A Conversation About Yin Yoga
SD: What makes yin yoga different than other types of yoga? How does it get its name?
IK: Yin Yoga is a form of Hatha Yoga in which poses are held for a longer period of time with relaxed muscles and deep breathing. This stillness allows the body to soften and the postures to stimulate connective tissues, fascia, and ligament, as well as affect bone density, joint mobility and the overall health of the internal organs. Yin is a meditative practice that is more stable, hidden, dark or grounded energy. While Yang is more active, revealing, light and changeable. Yang style of yoga and exercises focuses more on lengthening and strengthening of muscles. Yin focuses on connective tissue and joint health. This is done through long holds with relaxed and passive muscles.
Yin yoga originated from ancient Taoist philosophy and spiritual traditions of China. If you see a yin-yang symbol, there is the dot of the opposite in each. This is true for yoga- there’s not such a thing as absolute yin or absolute yang. For example, if I’m holding a forward fold in a yin class, I’m supposed to relax the muscles and be passive by focussing on my breath. But some muscles strength is needed to keep me in the pose. This is the little bit of yang in the yin.
On a physical level, let’s take three things we are working with- bone, muscle, connective tissue. Muscle is the most external, the most elastic and the most yang. The bone is the least pliable and cannot be stretched, and the most yin. The connective tissues are between the two. When we want to strengthen our muscles, we stress them. When we need to strengthen our heart, we stress it by doing cardio. That’s yang. When we need to strengthen our connective tissues, we stress them in a passive state. That’s yin. One teacher recently gave me a great analogy. You know how we wear braces? If we took a yang approach to straightening our teeth – very active and quick – our teeth would fall out. Braces are like yin.
The breath, chi, prana plays a very important role in a Yin practice. Lengthening and expanding the breath soothes the nervous system, reduce stress, release muscle tension. We’re releasing on the physical level through the poses, and we’re releasing on the mental level too. We are training ourselves to connect to our breath, that’s how the thinking mind rests. Not stops, but rests. Yin is meditation in motion.
SD: I heard once that those who hate the idea of yin yoga are the ones who need it the most. Do you agree? Can you explain more?
IK: When people say “I don’t have time for meditation” that’s when they need it the most. It’s the same with yin yoga. We are not only remodeling our connective tissues and increasing our flexibility but also training ourselves to sit with our thoughts, emotions, and feelings. We are also learning how to connect with our breath to release tension. The whole process can be difficult for some. Regular practice will cultivate mindfulness skills, awareness of breath and bodymind, release physical and mental tension.
SD: I think also people want their yoga practice to be exercise and feel that yin isn’t enough of a workout. They’re disappointed it's not stressing their heart, without recognizing that it's vitally affecting other systems in their body.
IK: There is stillness in Yin, but it is not stagnant. Both yin and yang practices have energy. Yin balances the nervous system so that the energy of a practitioner is neither overstimulated or depleted. Yang exercise invigorates more breath/chi flow and yin practice invigorates more fluid flow. Yin and Yang are like two sides of a coin, and if you’re doing only one, that means you are only doing half the practice.
SD: Tell me more about what is happening physically. Why is it important for us to address our connective tissue?
IK: Yin focuses on connective tissues and bone health. Every bone, muscle, and organ has a connective tissue. Its mostly concentrated at the joints. When we don’t use our full range of motion, over time the connective tissue will become dry and shortens to the minimum length. Connective tissues include the ligaments and fascia, which binds the muscles to the bone. Though they are hidden, we still need to stress and stretch them to keep them healthy. The long hold of poses with relaxed muscles stimulates the movement of breath/chi into body’s energy channels. These energy channels are called meridians, which are pathways in the facia. These pathways transport breath/vital energy and blood through the body. When excessive vital energy gets trapped in the body we experience pain, fatigue, tiredness.
Yin exercise releases stagnant energy, stimulates and soothes the organs, allows the vital energy to travel to more deeper Yin area of the body, improves flexibility, lubricates joints, calms the nervous system, encourages the healthy flow of the lymphatic system. At first when we enter the pose, our muscles tighten. That’s a normal reaction of the body. The brain is sending signal to the body to tighten up to protect it. It takes about couple of minutes for the muscles to let go and release tension. I always tell my students “tell your body with each exhale that you are safe with yourself.” Then, just as long as we don’t feel any sharp pain, our brain allows our muscles to relax, the process of stressing and stretching the connective tissues begins.
As we age, and we lack of full range of motion as our connective tissue gets dry and it shrinks. When we stretch our connective tissues, we keep the tissue pliable. Yin postures help create space in the body, especially spine, low back, and hips. Even doing yin yoga just once a week will go a long way. You’re going to experience it in your whole bodymind if you give at least six months, or even less. No matter how old you are, it’s always a good time to start practicing yin.
SD: How did you come to start practicing yin?
IK: I still remember my first class -- I was like “wow”. It was an aha moment, I discovered the piece missing from my practice. Before I discovered Yin I was already doing regular Yang exercises, yoga, and hiking. Still, I was having issues physically. My ankles would get twisted and take a long time to heal. After investing time in Yin yoga, everything improved. My gait in hiking got better – it was like day and night difference. My seated meditation posture improved. I was able to sit in my meditation practice with ease for a longer period of time. As my bodymind learned to relax, I was able to connect with my breath deeply. Yin makes me feel rejuvenated. When you feel good, it reflects in your mood. My family feels it in me. I’m growing older but every year I feel younger, and I believe this is because of yin yoga.
SD: I remember the first time I went to a yin yoga class– I walked out feeling a little dazed, almost like I’d just had a glass of wine. My aunt who had brought me to class said, "I forgot to warn you that yin can have this effect," because recognized the slowness in my actions. In a recent class, a teacher called it "yintoxicated." Can you explain what causes this effect?
IK: Part of that slowness is due to Yin’s meditative approach. It brings a change in our mental state that comes from sitting with our thoughts and connecting with the breath deeply. Creates a balance in the nervous system, soothes the mind and releases stress. It’s like getting like getting a good massage. Some people want to rest afterward, some people get extra energy.
SD: That makes sense. When you get a massage or take a yin yoga class, both usually end with someone telling you to make sure you drink lots of water. Which is counter-intuitive after what is seemingly a lot of laying around.
IK: All of the poses in yin yoga are detoxifying. We are stimulating the connective tissues, massaging the internal organs, squeezing the lymph nodes. With all the twists, turns and bends, toxins are released and flushed out of the system. Drinking water after the class helps release toxins from the body. Yin yoga is such an important tool to incorporate into anyone's lifestyle, I would force it on everyone if I could! (Laughs). It’s like a pill- it detoxifies, it relaxes and energizes, it makes you feel youthful. What more can you ask for?
To find a yin yoga class near you, check your local studios! Most offer yin, though they may have a different name for the class. Wellness Within suggests you consult your doctor if you have any questions before beginning any new exercise practice.