Yoga has become increasingly popular as of late. We can all benefit from slowing our lives down and taking some time for a deeper, slower practice. Here we'll break down the physiological and spiritual aspects of practicing Yin Yoga, and go over some of the do’s and don’ts.
Yin vs. Yang
According to Chinese background and philosophy:
• Yin implies cooling, moon, feminine, soft, shade.
• Yang implies hot/heat, sun, masculine, strong, bright.
Yin and Yang are relative terms. We can pretty much find these two elements in all existence of life.
Yin Yoga is More Than Just Stretching
Contrary to widely-held belief, there is very little stretching in a 75–90 minute Yin Yoga class. From The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga by Bernie Clark, Bernie explains the difference between stretching and stressing. Stress occurs when we apply tension to our connective tissues, whereas stretch is the elongation of the tissue that results from stress.
Stress is a vital element in sustaining and promoting good health. For example, an effective way to stimulate bone density is by exercising. Through appropriate amount of weight bearing exercises, like walking up the stairs or lifting weights, bone calcium naturally depletes due to impact. Through homeostasis, the body detects the depletion and increases calcium absorption through our food intake. Same with our tissue, an appropriate amount of stress followed by rest strengthens the tissue, over time it becomes stronger. Rest, this is the key to practicing Yin Yoga.
The rest intervals between poses allow the tissue time to recover, hence less prone to over-fatigue or injury. This is in a way similar to weight lifting in terms of work and rest intervals. So in Yin Yoga we’re not stretching the tissue but rather, stressing it, and then allowing time for rest and repair. Applying just enough pressure in any given area of the body can stimulate change in the long term.
So you might wonder … what tissues are we working with exactly?
Learning which tissues are targeted in Yin Yoga is fundamental to preventing injuries. Our bodies are composed of muscles and connective tissues which may include ligaments, tendons, bones, joints and fascia. Muscles are essentially elastic, heating up when exercised. They respond well to repetitive and rhythmic movements because their elastic qualities allow the muscle fibers to elongate when appropriately stretched.
Conversely, the connective tissues remain generally cool when exercised; it does not elongate much due to its plasticity element. We can think of muscles as Yang tissues and connective tissues as Yin.
In Yin Yoga, we’re focusing on stressing the connective tissues. There is a concept among physiotherapists that stressing the ligament is dangerous. This is absolutely correct, but only if we’re applying repetitive Yang movements to the Ying tissues.
As Clark exemplified in his book, imagine bending your credit card repetitively, it will snap pretty quickly! Our ligaments/tendons are the credit card. We cannot apply forceful movements on them! Rather, we need to hold the poses for a long time and allow gravity to slowly work its way to the deeper Yin tissues. Practitioners should refrain from active muscles engagement, as this will stiffen the area around the joints thus makes it harder to get to the ligaments/tendons.
Moving Beyond the Physical Realm
According to Clark, when practicing Yin, there are only two reasons why a practitioner should move.
1. If he/she is in pain.
2. A space has been created within the Yin tissue and invites the practitioner to move deeper.
Unless you check one of these two options, you should remain still. Therefore, all Yin postures are in fact meditation postures. Whether it's a seated Forward Fold or
Happy Baby, you’re in it for the long haul!
Once the clock starts ticking, 5 minutes of Happy Baby may seem blissful, but if your hips are tight, that baby isn’t so happy anymore. When facing such challenge, a practitioner would find meditation particularly helpful. Rather than dwelling over the painful sensation, you can engage in soft Ujjayi breathing or silently chant "So-Hum," a classic meditation technique.
Discovering the right type of meditation can help the practitioner ease into the posture, find deeper relaxation in the body, and enter a space of spiritual tranquility.
Flexible or Not, Yin Yoga is Not Easy
A gumby-like practitioner might find the physical aspect of Yin relatively unchallenging. However, such yogis would have a harder time focusing in the posture because he/she cannot feel the physical discomfort. The mind might start to wander a million miles away, rather than staying focused on the present. Without meditation, you cannot receive the full blissful benefits of Yin Yoga.
Those who are very active will also find Yin Yoga challenging or even excruciating. Individuals with lots of Yang energy like to move, achieve and conquer. We know them as the "Type A Personality." Funny enough, these are the people who may need Yin Yoga the most.
A well-known Chinese proverb: "Things will develop in the opposite direction when it becomes extreme."
A person who is over-exercised may weaken their immune system and become prone to sickness overtime. If all we did were Power Vinyasa classes, the body would be overrun by too much Prana (or Chi), and we would experience difficulty sleeping and restlessness. Yin Yoga slows the overactive mind and cultivates mindfulness.
When Not to Practice Yin
Yin Yoga is generally safe for all ages when practiced mindfully. It’s also safe to practice if you’re pregnant; however, it's always best to check with your doctor first. During pregnancy, a hormone called relaxin is produced in the expectant mother. This is to increase mobility in the joints and help with the delivery of the baby. I would recommend decreasing the amount of time spent holding a pose in Yin Yoga and put more emphasis on meditation and breathing.
You should also avoid practicing Yin if you’ve been stagnant for a while. If you haven’t gotten off the couch for a week, do something active first!
7 Simple Yin Yoga Rules to Live By
1. Find a space with very little clutter. Uncluttered space means uncluttered mind.
2. Quiet. Shhh. Hide your phone, computer, TV, kids, husband, and dog. Put on some meditation music and enjoy tranquility.
3. Wear comfortable clothing. Sometimes I put on socks and a meditation shawl.
4. Fragrance free. Leave the Christian Dior for a night out. Fragrances can disturb the mind (and others around you if you’re in a class).
5. Timer. Yin Yoga is time sensitive so you’ll need to set a timer. I use the meditation app Insight Timer. However, make sure to turn to turn your phone on airplane mode––no text messaging!
6. Start gentle. For beginners, hold the posture for 1–2 minutes. Eventually work up to 5 minutes.
7. Use props! Lots of them. Have pillows, blankets, blocks, and straps ready. Finding a comfortable position is helpful in minimizing movement during the posture.
There is so much more to Yin Yoga than just physical postures. We calm our nervous system, have better concentration and in general, feel more blissful over time. It is good to balance your yin practice with your yang practice. I'd recommend at least one Yin Yoga class per week.