An Introduction to Yin Yoga

By Nianna Bray


In Chinese philosophy, yin and yang are concepts used to describe how opposite or contrary forces are actually complementary, interconnected and interdependent in the natural world and how they give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another. 

Through this dual model we get dark and light, negative and positive, feminine and masculine. All things in the universe can be categorized as either yin or yang in nature, yet nothing is completely yin or completely yang. Its classification changes in relationship to something else; yin and yang are relative. When we use the term yin in “Yin Yoga,” we are referring to the aspects of the practice, targeted parts of the body and the approach which is relatively more yin-like in nature.

Most of the yoga we have known in the West, is very much yang in nature, and focuses primarily on physical postures that require muscular effort, like Vinyasa Flow or Ashtanga for example. In the body, the muscular tissues are more yang and are exercised in a yang fashion.  Yin Yoga has the same goals and objectives of any other school of yoga; however, it directs the stimulation deeper than the superficial muscles. Yin Yoga targets the yin tissues of the body in a yin fashion. The joints in our body are yin to the yang muscles and must be exercised appropriately. We can only affect the joints by skillfully exercising the ligaments and tendons, which are relatively more yin than yang. This is done through mindful leverage and stillness, over a length of time.

Yang muscle tissue is elastic and needs to be juicy. Think wet and warm, when exercised, and requires rhythmic repetitive movements to effectively stress the fibers of the muscles. Yin tissue is dryer and more plastic in nature and would be damaged if exercised in the same manner. Despite the context of water, there are more ways in which the muscles are yang-like relative to the ligaments, which are yin-like. Like with everything in life, it’s important to know when to do what and applying Yin Yoga style exercises to the joints, ligaments and tendons is key.

Yin Yoga is suitable for almost all levels of students. Yin Yoga is the perfect complement to most sports; the dynamic and muscular styles of yoga emphasize internal heat and the lengthening and contracting of muscles. Yin Yoga generally targets the connective tissues (tendons and ligaments) of the hips, pelvis and lower spine.

At first a yin practice might seem boring for its passive, quieter approach but it can indeed be very challenging due to the long duration held for each pose. We stay in a yin pose from three up to twenty minutes for each pose, yet one minute for beginners is a good start. This gives the bodymind plenty of time to peacefully relax or freak out, depending on experience. For many people it is difficult to be still and quiet with the uncomfortable sensations they feel or the incessant stream of thoughts. Yet like anything, with experience, the practice becomes more familiar and easier over time.  While discomfort is part of the practice, pain is something to avoid and one should be intelligently tuning in and picking up cues from the bodymind about how deep and how long each pose should be held. When in doubt, come out of the pose and rest. Each person has his or her own pain threshold and mental temperament and self-mastery comes with time and practice.

Yin Yoga works with a few principles and objectives, in order to make the most out of the time one is in each pose.  Most yin poses will be performed either supine or seated, essentially low to the ground.  In each pose, we are not looking at the outside of the shape. Instead, we are feeling the shape from the inside so alignment isn’t based on external cues, but from an embodied sensory perception. It’s not what it looks like. It’s how it feels, so each practitioner is individually responsible for their own experience of the practice and must learn to listen to their own bodymind for cues. It takes time to develop body awareness yet self-inquiry is what yoga is all about so it’s worth the effort.

First you want to target the joint you wish to exercises. Then, you want to relax all the muscles around that joint. Muscles contract to bring bones closer to bones. To exercise joints, we want to pull the bones apart. This subtly stresses the fibers of the tendons and ligaments, which strengthens and heals the tissue by drawing in essential fluids that keep the joints functional, supple and mobile. The skillful use of props helps to leverage the body into the shape in order to target the desired joint utilizing gravity and weight, not pulling into the pose with muscular effort.  Once you are comfortably in the shape, you relax completely and surrender to gravity, allowing your body to slowly descend toward the floor, deepening the desire stretch.

To make the yin exercise effective we need to hold the shape for a duration of anywhere from three to five minutes, up to twenty minutes and allow the body time to slowly release. This requires patience. There is no special breathing technique for Yin Yoga and the practitioner is advised to breathe normally. Upon exiting the shape, you will intuitively want to move slowly and with care. Fast movements are not advised. Take time to come out of the pose and rest or introduce small slow movements to loosen up after a long hold. If upon exiting a Yin pose you feel like you are moving like an 80-year-old, you know you have done it right. 

Yin Yoga has been popularized by the work of Paul Grilley, but he did not invent it.  He attributes much of his work to three lines of inquiry: Dr. Gary Parker, Paulie Zink and Dr. Hiroshi Motoyama. The ultimate goal of yoga, Samadhi (an inner state of union), is outlined in the earliest texts on yoga. The Yin Yoga practice has the potential to bring the devoted practitioner into deep states of meditation.  Samadhi arises within ones ability to comfortably and steadily sit still and be quiet. Yin Yoga opens and strengthens the hips and spine, making sitting in meditation for a length of time accessible. In fact, the original styles of yoga were very yin-like in nature. Over the past two hundred years the style has changed to be more yang-like. As in all things in life, harmony comes through balance. By combining both styles of yang and yin, progress in practice is more assured. 

For more information about my upcoming classes, workshops and retreats, click here.