A couple of months ago I started adding Yin yoga to my yoga practice. Compared to most forms of yoga, Yin is passive practice, a notch above restorative yoga in the activity meter.
In New York City, where everyone moves at lightening speed, reviews on ClassPass for traditional vinyasa (flow) classes often lament that there wasn’t enough “flow.” Based on my study of ClassPass reviews, most people think that the “advanced” version of yoga is to sweat a lot, do a lot of crazy moves, at a fast-paced flow, in a hot room.
From that perspective, Yin practice looks “easy.”
Yin is not a flow practice. You do fewer poses, holding each for several minutes. Some Yin classes I’ve taken use props to support the poses, creating almost a hybrid restorative practice. If you were watching a Yin practice you might think that there’s not much work going on. It doesn’t look that difficult.
Don’t underestimate it.
The Benefits of Yin Yoga
As with many aspects of life, especially in our lightening fast world, slower is harder. Yin presents the same challenge of stillness that restorative yoga and meditation offer us, combined with intense physical sensation.
Physically, Yin practice stretches the fascia, the connective tissue that surrounds the muscles, bones, and organs. This improves join mobility and flexibility. Yin also balances the internal organs and improves the flow of breath throughout the body.
It is based on the Taoist concept of yin and yang, the opposite and complimentary principles in nature. We live in a world dominated by yang energy: stimuli bombard us 24/7, we’re always hustling and moving. Yin restores the energy balance: whether you’re tired and craving energy or suffering from an overactive mind and erratic energy levels, a Yin practice will help you restore energetic balance.
Three Principles of Yin Yoga
There are three principles of Yin yoga:
(1) Push to Your Sustainable Edge
Our culture typically advises us to “break out” of our comfort zone. Whether the context is physical, mental, or emotional, this approach is not sustainable. Energetically, when we push beyond our comfort zone too quickly, the body contracts to find its way back to safety. It’s like a rubber band: if you stretch it too much, it either snaps back or breaks.
Yin is not the place where you go for the big, bold move. In Yin practice, the goal is to find the edge that you can sustain for a prolonged period, without releasing and reentering the pose. If you’re used to pushing past your limits in big, brash, moves, this is challenging. But you may find that as you breathe into the pose and the muscles and fascia release, you can take it deeper. The stretch happens gradually.
(2) Meet Your Edge in Stillness
This is where the hard work really sets in. If you’re truly at your edge, you might feel the uncomfortable sensations that some people would call “pain.”
Our typical response to these sensations — whether physical or emotional — is to fidget our way out of them. We look for ways to stay busy, to escape and distract ourselves from the sensations that create our discomfort.
Or we pull back, to release the tension that is causing us discomfort.
In the stillness of Yin practice, we are forced to be with these feelings. The mind naturally wants to jump in with stories about why we feel the way we feel. This is a form of distraction.
Just as in meditation practice, our task is to be with the feelings without attaching stories to them or easing off the stretch.
(3) Stay In the Pose
The deepest work, both mentally and physically, happens when we stay in the pose even as the discomfort intensifies. In Yin practice, we may hold poses for up to 5 minutes. Sometimes longer.
Our typical habit is to suppress uncomfortable emotions; when we suppress emotions, we store them in our body. As we stay in the pose, our stored away emotions rise to the surface. The stretch we feel is not only physical; it’s also emotional.
When we don’t escape into our mind or ease out of the physical tension, we allow the long-suppressed emotions to rise up to the surface and come out. More than once, I’ve witnessed my emotion release in a flood of tears.
The beautiful part of the practice is to know that it’s ok; to just be with the tears. There is no need to assign a reason or even a label to them. It doesn’t matter what they represent or why they are coming out. The point is to allow them.
When we allow the emotional release, we can get the physical release.
A Well-Rounded Life
I’ve been happy to see more yoga studios in Manhattan offering Yin classes. This practice is a much-needed complement to our over-stimulated and over-active lifestyles.
Yoga, of course, is not just a physical practice. What we do on the mat is practice for life in the “real world.” There are times when it’s necessary to have more Yang focus in life, when we must hustle and drive and push.
But we also need the Yin to balance it out. Pushing to our sustainable edge, meeting our edge in stillness, and staying in it even through the discomfort, are lessons we can take into our lives and work.
Have you tried yin practice? Please share your experience in the comments — I’d love to hear about it!