improve your range of motion. If you are already fairly flexible, this will mean restoring normal range of motion after exercise and the activities of daily life, staying supple and ensuring that you don’t suffer from unnecessary muscular pain or discomfort.
There are a number of different ways that you can stretch a muscle and combining multiple techniques will give you the best results.
- Dynamically. In yoga, we do this when we flow from one pose to the next with the breath, as we do in Sun Salutation A.
- Actively. Holding a pose like Warrior 2 for 3-5 breaths in which the quads of your front leg are contracting and the groin and calves of your back leg are lengthening.
- Passively. In postures that require minimal effort, like Reclining Spinal Twist and Happy Baby that we hold for 60 seconds or more.
One of the benefits of passive stretches is that you can hold them for longer, allowing for a deeper release of tension than is possible with active or dynamic stretching. Gymnasts, dancers and martial artists hold long-duration stretches to achieve extreme flexibility for postures like the splits and high kicks.
Another reason that passive stretching is so effective is that it bypasses the stretch reflex, a mechanism designed to prevent you from over-stretching and injuring the muscle. The stretch reflex is an automatic response, triggered when a muscle is stretched, that causes it to contract. In yin yoga, we are able to override this mechanism by easing into the stretch gradually and allowing muscles to lengthen over the course of several breaths. With this technique and consistent exposure, the body learns to tolerate deeper and deeper ranges of motion.
Holding stretches for several minutes may not intuitively feel necessary but if you think about how long we typically remain in the same position, it starts to make sense. We sit at desks or drive our car for multiple hours in a row and sleep in the same position night after night. A quick stretch, joint mobilisation or even sporadic massage is unlikely to be enough to counteract the negative postural effect of our daily activities.
There are yin poses that release tension in muscles throughout the body but a couple of key areas that we focus on are the chest, hips snd hamstrings. Opening up the chest and the fronts of the shoulders eliminates pain in between the shoulder blades and stretching the hips and hamstrings can reduce pain at the lower back.
THE RELAXATION RESPONSE
Yin yoga is a profoundly calming technique. As we settle into each posture, the goal is to be still and relax every muscle in your body. From a physiological standpoint, we transition from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for priming the body for action and it is only in parasympathetic mode that the body can rest, digest and rejuvenate.
Students who most benefit from a consistent yin yoga practice are those of us who get stuck in sympathetic “fight or flight” mode—whether that is because we have too many responsibilities, exercise at a high intensity or are just not very good at self-care. And in my experience, this covers pretty much everyone!
It could be argued that it is the prioritisation of yang forces in our world that causes the unnecessary aches, pains and burnout. Rarely do we give ourselves the opportunity to relax and do nothing and certainly not in positions that are genuinely healthy for our bodies. To relieve physical discomfort we have to address our muscular imbalances and postural misalignments. And to keep the mind fresh and clear, we need to give ourselves time to consciously rest and let go.
MENTAL CALM AND CLARITY
The two ways that we create space in the mind are through breathing and choosing what to focus on.
In yin yoga, as in all yoga, the breath is primary. We aim to breathe in and out through the nose throughout the session, deep down into the abdomen. This is actually much easier than in a vinyāsa class in which we are flowing, twisting, balancing and holding challenging postures but it is still difficult to maintain 100% of the time. It does, however, become easier with practice and in time, you’ll find that this skill transfers into your everyday life.
Diaphragmatic nasal breathing triggers the parasympathetic nervous system and allows your muscles to let go of tension. As you settle into each posture, try to slow your breathing right down to a pace that is comfortable and soothing. As you become more experienced, you can start to draw out the length of your exhalations. For example, breathing in for 4 counts and out for 6 or 8. This is because, as you will discover, the release of tension takes place on the exhalation.
In yin yoga, you can drift off and allow your mind to wander but to get the most out of the practice, I recommend that you focus on your breath and the physical sensations in your body. These sessions are an excellent opportunity to improve your body awareness and increase your powers of focus and concentration.
