One of the benefits to lockdown has been the opportunities to practice and train with yoga teachers all over the world, thanks to modern marvels like Zoom. To this extent, when I saw the opportunity to complete my yin yoga teacher training online with Bernie Clark, one of the most respected teachers in the area of yin, I jumped at the opportunity. Due to the many benefits of yin yoga, I was excited to add the practice to my repertoire and share my newfound knowledge with you.
While you may know your Yang Yoga practises well, in the form of the traditional Vinyasa, Hatha and Ashtanga, you may not be so familiar with the more recently developed Yin Yoga practice. Here, we delve into the structure of the practice as well as the extensive range of benefits of Yin Yoga for both the body and mind.
What is Yin Yoga?
Find Your Edge – move slowly and gently into each pose. It is not the aim to reach your maximum and be in pain, but to feel the stretch deep within your tissues. How do you know if you’ve gone too far? One indicator is if you feel pain. Feeling dull sensations or mild aches is part of the practice – feeling sharp, tingling sensations is not. Come out at any time if it becomes too much.
Be Still – relax into the pose and remain still in this position without shifting or moving too much. If you are still, the breath relaxes. When the breath relaxes, the mind relaxes. This is where the more mindful aspects of the practice come in.
Hold for Time – start by holding the pose for just a few minutes, and hold for longer times as your practice progresses. Time allows the benefits of the pose to ‘marinate’ into the targeted area of the practise, as Bernie likes to say.
Most traditional forms of Yang style yoga focus on developing muscular strength, stamina and flexibility, and will follow a relatively fast-paced repetitive rhythm and flow. In contrast, Yin Yoga is a much slower paced style of yoga where poses are held for long periods of time.
These long holds, that can last anywhere between 5 and 20 minutes (depending on the pose and practise), and work intensely to target deep connective tissues, like your bones, tendons and ligaments, lengthening and stretching these lesser-used tissues. In particular, it also works on the fascia, the connective tissue that permeates throughout the body, including our muscles.
Most Yin holding poses are performed on the floor and focus on a specific part of the body such as the hips, pelvis, lower spine, and inner thighs. The aim is to create some stress in these areas through the specific Yin postures in order to stimulate growth and make them stronger and more stable.
The passive nature of Yin Yoga brings a meditative quality to the practice, allowing space to reflect inwards and tune into the mind and body, all the while teaching you how to breathe through discomfort and sit with your thoughts. Much like acupuncture, Yin Yoga can also help to improve the flow of energy and chi around the body and internal organs, but also offers a number of mental and emotional benefits too.
So, what are the benefits of Yin Yoga?
Incorporating all three aspects of human existence, the physical, the energetic, and the mental and emotional, Yin Yoga is an all-encompassing practise that works to bring every aspect of your being into balance.
Physically, we know that Yin Yoga works to gently stretch and lengthen deep connective tissue. But what does that actually mean? Well, our connective tissues work hard to support and stabilise the muscles and joints. However, as we age, and when they are underused, these tissues lose their elasticity which can result in stiffness, achy joints, or limited joint mobility. A Yin Yoga class will help to engage these tissues ensuring that they are maintained and kept healthy and strong so that you can move around, exercise and sit pain-free. One of the added benefits of yin yoga is that it can also help reduce the risk of osteoporosis by strengthening the bones making them less brittle and fragile.
Breathing throughout each held pose also helps to bring more oxygen to your muscles, helping to increase blood flow and circulation in the body.
On the emotional and mental side, the benefits of Yin Yoga are much like those of meditation in that it creates space for you to be present in the moment, allowing thoughts to drift in and out of your mind. During a Yin Yoga class, your yoga teacher will most likely encourage you to allow your feelings to flow freely. Emotions such as anxiety, sadness, joy, or even boredom may arise, but the time and space that each pose opens up will allow these to be released and escape from the body.
The Yin Yoga practice also activates the parasympathetic nervous system which helps to calm the body and lower heart rate, significantly reducing the impact of stress and anxiety, and even reducing the risk of depression.
In terms of energy, the static poses stimulate the body’s meridians, or energy channels, bringing balance to the internal organs of the body.
How can you practise Yin Yoga?
If you’re new to Yin Yoga and are used to the more traditional yang practices, the first thing to remember is the three tattvas; Find your Edge, Be Still, Hold For Time. Guiding you throughout your practice these principles will remind you of the basic principles of Yin Yoga.
As Yin Yoga is generally practised in a non-heated room and most poses are floor-based, you can practise it almost anywhere, all you need is a mat, a couple of supports in the form of blocks or pillows, and rolled-up blankets can also be very useful. Practising in the morning or evening when the muscles are cool will also help target the connective tissues more effectively.
While you are in each pose, work towards finding stillness and avoid fidgeting. You should be working towards a deep stretch, a kind of ‘comfortable discomfort’, but not pain.
The breath is also an integral part of this practice – not only does it give you something to concentrate on, but it also allows a good supply of oxygen to the tissues. When the breath becomes still, both the body and mind relax and this is where the more therapeutic aspects of the practice begin.
Yin Yoga is the ‘other half’ to the world of yoga. To only focus on hatha or other more active styles of yoga means that you may be missing out on a whole new experience and the many benefit of Yin Yoga when it comes to your practice. As we age, not only is adding Yin Yoga complementary to your normal yoga practice, but it may also be an effective way of maintaining good physical and mental health through the rest of your life.
So, what are you waiting for?
To take part in one of my Yin Yoga classes, see yogibanker.com/classes. Classes are currently running via ZOOM every Friday morning at 8AM (UK).