What is Yin Yoga and what are it’s benefits for me?
There are many different types of yoga out there, with a lot of different names being thrown around – for the beginner it is difficult to know which one is right for you. Here we explain a style of yoga that you may not have heard of, but is becoming increasingly more popular for its physical and mental benefits. We often integrate yin yoga into our classes during our summer yoga retreats. We find that Yin provides a wonderful restorative yet relaxing end to the day – particularly if you have had a long day in the mountains.
Yin yoga is a relatively new style of yoga developed in the 1980’s by Paul Grilley. Yin is very different to other typical styles of yoga where the poses are held for much longer using lots of props to stretch the connective tissue such as ligaments, joints and fascia. Staying in the poses for an extended period of time can be as much of a mental challenge as a physical challenge, even though this style would not be considered a work out. There are also only around 36 yin yoga poses, compared to the 900+ in other styles of yoga, and in a typical class you might only do about 6 of these poses. Yin is based on Traditional Chinese Medicine where a class usually is focused on a particular meridian, or energy channel in the body.
The Philosophy of Yin Yoga
Yin yoga is based on the Taoist theory of Yin and Yang; two principles that are the opposite yet completely interconnected and can cannot exist without the other. Yang can be described as a light, energetic, heating, masculine energy, whereas yin is a dark, cooling, feminine energy. The idea is that nothing is completely yin or yang and that nothing is static; change is the only constant.
In our busy and active lives, a Yin yoga class can be a perfect way to bring more balance and more yin into our lives, to complement the yang. The yin poses aim to increase the flow of chi (or qi) through the different meridians, or channels in the body.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) follows that Chi, sometimes known as ‘life force’, needs to flow freely throughout the body to maintain physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. When there is an imbalance in chi, or if chi is ‘stuck,’ then this can result in both in physical and emotional illness. Chi flows through the meridians in the body, you could think of meridians almost like networks or commutation systems, where energy and information is able to freely flow along the channels.
Each meridian is connected to a different organ. You will often hear a yoga teacher in a yin class talking about Chi related to organs such as the liver, kidneys or lungs. This doesn’t necessarily mean the pose is directly targeting that specific organ, but it is targeting a point along the meridian associated with that organ. This is the same as acupuncture however Yin is more like acupressure where it places a steady strain on the joint or connective tissue to encourage more flow of Chi to that area.
Each meridian is associated with different mental and emotional qualities and can therefore bring about certain feelings and emotions when in particular poses. For example, a pose that is targeting the liver meridian in the hips and groin, such as pigeon pose (known as sleeping swan in Yin) can often bring up feelings of frustration, restlessness and even anger. For someone who has not experienced this before, it can be difficult to explain why this comes up (unless it’s directed at the teacher for holding them in the pose for so long!), however this is a completely normal phenomenon.
The Science behind Yin Yoga
We are usually taught to not strain our joints when undertaking different forms of exercise. However, with Yin we are not stretching muscle but fascia, our connective tissue, which responds best when a slow and steady load is placed over a longer period of time. It is in fact strengthening the joint rather than weakening it. In order to stretch the connective tissues, the muscles must be relaxed. This is why in Yin we use lots of props to add support so we can passively stretch the muscles rather than actively stretching. Especially as we get older, joints and ligaments become stiffer and less fluid. By stretching out the connective tissues, we increase fluidity to the area, encouraging flexibility and mobility.
Fascia means ‘band’ in Latin, and literally bands all our muscles, bones, organs and nerves together in a 3-dimensional web made up of ligaments, tendons and other connective tissues. This is why a small adjustment in your shoulder in a yoga pose can deepen the stretch in your hip.
What is the difference between Yin and restorative yoga?
Yin is very similar to restorative yoga, however there are some main differences listed below to help you to decide which would be more suited for you.
Both styles use plenty of props, but Yin uses props to either soften or deepen the stretch, whereas in restorative yoga the props are used to completely support the body.
Although Yin is also a meditative practice, we are trying to balance Chi using meridian pathways and TCM, whereas the essence of restorative is more about meditation, relaxation and releasing mind-body tension.
Yin aims to increase flexibility and mobility, and encourages you to push to your ‘edge’, whereas restorative yoga is for comfort and contentment.
Yin poses can be held on average between 3 – 5 minutes, whereas restorative can be held for up to 5 – 10 minutes!
Tips for Practicing Yin Yoga
Find your ‘edge’. Rather than going straight to your maximum range in any Yin Yoga pose, try to move slowly and gently into the pose. Over time you may find you can move deeper into the stretch, maybe even deeper than going to your max straight away.
Try to release into the pose. Often your mind will try to find distractions, in the form of fidgeting or shifting position. Instead of fidgeting, try to enjoy being still – we spend much of our lives trying to be a productive as possible and this is a perfect opportunity to stop and relax.
Listen to your body!! If you feel discomfort, try to identify if this is just your body being in an unfamiliar pose. If you identify the feeling as pain, then move out of the pose.
In a nutshell, Yin Yoga is a slow-paced meditative practice based on stretching and applying pressure to specific parts of the body based on TCM and the different meridians. As well as feeling more relaxed and seeing improvements in flexibility and mobility, you may also feel other improvements to your overall health as a result of this meridian theory.
Maybe you’ve been to a yoga class before and came away thinking yoga ‘isn’t for me’. However, with so many different styles of Yin Yoga it is quite possible that the particular style just wasn’t suited to your needs or your body. If you are looking to increase flexibility and keep your joints healthy and mobile, then Yin could well be the one for you.