To the outsider observer, a Yin Yoga practice may seem quite basic. However the experience of a Yin Yoga practice can be deep, rich, challenging, mindful and insightful.
Yin Yoga is a particular style of yoga that embraces a series of floor based postures that are slow and held for a period of time, before they are released and followed by a period of rest. This practice aims to target and maintain the health of the yin tissues of the body; ligaments, tendons, fascia, fluid and other connective tissues, it also gives us a space to slow us down and remind us of the importance of rest.
During the class we focus on targeting physical locations, rather than trying to master the "look" of a shape, making this practice highly inclusive and accessible for all bodies.
Because of the time spent in one place, this practice is also very impactful on the mind, and can be a powerful tool in helping us become more aware of our internal dialogue, as well as greatly challenging at times if we are not used to being with our own thoughts.
This practice has powerful healing potential; its greatest gift is to give us time to really get to know ourselves physically, mentally and emotionally. And whilst observing your own thoughts in the practice can initially be a little daunting, the awareness of self that it can uncover is invaluable to our personal development.
Here are just 10 of the benefits that I hope you too will discover after introducing a Yin Yoga practise into your life.
10. Calms the Mind and the Body
Unlike other styles of yoga (think power flow, vinyasa or bikram) which are all about fast moves of the body, using lots of energy and in some cases push yourself so hard that you work up quite the sweat, Yin is all about stillness. In a 60 minute practise, you may find that there may only be half a dozen postures for the entire class, with long holds in each pose and an abundance of rebounds. It's in this wonderful stillness of a Yin Yoga practise that we can actually take a moment in the space to pause and give ourselves permission to stop and just breathe.
"Yin is all about stillness."
Each asana is generally held anywhere from 3-5 minutes and whilst this allows a slow release of the muscles and fascia of the physical body, emotionally and spiritually we can use the breath of the practise to really find calm and peace in our beings. Think about those times when we are stressed or feeling anxious and how impactful a short series of 10 deep breaths can be for our state of mind. Yin Yoga takes this idea over the entire sequence, as we breathe deeply in and out of our stretching connective tissue, allowing our minds to truly feel the calmness of the practise.
It must be said here however, that many people do not feel the calming effects of yin immediately. In fact, over the years lots of students that eventually came to love their yin yoga, have shared with me that they initially had a huge dislike for yin yoga. More often than not, these people were serial "busy bees", and both their minds and bodies had enormous resistance to slowing down. Over time, they came to realise that they really needed to slow down, and that's when the calming magic of yin yoga began to take effect.
9. Improves the flow of Qi or Prana
What is Qi and what is Prana? Qi or chi (pronounced chee), simply means energy in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). It it the energy of the universe. It's in our meridians, it's in our bodies it's even in the food we eat. Qi is our energetic wellspring for life. Prana comes from Hindu philosophy and is the Sanskrit word for "life force" which is understood to travel along our breath, and similar to Traditional Chinese Medicine it too represents our life force. It is the physical breath to the energy of consciousness itself. Sometimes these words are used interchangeably to represent the same idea of wider consciousness or energy.
As you continue on your Yin Yoga journey, you'll discover that each different Yin Yoga posture is connected to one or more meridian lines in the body, and it is through these meridians that Qi flows through the body. During the long held poses of Yin Yoga, these meridian lines are stimulated over time, increasing the flow of Qi through these meridians to help clear blockages or even stagnant Qi that has been stored in different muscles or fascia. However, I like to think that a well-rounded yin practice that covers many regions of the body, is like giving the whole meridian network in the body a good irrigational flush.
"You could almost think of Yin Yoga as acupuncture on your body, opening up energy flow and releasing tightness deep in the body."
For example, Banana Pose (or Bananasana) opens and stretches the Gall Bladder meridian which is found running along the side of the body. In TCM, much like Western medicine, the Gall Bladder is responsible for secreting bile into the digestive system to help digest fats. It is paired up with the Liver organ and together they play such important roles in cleaning the internal body and regulating the rhythms of the body, especially when it comes to things flowing smoothly and pain free.
While it is not medically correct to say that Banana pose is going to improve bile secretion by the Gallbladder, it is fair to say that by stimulating this meridian we are helping energy to flow more smoothly throughout the body. You could almost think of Yin Yoga as acupressure on your body, opening up the flow of energy and releasing tightness deep in our tissues.
8. Releases Emotions
Over my many years of facilitating yin yoga classes, I have witnessed many emotional releases from students during the practice. I myself have had this happen during practice as well.
We have lots of research now to support the concept that the physical tissues of the body can store emotional experiences and traumas at a cellular level. The pulling, stretching and breathing into this tissue can definitely have a clearing effect when it comes to our emotions. Often times a feeling can just arise without a sense of knowing what triggered it, and what it means. It's ok if you don't know why you are getting teary during your yin practice. So long as you feel safe enough in the room and in the presence of the teacher holding the space, I think that a release of emotions can be healing and cathartic.
