History and Benefits of a Quiet Practice
Falling Yin Love
Like any harmonious relationship, there must always be a balance. A balance between holding on and letting go. A balance between determination yet yielding. A balance between striving for something and going with the flow.
As Lao Tzu so wisely observes in his quote from the Tao Te Ching;
“If you want to become whole,
let yourself be partial.
If you want to become straight,
let yourself be crooked.
If you want to become full,
let yourself be empty.
If you want to be reborn,
let yourself die.
If you want to be given everything,
give everything up.”
Nature constantly seeks harmony and balance. The Taoists, who were observers of the processes of life, understood this when they saw the opposite and complementary qualities in everything. Like the bees and the flowers, everything exists in relationship to everything else and one does not exist without the other. In its rawest form, this is known as Yin and Yang. When we look at the symbol as a whole, we see it is composed of two opposing parts, like two sides of a mountain: the shady side is Yin, and the sunny side of the mountain is Yang.
In our fast-paced world where we hold busyness and doing as a sign of achievement, Yin Yoga is rapidly making a name for itself amongst the ‘Yang’ lifestyle we find ourselves. Yoga practitioners from all over are discovering the benefits of slowing down, taking a break to be still, connecting with sensations and feelings inside and being receptive. All of these adjectives describe the qualities of a yin practice.
Yin postures in yoga are not new; they have been around since yoga began in various forms. During the last 30 years, four notable teachers are credited for spreading what had loosely been known as ‘Taoist’ Yoga or ‘Tao Chi’ Yoga as practised by martial artist Paulie Zink. These are Suzee and Paul Grilley, Bernie Clarke and Sarah Powers. Each of these teachers has their own take on the style.
The Essence of Yin Yoga:
Yin yoga targets the relatively Yin tissues of our bodies; such as bones, ligaments, tendons and fascia, as opposed to the more pliable muscles which are the target of the Yang practice.
Yin Yoga has three basic guidelines:
Bring your body to a healthy edge in the pose that allows your body to relax
Be still and feel the sensations that arise within the pose
Stay in the pose anywhere from 3 to 5 minutes.
Connective tissues respond to long and steady holds. Yin poses are mainly seated and reclined, working primarily on the lower part of the body, from the navel down.
Some of the benefits of yin yoga are:
It provides relaxation and balance to the mind and body.
It helps find greater joint mobility, increasing range of motion and fascial release.
It stimulates energy flow and encourages the health and vitality to our internal organs.
Its sister practice, Restorative Yoga, has similar benefits, but it has a different physical intention. In Yin Yoga, we want to put mild stress on the targeted tissues so we can feel a sensation of tolerable discomfort, never pain! However, in Restorative Yoga, we use props such as bolsters, blocks or blankets to support the body in a way that we don’t feel the same dull ache or compression that we would in Yin. Restorative yoga aims to heal the body through calming, relaxing and nourishing and is physically less demanding. Some classes may be a hybrid of the two styles.
Yin Yoga harmonises and brings balance to the body and mind. In Chinese medicine, the physical body is mapped by energy lines called meridians. This intelligent network is partly responsible for keeping us energetically in check. The pathways have certain energetic qualities, and according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, each of them is associated with a physical and energetic organ. For example, when we do poses such as butterfly,, we are opening the meridians of the inner legs. Through these channels run the spleen, liver and kidney meridians. An obstruction in any one of the pathways would then lead to the corresponding organs dysfunction.
The passively held stretches of Yin Yoga ask us to relax the muscles so the connective tissues, joints and organs can strengthen, hydrate and become more resilient. In contrast, in the more Yang styles of yoga, the muscles are being asked to contract, strengthen and stretch.
During each pose, we direct our attention to the target area being stressed. A pose such as butterfly, we may start feeling as if the stress is in the low back, but as we take time in the pose and move deeper into it, we may feel the stress move to our outer hips. Therefore, each pose can have multiple target areas, and those may change over time.
This is the beauty of the Yin practice; nothing stays the same forever. Instead of trying to ‘look’ a certain way in a pose, we are asked to ‘feel’ the sensations arising in our body. This is the difference between aesthetics in Yang style yoga and function in Yin Yoga; each student may look slightly different in their ‘butterfly’ to feel the desired stress of the pose.
Sensations are encouraged to be felt. Some students may describe a dull achy feeling, or a broad and diffused stretch while others will feel mild, moderate discomfort. The key here is to rate the sensations on a scale of 1 to 10, where 0 is nothing and 10 is pain, the most beneficial range would be somewhere between 3 to 7. In Yin Yoga, we refrain from turning up the sensations so much that they override the capacity to feel.
The other and possibly more important benefit of this practice is the cultivation of the Yin qualities of the mind. When we sit still, in silence, we will get a closer look at what is happening in our minds. As we pay attention, we might notice some recurring patterns, fixations, the rehashing of the day or a projection into the future. All that we think is neither good nor bad but just another expression of energy moving through us. The Yin practice gives us a chance to allow what needs to be heard to arise, and like everything in nature, fall away. The longer we sit, the more we calm our nervous system and the better we can relax and lean into whatever it is that shows up, be it sensations in the body, thoughts and ideas in the mind or feelings and emotions in the heart.