Introduction to Yin Yoga
Yin Yoga is nothing new. Prior to the 80’s we typically saw poses held for a long time, moving gently, slowly and with the breath. The popularity of Ashtanga vinyasa in the 80’s and Power Yoga in the 90’s led to an over-emphasis on Yang styles of Yoga and in the West we all but forgot the slower, gentler styles of practice (unless you were one of the few remaining old-school teachers). But slowly we’ve been seeing a rise in popularity of a ‘new’ style of Yoga, Yin Yoga, which has emerged as the literal Yin to the Yang of the modern Yoga scene. Yin Yoga, the practice as we know today, is largely thanks to Paul + Suzee Grilley and Sarah Powers who developed Yin in the 1990’s, and Bernie Clark, one of Paul’s first students.
Paul brought the theory of skeletal variation (anatomy), the long holds (learned from his teacher, Paulie Zink) and meridian theory; Suzee encouraged Paul, co-teaches his teacher trainings and gave us the first of the Yin ‘names’ e.g. sleeping swan for eka raja kapotanasa/pigeon. Sarah brought the psycho-emotional focus from Chinese Medicine and Transpersonal Therapy and the mindfulness that is now pervasive in Yin classes (Buddhist influence). Bernie Clark created the yinyoga.com website and has continued to contribute to the canon (esp in regard to research and anatomy) with his books (highly recommended)
Unlike many of the popular styles of Yoga, Yin Yoga is not trademarked. Paul allowed it to become open-source. That means you can teach anything ‘yin-like’ and call it Yin Yoga. So Yin Yoga belongs to everyone.
But that’s not the end of the story.
Paulie Zink taught Paul Grilley Taoist Yoga, changed the name to Yin Yoga after Paul found some fame, and now claims to have invented Yin Yoga. So he claims to own Yin Yoga. Welcome to the Yoga industry! ;)
Why do we practice Yin Yoga?
There are many reasons, but for most people the main ones are:
1. Yin Yoga focuses on the connective tissues and joints of the body, stressing them and making them stronger and more adaptable. It does this through long holds at a reasonable and appropriate depth in a given Yoga pose.
2. Yin Yoga is slow, which helps people who are newer to Yoga learn the basics of the physical practice, from breathing to learning to pay attention to sensations and communication from the body.
3. Yin is the antidote to modern life. This is my favourite reason for practicing - it’s a cultural shift away from doing and achieving to being and surrendering. You can’t push in a Yin class, you can’t stay for five minutes in an uncomfortable stretch. The practice teaches you to define your boundaries, asks you to honour them, and cultivates you inner knowing, strength and resilience.
4. Yin is the gateway to meditation. By learning to be OK with sensations and to stay still for short periods of time, people begin to be able to tolerate longer sessions of meditation. The natural effect of a long hold is to harmonise Qi, thus reducing the intensity of the thinking mind, allowing greater space for meditative practice.
5. Learning to feel energy. Yin teaches us to attune to the subtle sensations of Qi moving in the body, and this in turn allows us to become more aware of the subtle shifts of energy created by pranayama and meditation techniques, therefore assisting our Yoga practice immeasurably.
How do we practice Yin Yoga?
The best “rule” for a Yin Yoga practice is to practice with mindful awareness. How deep, how long, how many props to use should be dictated by the day, by the desired outcome of the practice. You can create a bagua, or energy map, to help you sequence your class, or plan with an intention (for example, an anatomical or emotional intention), or simply follow your desires in a self-led practice. I like to use the Insight Timer app to manage the time while I teach and practice.
That said, there are a few things to keep in mind when approaching a Yin Yoga practice.
Determine the Target Area:
Ask yourself, what is the functional objective of this pose? What is your intention as a teacher or practitioner? Why do this pose? If teaching, ask yourself how you can lead someone into an exploration of the pose? How can you offer your students variations? What changes can you make to the pose to suit other body types or injuries? Remember, bodies vary widely from person to person. Each body will need their own variation. Target areas can be accessed in a multitude of ways - be creative and don’t be limited by what you think are the ‘rules’ of Yoga. Don’t forget to work with your unique skeleton. As Paul Grilley says, “Your skeletal limitations do not limit your Yoga life.”
Enter the Pose:
Move into the pose to a comfortable depth. What does that mean? When you start feeling a tugging or tension that feels manageable or appropriate, stop there. If you meet a sensation you would deem painful, you will need to back off, change position or modify with a prop or wall. Remember that this practice is about learning to moderate ourselves and to practice at a comfortable range, NOT necessarily our end range. Funnily enough, most of the mental and physical benefits that come about as a result of a Yin practice are not due to any effort or ‘deep’ stretching, but rather in learning to consciously relax the body and allow the tissue and the energy to release, especially chronically tight areas. The breath is your greatest ally; make sure you enter the pose in a way that allows the breath to continue to move freely and prioritise feeling safe and relaxed over looking a certain way. If you can feel the target area and breathe, you are doing the pose.
Once you’ve found your target area, how do you become comfortable, especially with appropriate discomfort? Can you settle in? What can you relax (especially the target area!) in order to experience the pose more fully? What support do you need (props especially can be useful). What are the nuances of sensation you can explore? What else is possible within the stillness? You will still want to explore and move a little, but make your movements conscious and mindful and remind yourself to embrace the stillness. There’s a fine line between pain and discomfort. Your breath is the guide. If you cannot comfortably breathe and feel stress and tension brewing (are you breathing?), you have gone too deep. Back off until the body responds with signs of relaxation (longer, smoother breath, gurgling in stomach, heart rate slowing, mind calming). As we learn to consciously relax we can apply this technique to life.
Stay for Time:
Decide how long you will stay, and, unless the pose starts to feel painful or dangerous, stay for time. This allows the opportunity for the water in the tissues to undergo a phase-change, from gelatinous to liquid (gel to sol, felt as a sensation of ‘release’ in the fascia), for the fascia to ‘creep’ (elongate) and the muscles to relax. It also gives the body time to adapt to the new shape and for the nervous system to integrate a sense of safety in this new form. Pay attention to what comes up in the pose. The subconscious idea of what is going on in our bodies is creating our realities; try to remain open to the possibility that what you think your body is capable of may not be completely accurate. Become curious to the moment to moment shifts that occur in living human tissue.
Exit the Pose:
Exit the pose as you would come in. Mindfully, with grace (if possible!) and with the breath. Take time after each pose to let the body integrate the shifts made during the asana. It is normal to feel vulnerable and sensitive after a Yin Yoga pose. Which brings us to The Rebound.
The rebound is the experience felt after a Yin Yoga pose (in particular, it may be felt in a more Yang practice too) as a result of the time spent in the pose and the changes that occur within the body. Observe physical, emotional, mental, or even more subtle shifts in awareness, insights and release.
Yang Yoga: (optional)
Do some fluid, dynamic movement to get the Qi circulating. Personally, I don’t like a lot of Yang in a Yin practice, however some people and groups prefer more active transitions so be aware that it can be nice to offer it. Yin Yoga opens up the channels of energy that move Qi through the body and Yang Yoga pumps that energy around the body for greater health and harmony. Do not play sport after a Yoga practice, especially a Yin practice. This is important, as performance will be adversely affected and the tissues will be weak. A gentler version of the actions about to be performed is more appropriate as a warm up (e.g. swift walking if about to run, dynamic lunges if about to play soccer), and use all forms of Yoga as recovery and preparation a day or two before any games/performance-based activities.
Yin Yoga Resources
Paul and Suzee Grilley
Yin Yoga Pose Gallery