Sometimes the emotional clearing might be just the body and mind having the space to have a release when there have not been many other pauses or down times in the day to check in with yourself. In our incredibly busy and fast-paced lives, we can literally be going non-stop from the first buzz of the morning alarm until our head finally hits the pillow that night. How often do we schedule time for ourselves to actually be slow or to stop? We schedule in our activities, social catch ups and our work commitments, but finding and planning time to actually slow down or stop is one of our biggest downfalls in modern life.
Through a Yin Yoga practise, we are holding space for ourselves to breathe, to stop and take a moment of stillness. It's in this space that our emotions can finally have a moment to be heard, to surface and we are in a position to actually recognise them and begin to process them.
"Know that you are in the driver's seat of how deeply you would like to explore your emotions or release them."
For me personally, I am often surprised as to what yin shapes can bring my emotions up to the surface, as they are not always the same postures.
Many people talk of the hips being a place where emotions are stored, and whilst that is not my own experience, I must acknowledge the many students who share with me that deep hip openings can elicit intense feelings of anger, frustration, sadness, and other emotions connected to their vulnerability.
If you find yourself suddenly overcome with emotions during your practice, please know that you are in the driver's seat of how deeply you would like to explore them or release them. If it feels like too much, a shift of focus back to your breathing can create more safety in your experience, and perhaps when you are at home or in another environment you might feel ok to go back in and explore what it was that surfaced during the class.
If you happen to be a current or budding teacher of yin, I encourage you to always have a box of tissues with you when you teach. If you notice someone in your class going through an emotional release, I like to recommend a subtle placing of a box of tissues next to your student and if comfortable and appropriate to do so, a small form of physical contact to let them know they are supported. No words need to be exchanged nor attention bought here, however do keep an eye on the student as they leave after class and get a sense as to whether you can have a soft check-in with them before they leave the venue. There are more tips for new yoga teachers here.
7. Reduces Stress and Anxiety
Without a doubt, our modern lives are getting more and more stressful. From the pressures of our work lives, financial strains and the ever growing list of things that demand our attention. We are all holding more tension in our bodies, and the storing of stress in our bodies is anecdotally increasing anxiety amongst us.
According to HeadsUp.org.au as part of their Australian Psychological Society Stress and wellbeing in Australia survey 2015:
35 per cent of Australians report having a significant level of distress in their lives;
26 per cent of Australians report above normal levels of anxiety symptoms;
26 per cent of Australians report having moderate to extremely severe levels of depression symptoms; and
In 2015, anxiety symptoms were the highest they have been in the five years of the survey.
Whilst these statistics are based on findings in Australia, I would be incredibly surprised to see a huge variation in findings elsewhere in the Western world. It goes without saying, at least 1 in 4 of us are suffering stress and anxiety in some form, as we continue in our constant struggle to find ways to manage it.
The slowness of a Yin Yoga practise prepares us for the stillness that comes with meditation. Its undemanding nature means you really can be in the moment of your asana and allow your mind to truly connect with your breath, and start to cultivate the part of yourself that can witness a stressful thought, rather than believing that you are the stressful thought. In this way, over time we can carve out some distance between thinking and reacting. Often the reactive part of the mind is the one that can spiral out of control very fast and before we know it we are on the verge of panic. That's not to say that the stresses of life are going to magically disappear once you have arrived on your mat for your practise. Thoughts of those stresses will undoubtedly surface for you during the sequence, but over time you can learn to see those thoughts show up, and take a few therapeutic breaths, and be able to train your mind to be with whatever is coming up (because things are always going to come up) and still be able to be present in your body and breath.
6. Improves Sleep
For me personally, a Yin practise gives me time to let thoughts and angst rise to the surface knowing that I am able to process them gently and not to brush them away or try to bury them back down.
Incorporating a Yin practise before you begin your evening bedtime routine can be a wonderful precursor to slowing down the body, and it will also give you the chance to clear your mind of the thoughts that may often disturb your pillow peace.
For some, the idea of doing a Yoga practise before bed can feel like a chore, like its exercise or too physical, that it might actually have the opposite effect of winding down. I would recommend that for this sort of practise that you don't roll out your mat and to avoid things that connect the activity to feelings of being exercise, like putting on any of your normal yoga activewear. It should all be very doable in your pyjamas and you won't need more than 15-20 minutes to really feel the affects on your relaxation state.
