Modern yoga encompasses a wide range of techniques. In the west, the style of yoga that is most commonly practiced is Hatha Yoga. This style means “force” and focuses more on physical and muscular activities more than other styles of yoga.
Western teachings of yoga typically overlook the importance of slow and passive postures to the overall health of the body. This softer form of yoga is what we know of as Yin Yoga, and it balances and supports the strength of the body. It is the literal Yin to the Yang of Hatha Yoga.
Yin and Yang
The ancient Chinese observed that everything contains two facets of existence. These facets were coined as yin and yang and describe two different sets of characteristics.
Yin typically describes what is more feminine, passive, and mysterious. Yang represents what is considered more masculine, dynamic, and obvious. Like two sides of the same coin, one cannot exist with the other.
Examples of Yin and Yang differences:
Yin Yoga Defined
Yin Yoga is a slower, deeper, and more meditative form of yoga that incorporates traditional Chinese medicine principles. Unlike Hatha Yoga, which focuses more on strength and repetitive movement, Yin postures can be held anywhere from 1-20 minutes.
There is a yin way to practice yoga just as there is a yang way to practice. While Hatha Yoga focuses on the muscular half of the body, Yin Yoga explores the deeper tissues of the ligaments, joints, and deep fascial networks. This is especially important because it supports the more active stretches and poses of other styles of yoga, like Hatha. Poses that emphasize strong muscular activities can be thought of as yang (masculine) practices while softer poses that open the deeper tissues are yin (feminine) practices.
Yin Yoga was built on ancient Chinese and Taoist teachings that the body is composed of Qi (energy) pathways. The deep stretching that occurs during a Yin practice opens blockages in these pathways and allows energy to flow freely.
“Consider your will and your body as two dancers, moving in total unison. Too many beginning and even experienced yoga students make their yoga into a wrestling match—the mind contending with the body, forcing it into postures that the body is resisting. Yoga is a dance, not a wrestling match.”
― Bernie Clark, The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga: The Philosophy and Practice of Yin Yoga
Yin postures are intended to be held for a longer amount of time. A Yin practice therefore usually consists of only a handful of postures.
Yin Yoga can be done without props if it feels right in your body. But keep in mind that since yin poses are held for a longer period, props (bolster, blanket, strap, and blocks) can be very supportive and help deepen a stretch. If you don’t have these props, you can always substitute other available options like a pillow.
Child’s Pose: a Healing and Restful Pose When You’re Needing a Break
- Begin by sitting on your heels and then slowly fold forward so that your chest is against your thighs and your forehead is on the earth.
- Drop your hands back beside your feet and allow your elbows to bend out to the sides.
- To come out of the pose, use your hands to push against the floor and slowly roll up.
- Your arms can be threaded between the legs or can be stretched forward.
- Place a bolster under your chest if you can’t get your buttocks to your heels or there is a lot of stress on the head or neck.
Banasana: Full Side Body Stretch
- Begin lying on your back with your legs together and straight out.
- Reach your arms overhead and clasp your arms or your elbows.
- Keeping your buttocks on the floor, move your elbows and legs toward the right. You should be arched like a banana.
- Come out of the pose by moving your legs back to a straight position and bringing your arms down by your sides.
- Continue on the other side.
- You may try a side bend over a bolster with the bolster placed under the lower rib cage and your arms stretched overhead.
- When stretching the left side body, cross your left ankle over your right for a deeper stretch. Do the same on the right side of the body.
Sphinx: Targets the Sacral-Lumbar Spine and Front Torso
- Begin lying on your belly.
- Prop yourself onto your elbows. If this puts a lot of pressure on your lower back, move your elbows further ahead so that your chest is closer to the floor.
- Come out of the pose by slowly lowering your chest to the floor and resting with one cheek to the floor.
- If your head feels too heavy, you can rest it in your hands, on a blink, or rest your chin on your fists.
- A bolster or two can be placed under the armpits for tight shoulders or tight upper chest.
- A bolster or blanket can also be placed under the pubic bone or thighs for additional cushion.
Forward Fold: Stretches the Hamstrings and Releases the Lower Back
- Stand with your feet at a comfortable distance apart, then bend your knees and fold forward.
- To come out of the pose, bend your knees slightly, release your hands to the floor, and slowly roll up.
- Rest your elbows on a table or chair if your hamstrings feel especially tight.
- You can clasp your elbows behind your knees with legs straight if it feels comfortable and your body allows for it.
- Clasp your elbows (pictured) or rest your elbows on the knees with knees bent.
Benefits of Yin Yoga
Yin Yoga provides numerous physical, mental, emotional, energetic, and spiritual health benefits. It’s supportive if you’re tired and lacking energy OR if you’re overly energetic and need to ground your energy. Yin Yoga is also beneficial when it’s balanced with a physical practice.
- Improves range of motion and flexibility
- Passively lengthens muscles
- Reduces adhesions and scar tissue that can restrict movement
- Stimulates growth of fibroblasts (cells that produce collagen and other fibers)
- Makes ligaments thicker and stronger through collagen production
- Hydrates tissues
- Allows toxins to flow out of the tissues
- Reduces acute inflammation
- Reduces osteopenia and osteoporosis
- Awakens, enhances, and balances prana
- Restores cellular health through creation of internal pulsed magnetic fields
- Physically stimulates cells
- Reduces acute inflammation and balances immune system responses
- Improves heart rate variability
- May increase levels of the neurotransmitter GABA
- Stimulates acupuncture points and meridian lines that send energy to the organs
Heart and Mind Benefits
- Helps you find a sense of calmness and stillness
- Improves blood pressure and lowered heart rate
- Turns off sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight) and activates the parasympathetic nervous system that supports rest and digestion
- Allows you to interrupt the negative feedback loop between the mind and the heart
- Helps you practice paying attention and accepting what is happening in the body, which helps you do the same in other situations in your life
- Increases mindfulness in day-to-day life
- When a pose is held, you can more easily go within and see what is really needed in your mind and body beyond your typical reactions
The body needs both active and passive postures, and together they develop enhanced health for the whole body, heart, and mind.
We could discuss their differences and benefits for ages, but the real value of Yin Yoga (and any other form of yoga) comes from getting on your mat and into your body.
The journey begins when you turn inward and feel, explore, and expand your own limitations. Shedding awareness and love for yourself is where your healing begins.