Yin Yoga is a style of Yoga that, in recent years, has become increasingly popular. But what exactly is it?
Perhaps you are familiar with the concept of Yin and Yang but maybe you’ve never quite understood the the terms. Generally speaking, refers to the feminine, passive, receptive, reflective and introspective parts of life. On the other hand, yang is characterised as outward energy, masculine, hot, bright, and positive.
Naturally then, Yang Yoga is fiery and high energy. Whilst Yin Yoga offers a practice that invites us to turn our awareness inwards for a profoundly deep and rewarding experience. This style of Yoga targets the deeper connective tissues of the body whilst stimulating the energy centres of the bodies to release stagnant blockages and increase energy flow. Unlike your typical fast paced Vinyasa or Power flows, a typical 75 minute class will have you holding around 10 poses for several minutes. In this way, each posture becomes like mini pranayama practice or meditation.
Although ‘Yin Yoga’ was technically established in 80’s, its roots go way back to the beginning of Yoga. The physical aspect of Yoga which blossomed around the tenth century was developed as a vehicle for meditation and self enquiry. The repertoire of Hatha Yoga, which consisted of only 15 postures, 8 of which were seated, prepared the body, and particularly the nervous system, for stillness, creating the necessary physical strength and stamina that allowed the mind to remain calm. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s there are only three mentions of the physical practice of yoga, all of which refer to yin like qualities of being calm and comfortable.
It is only in the last 30 years or so that a style of Yoga which requires holding postures for extended minutes has reappeared prominently in the Yoga world, the history of which, is most interesting. A Chinese prisoner spent his days watching the play and movement of monkey’s outside his window. When he was released, he started to teach this practice of ‘monkey movement’ combined with his knowledge or martial arts. His teachings found its way to Honk Kong and a student called Cho Chat Ling, who bought the practice to California. He found his next student in Paulie Zink and spent 8 hours a day for 7 years passing on his knowledge of Monkey Kung Fu. Paulie’s teaching combined elements of Yoga as well as the 5 Chinese elements, wood, fire, earth, metal and water. He called his practice Taoist Yoga.
When Paul Grilley came across Paulie Zink’s Taoist Yoga he was instantly taken and began to incorporate the philosophy into his own teachings. With his background steeped in anatomy he was fascinated by the way our unique bodies influence our ability to achieve certain postures: some people will never be able to achieve the “perfect posture”. Sarah Powers (who coined the term Yin Yoga) discovered the benefits of Yin Yoga on her first Vipassana retreat when she realised how poorly prepared her body was for seated meditation. Through her husbands interest in Buddhism, Sarah began to infuse mindfulness with Yin Yoga to deepen the sense of awareness, mentally, physically and spiritually. Paul and Sarah are the two leading figures responsible for popularising Yin Yoga in the West. Despite its apparent ‘restorative’ and simplistic look, Yin Yoga is designed to challenge on all levels.
Yin Yoga requires students to hold a posture for 3-7 minutes allowing a stress of the deeper connective tissues and fascia. Through working these layers of the body we not only increase flexibility and mobility but help slow down the ageing process. The focus tends to be on the lower body, targeting the hips, spine and sacrum. As the practice was developed with an understanding of Chinese Medicine, each posture aims to stimulate an acupressure point in the body. It is believed that we store emotional angst physically in the body manifesting as pain or blockages. Yin Yoga allows a practitioner to gradually release these tensions meaning that trauma or past experienced can be managed without the need to understand it or talk through it.
However, it is not only the asana itself that can be challenging. For many, programmed and used to living a fast life, slowing down can be pretty difficult. The extended period of time which postures are held allow for deep self inquiry, tuning into feelings, thoughts and emotions. In quick moving classes it is easier to avoid this practice, however in Yin Yoga this really is the focus. You are able to recognise your mental patterns to resist or push harder and begin changing these habits in your practice. What you practice on the mat, you do off the mat. You can almost think of each posture as a mini meditation as you explore what arises for you moment by moment. Yin Yoga has taught me patience, to discover my edge, to tolerate discomfort, to honour my body and slow down.
Life in London is fast paced; we’re constantly rushing around and striving for the next thing. Busyness is almost worn like a badge of honour, ridiculously competing to be more busy than your friend or colleague. Life has the essence of Yang. Very rarely do we allow ourselves the time to sit, reflect and simply be. It is only when we are forced to slow down or pay attention (through injury, illness or exhaustion) that we seek to find the balance. More and more this is being recognised and people are finding ways to prevent rather than cure, hence a practice of Yin to balance out the Yang.
As with all things in life, I believe it to be important to find the balance in life, and this applies with our Yoga practice. So neither Yin nor Yang practices are better, they complement one another. Most likely you will go through stages where you need one more than the other, but it doesn’t mean that one trumps.
Come find me on the mat 🙂
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