What is Yin Yoga?
Yin is the counterpart to Yang. Yin and Yang have been used by Chinese Taoist scholars for thousands of years to explain the duality of life and the world around us. They are complimentary (rather than opposing) forces, two halves of the same coin, each side having a little bit of itself in the other. That is what the symbol represents; the two semi-circles, one black one white, symbolise Yin and Yang, and the dot of the opposite colour in each side represents the fact that in any situation there is always a need for a little bit of both. Together, Yin and Yang represent a dynamic whole, more powerful than each of its parts alone. Basically, it’s about balance. For example, dark and light may seem like polar opposites, but, a shadow can only exist if there is light. In this philosophy, things exist as inseparable and contradictory opposites or natural dualities, for example; female-male, dark-light, old-young, night-day, moving-still, hot-cold, etc.
Yang is the masculine energy and is more associated with the sun, action, movement, heat and doing, while Yin is the feminine energy and is more associated with the energy of the moon, stillness, coolness, waiting and observing. In yoga, when we speak about Yin and Yang we are referring to the prevailing style of the yoga practice. Yang uplifts us, while Yin grounds us. Most practices are fundamentally Yang-driven. If you go into an Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Bikram or Hatha yoga class, you will frequently hear prompts from your teacher telling you to reach, pull and stretch, while in a Yin class you will be told to soften, release, let go and surrender. Yang practices are more predominant in the Western World right now; it is handstands and difficult acrobatic poses that populate our Instagram feeds and stimulate the growth of and interest in yoga. In the media, we are commonly presented with two tropes that sum up what yoga is; the first is the toned women in matching two-piece spandex outfits; beautiful, slender contortionists, capable of manipulating their bodies in ways that the rest of us mere mortals could only dream of. The second is the monk on a desolate mountain-side in an everlasting lotus-pose of stillness. The first image is more Yang, while the second is more Yin. The reality, of course, lies in the vast grey area that exists in between.
Yoga is a tool to help us better navigate the complexities of our everyday lives. An imbalance of Yin or Yang, whether it be an excess or an absence of one or the other, can prove detrimental to our overall functioning.
In today’s world, the predominantly Yang traits are generally higher praised. We recognise people who are bold, confident, outspoken, energetic, focused and driven as being successful and admirable. We encourage people to be ambitious and to be selfish in the pursuit of their ambitions. We are told that we can have anything we desire, so long as we try hard enough. People who have a natural predisposition towards a more Yin energy are the silent workers and deep thinkers of our world. It can take longer to have their successes recognised, but some of the greatest minds in history have been introverts and have been more on the Yin end of the spectrum. People with a healthy amount of Yin energy are introspective, calm, collected, mindful, self-assured and grounded. A Yin yoga practice mirrors and encourages these traits.
In a Yin yoga class there is a deep focus on settling ourselves, turning our focus inwards and becoming still and present. Poses are held for a long time, anything from four or five minutes up to fifteen or twenty. A Yin yoga class may only feature six or seven poses, and participants are encouraged to relax as deeply into each posture as possible. We use things like yoga bricks, cushions and bolsters to help support participants in the postures so that they can relax even more deeply. Once we assume a posture in Yin, we then want to let go of any ‘holding on’ or tension from the body. Any part of the body that can be relaxed should be relaxed. People can sometimes feel in Yin that they are not doing anything or trying hard enough but accepting the stillness is part of the process. Fighting the urge to fidget is often one of the most difficult parts of the practice, for beginners and even more seasoned Yinsters! Acknowledging where and when you are and observing and accepting whatever thoughts and feelings are coming up for you is as much a part of the process as the physical manifestation of the pose is.
On a physical level, the effects of a Yin practice differ from a regular yoga practice in several ways. A regular yoga practice targets mainly our muscles, while Yin yoga targets our fascia, connective tissue, joints, and even our skeleton. In Yin, we want to explore the full range of motion in the joints we are working on. By putting stress on our fascia, we are better lubricating our joints and related connective tissues. Fascia resists brief stresses and that’s why we hold the poses for longer lengths of time. So, what is fascia?
Fascia can be thought of as a full-body sock; a net stocking that wraps around entire muscle groups throughout the entire body. It wraps around our organs, bones and connective tissue. Fascia is naturally moisture-rich, but over time, without appropriate stress being applied to it, fascia can become dehydrated and can begin to shrink. Soreness, tension, pressure and general poor health in the joints can be attributed to this dehydration of the fascia. However, it is possible to re-hydrate and it is possible for everybody. As we hold a posture over time, the fascia begins to lengthen and become moisture-rich and it does not spring back in the way that muscle does. When we lengthen and re-hydrate that tissue, we are creating lasting improvements for ourselves, both in the immediate moment, but also for years into the future.
During the length of time we spend in each posture during our Yin practice, we are given the opportunity for self-reflection. There is an energetic space being created, wherein we can be curious about our own inner-world. Some Yin values that will be regularly referred to during a class include patience, acceptance, kindness, compassion and surrendering. The intension behind a Yin practice is to stress tissue in the body that we don’t normally get to reach during our Yang practices (fascia, for example). Other intentions may be to slow down, relax, practice mindfulness, become better acquainted with our own thought processes, become more self-aware, and, ultimately, to tap into our own inner wisdom.
C.G. Jung said that people “will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own souls.”
In Yin, we are challenged to confront who we are without any of the veneer that we have spent our lives cultivating. This can be very scary, some people may even choose to walk out of a class rather than ride out what it is they are experiencing internally, however, if you can stick with it, Yin is a powerful tool to bring you into a higher level of consciousness with a deeper understanding of your inner world. There is a huge sense of empowerment that comes with this; we are no longer hiding from our thoughts, this brings a sense of peace as we are no longer on edge, wondering what may come out of the recesses of our own minds to frighten or challenge us. When we shine a light on our inner world and face it with acceptance, we become untouchable. We become resilient against the opinions of others, anxieties, fear of the unknown and the desire to ‘people please’. When we are centered and grounded and living our truth, we flow through life rather than staggering through it. Yin helps us to find that centre and through regular practice helps us to embody it in every facet of our lives.