5. Improves Joint Mobility and Releases Fascia
More than any other style of yoga, Yin Yoga targets our body's connective tissue, this works to promote supple and healthy joints, ligaments and tendons, and helps to release our fascia, especially in areas that are traditionally quite tricky to target like our hips, pelvis and lower back. Yin Yoga's effectiveness is largely due to its slow and long holds of each asana, allowing the body to stretch our connective tissue slowly and safely.
"Yin yoga is joint rehabilitation," says Paul Grilley one the founder of the Yin Yoga practise. "The poses work your joints in a way similar to how other types of exercise work your heart."
4. Increases Circulation
Circulation is one of those things that we don't really think about much, until we start to see and feel the symptoms of poor circulation. The circulation system in our body is incredibly important. It sends blood, oxygen and nutrients to all of our organs and through the rest of our body.
Poor circulation happens when blood flow is reduced somewhere in the body. Most commonly poor circulation is noticed in our legs, arms or hands, and symptoms often include:
cold hands and feet
A movement practise of any kind is one of the best ways to improve the circulation in our bodies, whether that is a yang yoga practise, a gym routine or even just walking the dog through the park. However, similar to the way that Yin Yoga increases the flow or qi in our bodies, Yin Yoga works on a deeper level to improve our circulation. Yin Yoga exercises our muscles, joints, internal organs and connective tissue to deliver more oxygen to more of the body compared to other movement practises, in a slow, gentle and safe way.
3. Encourages Slowing Down
There is a long held stigma in our society when it comes to physical exercise that the harder we're working or bigger the amount of energy we're using, the more we will get out of it. We have been indoctrinated with phrases such as "no pain no gain" and told to "suck it up" if we feel pain in our bodies. This means for students who come to Yin Yoga after previously practising more yang styles of yoga, they sometimes find it a lot harder than expected at first because they have brought their "more is more" indoctrination into the yin environment, rather than the "less is more" revolution offered by yin yoga.
One component of that is the physical; yangsters will often initially push themselves very hard in a yin shape to the point where they are holding their breath, bunching up their face, and feeling an intensity in the target areas that is up around the 9/10 mark, as opposed to the suggestion of somewhere between 4/10 and 7/10 intensity mark. This simply takes gentle re-education, as most of us are saturated in the culture of "more is more." Something very healing happens when the "less is more" benefit of the practice seeps in. We begin to realise that in many areas of life we are completely over extended, and it really is draining us rather than nourishing us. I have witnessed incredible change in yin yoga students as they take this permission to "do less" into their lives and make remarkable changes to the way they prioritise themselves and their self-care.
"Yin Yoga offers a place where we can truly slow down and switch off."
In a world that is full of push notifications, smart speakers, home offices and micro-scheduled meetings, Yin Yoga offers a place where we can truly slow down and switch off. By establishing a regular practise (whatever that looks like for you), you will start to yearn the rolling out of your mat and have a moment of stillness all to yourself.
2. Combines a Physical and Meditative Practise
So many of us have already introduced a meditation practise into our schedules and are experiencing the magnitude of benefits that even a 10-minute daily mediation can provide. Studies have shown that meditation has been effective in reducing stress, controlling anxiety, enhancing self-awareness, lengthening attention span, improving sleep and decreasing blood pressure.
"Yin Yoga as a practise is as mediative for the mind as it is restorative for the body."
Yin Yoga offers the opportunity to combine your meditation with a movement practise to balance both your mind and body collectively. Yin Yoga as a practise is as mediative for the mind as it is restorative for the body. Especially for people who live with chronic anxiety who find the stillness of a seated meditation practice too overwhelming. The inclusion of movement in a yin practice can sometimes soften the edges of their rising anxiety enough for them to drop into a more relaxed state of being. In a typical Yin Yoga class, each posture is held typically for 3-5 minutes giving you space and time to go deep into each asana allowing your mind to move into a meditative state.
1. Improves Flexibility
Where other forms of movement practise work at stretching and contracting our muscles, Yin Yoga focuses on our connective tissue. Connective tissue is the tissue that connects, separates and supports all other types of tissues in the body. I like to call it my soft skeleton. In fact, during a Yin Yoga practise we are working towards disengaging our skeletal muscles, as we work to completely release and relax the body, giving our connective tissue a chance to soften, release and expand to improve our overall flexibility.
Because of the way Yin Yoga slowly releases our connective tissue and fascia, it is one of the best movement practises to really improve the flexibility of some often hard to target areas like the lower spine, hip and the pelvis, as well as keep these tissues hydrated and mobile.
By gently stretching your connective tissue by holding a yin pose for a long time, our bodies are able to stretch these tissues longer and stronger improving our flexibility.
Are you ready to roll out your mat?
If you would like to try Yin Yoga for yourself, you can rent Karina's Yin Yoga classes online for $3.99 for up to 72 hours, or purchase to receive lifetime access.
Images and photography supplied by Canva.