My motivation here is simple: if you haven’t yet tried Yin yoga, I want to convince you to do so by the end of this feature.
The most common response I have after teaching a Yin class is, to quote one student: “This is the yoga I’ve been looking for.” But as its founder, Paul Grilley, explains, Yin yoga is nothing new. All traditional Hatha yoga texts include Yin; the name simply emerged, as Grilley says, “to differentiate this softer style of yoga [from] the modern Vinyasa styles”.
Along with Restorative, Yin is the most accessible of the physical yoga systems, in that it can be practised by anyone, regardless of age or ability. It doesn’t even require a mat – a carpet or blanket will do just fine. In Yin, you hold deep, floor-based postures in stillness for between three and 20 minutes. Using very little muscular effort, each student is encouraged to find their own individual ‘edge’ – the point of stress, but before pain – to the posture, as it is here at this precipice that we enable our bodies to begin to safely open.
But… isn’t stress bad?
Short answer: no! All tissues in the body need stress, lest they atrophy. When astronauts return from space they have substantially reduced bone and muscle mass because of the lack of gravity (aka: stress) on their bodies. Healthy stress is essential to a healthy body.
The gentle traction created in Yin works not on the muscles and blood (our ‘Yang’ tissues) but on our connective ‘Yin’ tissues – tendons, ligaments, cartilage, fascia and bone. When we talk about flexibility – particularly in yoga – the focus tends to be on the muscles: “Lengthen your hamstrings, feel the stretch across your abdomen…” and so on. However, as Yin yoga and anatomy expert Bernie Clark explains, we hold only 41% of our bodily tension in our muscles. The remaining 57% is held in our connective tissues and joints (with a further 2% in our skin).
That’s a huge range of potential flexibility and joint freedom that most of us do not ever begin to access. Why? Because our everyday Yang exercises – Vinyasa, running, spinning etc. – only positively affect our elastic, soft Yang tissue. Our stiff, stable, hard Yin tissue doesn’t respond well to this kind of movement at all – as anyone who has torn a tendon or fractured a bone during exercise can attest.
Grilley compares Yin tissue to a sponge soaked in butter. “When the butter is solid the sponge is stiff and hard to bend, but when it is melted it’s easy to twist and stretch the sponge… this is called a ‘phase change’. Holding a stress on connective tissue for several minutes creates a phase change in its fluids, which results in a lengthening of the tissue and a feeling of ease.”
With regular practice, Yin enhances the natural range of mobility in the joints, and ultimately helps develop greater strength and flexibility across the entire body.
But if combined with mindfulness, the benefits of Yin aren’t just physical. Sarah Powers – another founder of modern day Yin yoga – explains: “In Yin we are carving out neural pathways of loving-kindness toward ourselves as we learn to feel deeply into our bodies just as they are.” The body doesn’t lie. Your edge is your edge and if you go much beyond it, you may hurt yourself. So in Yin you learn to listen to your body and accept its limitations. Developing the ability to feel into your body with compassion, and without judgement, leads you to begin to cultivate an awareness and understanding of yourself that extends beyond the body and the mat, into your everyday life. As my teacher, Sarah Lo, says: “Change is inevitable, and it is right there on our mats that we can learn to adapt to our ever-changing moods, frustrations and issues. Problems aren’t necessarily going to be solved during our practice, but in the quiet acknowledgement of seeing what’s present, solutions do often become much clearer.”
It’s not easy to stay still – particularly in large cities like London with the accompanying I’m-busier-than-you competitive culture. Remaining motionless for a prolonged amount of time is hard for most people – especially if a posture feels challenging. For example, Frog – a serious hip and groin opener – tends to elicit the kind of trepidation normally reserved for white carbs. (FYI: most Yin postures are named after animals: Snail, Caterpillar, Butterfly… ideal for emoji-laden Instagram posts.) But if you stay with it, something incredible happens. “It’s tough holding a position for so long,” says Runako, one of my regular students, “but as soon as you just let go, it's such a beautiful individual experience for your mind and body. Afterwards I feel like I'm in a beautiful trance.” Training yourself to be comfortable with discomfort – to stay still even when you desperately want to move – is how you develop strength, flexibility and openness, not only of the body, but also the mind.
In her book Insight Yoga, Sarah Powers describes Yin yoga as an “opportunity to crawl into ourselves and stay a while.” A method by which to take up “residence” in every corner of us, and in doing so, learn to “come home” to our bodies and minds.
This is the description of Yin that rings the most true for me, and the one I hear echoed most often by my students. In Yin you begin to learn you can relax your resistance and turn towards, rather than away from, what’s arising within, and in doing so, you begin to fully inhabit yourself and get to know yourself a little better. “The first time I did Yin I got a sensation I have never had before – a genuine physical and mental longing to go back to the class basically from the moment it was over,” says student Michelle. “And I’ve had the same sensation after every class since. Staying still for longer meant my mind could go further faster than it ever had in a yoga class before.” Stillness in the body encourages stillness in the mind, and the deep relaxation Michelle experiences is the body’s nervous system returning to its natural, calm, resting state.
Finally, as Powers says: “With its quiet atmosphere unstained by striving, Yin allows us the space to fully metabolise emotions we often ingest but cannot completely digest.” Yin is closely linked to traditional Chinese medicine and chakra theory, and sometimes it really does feel like self-administered acupuncture or therapy.
Now, by no means am I suggesting you give up your Power Vinyasa Flow, if that’s your vibe. The origins of Yin yoga are in the Taoist theory of Yin and Yang as opposite and complementary principles in nature. Yin qualities can be thought of as internal, passive and cooling, while Yang’s are more external, dynamic and warming. We need them both for true – physical, mental and emotional – balance. I will say, however, that if you have a lot of Yang in your everyday life – like I do – then try a bit of Yin.