The foundational technique in yin yoga is to focus on your breath and specifically, the sensations of your breath as it flows in and out of your body. This might be the passing of cool and warm air, in and out of you nostrils but it is more likely to be the gentle expansion and contraction of your belly and your chest. I will also cue for you to focus on the sensation of the stretch where you feel it most noticeably and breathe into that spot.
If you are holding poses for several minutes, you may like to tune into the sounds in your environment, near and far, the feeling of air on your skin and even into smells. My preference is to focus on the breath and physical sensations initially and then to experiment with broadening your awareness when you feel that you have achieved stability in your attention.
This is meditation. Sensing and feeling instead of thinking or doing. Aiming to keep your attention on your embodied experience and not allowing your mind to wander off. However, unless you have monkish powers, this will be practically impossible for your entire session, so each time you notice that you are lost in thought, just gently bring your attention back.
THE NUTS AND BOLTS OF A YIN YOGA PRACTICE
What have we learned so far?
In yin yoga, we practice a series of postures that we hold for at least 10 breaths and for up to 15 minutes. We choose poses that counterbalance the postures that we are in for most of the day, primarily opening up the chest and stretching the hips and hamstrings. We use props, including blocks, straps and bolsters to allow for deeper relaxation and aim to stay as still as we can in the postures. During the session, we try to maintain our focus on the flow of the breath and physical sensations of stretch.
How long should we spend in each pose?
This is highly personal and depends on your level of flexibility and the time that you have available. My recommendation is to start with 10 breaths or 60 seconds and increase incrementally from there. If you are already highly flexible, long-hold stretches may not be advisable as you will stretch ligaments and tendons rather than the belly of the muscle and lose vital strength around your joints. For those of you who err on the side of inflexibility, you can aim to build up to 3-5 minutes and more if you are continuing to experience benefits.
How deep should you go?
Again, this is of course highly personal. Find a position that you can relax into, using your breath as a barometer. You should be able to take long, slow diaphragmatic breaths at all times. Don’t try to go as deep as possible straight away and back off if you experience pain or a tingling sensation. After about 30 seconds, you may find that you can drop a little deeper into the pose. Over time, you will become more adept at interpreting the signals from your body.
You can just as easily injure yourself over-stretching as you can in other ways, so the key is to take your time and listen to your body. It is possible to tear a muscle if you stretch it too quickly but also if you stretch slowly but with too much force. One of my favourite quotes from movement expert Moshé Feldenkrais to keep in mind is: “Force is a substitute for intelligence, always.”
What should you focus on in the pose?
We touched on this earlier. To the extent that it is possible, resolve to stay as still as you can in the poses. Try not to fidget. The goal is to allow your body to relax and your mind to slow down. Thinking is fine but it is better to focus on the sensations of the breath in your body and the place where you feel the stretch most clearly. If you direct your breath at that spot, you will find that your muscles let go of a little more tension. I find it helpful in yin yoga to think of “releasing tension” in the muscle rather than of “stretching” as this better encapsulates the passive nature of the practice.
What is the best time to practice yin yoga?
As close to bedtime as possible.
Who should practice yin yoga?
When you are out of balance, you will tend to continue to do things that keep you out of balance. Active people love to practice dynamic styles of yoga and lazy people gravitate towards yin. My advice is not always to practice what comes easy but instead to practice what you need. So if you are ambitious, busy, athletic and tend towards overdoing things, yin yoga is likely to be highly beneficial for you.
YOGA 15 YIN YOGA SERIES
If you would like to try this style of yoga and see how it makes you feel, check out this Yin Yoga For Beginners video series. Each of the videos last just 15 minutes and the series has you covered from-head to-toe. It is the perfect antidote to our hectic, always-on lifestyles.
If you’re not already a member, you can sign up for your free 14-day trial to see how practicing these videos improves your performance, both physically and mentally.