Yin Yoga: a balanced approach to your yoga practice

I have been running my Mindful Yin Yoga class since the start of this year and as I still have a lot of people asking me what it is all about I thought I would write a little about it here.

My Mindful Yin Yoga classes are essentially based around a Yin Yoga practice. I initially called the class Mindful Yoga as I felt this helped to convey the sense of stillness that we can find through a yin yoga practice and in being still this creates a more mindful practice.

It is very difficult to fact to “describe” a yin yoga session, it really does need to be experienced and the understanding comes from the experience of holding the postures in a different way. I myself LOVE yin yoga and have a dedicated yin practice of my own. Sometimes when you are sleepy in the mornings but you feel you want to stretch deeply but maybe don’t have the energy for a more Yang practice, then Yin Yoga can hit the right spot. Equally at the end of a long day, when you are tired and want to do some yoga in a quiet way, well this is where yin yoga steps in. I love it and enjoy using all manner of bolsters, blocks, blankets, cushions and ALL the props I have laying around in my living room to get comfy and let gravity work its magic!

The need for Yin AND Yang

The reality is that in order to have true balance in our lives we need a blend of both Yin and Yang. This is the balance of movement and stillness, noise and quiet, light and dark. Society in general is dominated by Yang activities from the hectic routine of school runs, for example, to commuting for hours every day into London, rushing from one place to the next, must do this, must be this, contactable at all hours of the day, over worked, stressed out and with little, if any, sense of satisfaction in our lives. So our Yin practice offers us some respite and enables us to slow right down and balance out these everyday yang activities.

There are, of course, elements of Yin within our Hatha Yoga practice, for example, when we focus on our breathing or in longer held seated postures and in Savasana, however, our Hatha practice also includes more active yang postures and movements including our Sun Salutations and our standing postures which focus on building strength and generating internal heat.

So what is Yin Yoga?

Yin yoga is based on the Taoist concept of yin and yang, opposite and complementary principles in nature. Yin is the stable, unmoving, hidden aspect of things while yang is the changing, moving, revealing aspect. In the body, the relatively stiff connective tissues (tendons, ligaments, fascia) are yin, while the more mobile and pliable muscles and blood are yang.

A Yin yoga class usually consists of a series of long-held, passive floor poses that focus predominantly on the lower part of the body – the hips, pelvis, inner thighs, lower spine. These areas are especially rich in connective tissues. The poses are held for up to five minutes, sometimes longer.

It is this longer “hold” that enables us to find a much deeper sense of stillness and as we journey into the posture we release all muscular engagement and the yin poses begin to work by putting just the right amount of stress onto our joints and connective tissues in order to promote healing, lengthening and strengthening at a very deep level. In order to  ensure the poses are manageable for everyone and suitable to all bodies, we use plenty of props (cushions, blankets, yoga blocks).

Although the concept of Yin yoga might appear easy at first glance, particularly to yogis who are drawn to the more yang aspects of yoga, the challenge remains in keeping stationary while cultivating stillness.

On a Physical level Yin Yoga targets bones, joints and connective tissues. There is no aesthetic ideal to reach which makes the Yin Yoga approach very liberating, instead there is an emphasis on a functional approach.

On an Energetic level the practice reconnects with its roots of Taoist yoga, and uses the ancient map and modern theory of the meridians, the long holds in Yin restore harmony in the subtle body by targeting the channels that run through the connective tissues.

On an Emotional/Mental level the Yin approach prepares the practitioner for meditation as one of the central intentions of a yin practice is the cultivation of inner stillness and a keen sense of introspection.

Who is Yin Yoga for and who would benefit?

Yin yoga would benefit everyone! From experienced yogis wanting the balance of a yin practice to people who are completely new to yoga wanting to start out at a gentler pace,  yin yoga has something to offer everybody. It would also be great for people who are engaged in sports who, with muscles most likely having shortened over time, would benefit greatly from releasing these over tight parts of the body and restoring mobility. In addition, for people who are feeling stressed and who want to calm down, yin yoga is a perfect way to begin or deepen both meditation and mindfulness practices.

Benefits of a regular Yin practice

  • Calms and balances the mind and body
  • Reduces stress and anxiety
  • Increases circulation
  • Improves flexibility
  • Releases fascia and improves joint mobility
  • Balances the internal organs and improves the flow of chi or prana

Yin Yoga helps to improve and restore your range of movement
Injury, postural habits like sitting in a chair, ageing and emotional stress can all cause our muscles and connective tissue to become restricted and reduce our range of movement. The way in which poses are held in Yin Yoga means the joints and connective tissues are gently stressed. This enables the muscles and fascia to move more freely just as they are meant to, resulting in a bigger range of movement being gradually restored.

Yin Yoga reduces stress and anxiety
Too many of us are living our lives with heightened levels of stress, anxiety and overwhelm. Everything needs doing yesterday, our to-do-lists are getting longer by the minute, work and home life is more demanding than ever. When we live our lives this way we are allowing stress hormones to soar through the body and dominate our nervous system. It’s harder to relax and many people suffer digestive conditions such as IBS, Crones Disease, Reflux, or they might have difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep. Some people struggle to get pregnant and this too could be connected to too many stress hormones raging through our system. Yin Yoga helps us to restore balance to our ever-stressful and busy lives. It allows us to calm the stress hormones down and instead produce and release ‘happy’ hormones into the body. The nervous system that produces these hormones is known as the Parasympathetic Nervous System, or more commonly the Rest & Digest or Calm & Connect. The hormones include Oxytocin, Melatonin and Endorphins and are crucial to how we feel about ourselves and the world around us.

Yin allows you to switch off
Yin Yoga gives your mind some much needed respite! With the majority of us being contactable at any moment of the day, we are constantly surrounded by stimuli in one way or another. We very rarely allow ourselves any time to completely switch off and let go of everything buzzing around in our heads. Yin Yoga allows exactly that as it gives you the opportunity to just be with you, and as you move through the sequences you will find that the chatter in your head naturally starts to quieten down. At the end of the session you enjoy an extended relaxation where most likely the chatter becomes completely silent.

Yin yoga helps the flow of Qi (Energy) around the body
Whether we are talking about the Meridian Lines of Traditional Chinese Medicine or the Nadis and Chakras of a more traditional yogic approach, we are still referring to energy and how it flows around the body. Qi (also known as Prana) affects every single aspect of our life from health and emotions to wealth and happiness and when we practice Yin Yoga we are allowing a fresh vibrant flow of energy to move throughout parts of the body that perhaps have previously stored stagnant or dormant energy which can lead to tightness, discomfort and eventually disease. When we allow fresh energy to flow freely, we enable the body to start the detoxification process.

There really is so much that can be said about the practice of Yin Yoga but the best way to understand it is genuinely to experience it. My Mindful Yin Yoga class runs on Fridays at the Europa Gymnastics Centre from 10.45am to 11.45am. Do come along if you are curious to find out more!

N.B. Some of the factual elements contained in this blog post have been adapted from Yin Yoga articles on the Blooming Bamboo, With YinYoga and Eckhart Yoga websites.

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