Have you tried to meditate, only to be met with the common frustrations of buzzing feet, sore shins, or a stiff back? Are you looking for a more restorative style of yoga to compliment your athletic Hatha or Ashtanga practice?
Look, we’ve all been there. You light a little incense, turn on some relaxing music, and settle into a seated position for a relaxing meditation. Just as your mind starts to slow down…BAM! You’re instantly brought back to the here and now as your foot falls asleep. This is supposed to be relaxing?!
Luckily, Yin Yoga is an ancient style of yoga aimed at solving this exact problem. The slow, prolonged stretches of Yin Yoga make it easier to remain in still positions for meditation and also calm the mind along the way.
Where Did Yin Yoga Come From
Yin Yoga’s Origins
While Yin Yoga dates back thousands of years, it was only recently introduced to the Western world in the last forty years. There is some debate as to the exact origin of Yin Yoga, but many agree that it was first observed in parts of China and India approximately 2,000 years ago.
For some, Yin Yoga is considered to be the oldest form of Hatha Yoga; others view this practice as the cornerstone of Taoism, the ancient Chinese religion. Regardless of which school of thought you adhere to, it’s obvious that Yin Yoga has a rich history across a multitude of cultures and regions!
Yin Yoga Comes to the West
Yin Yoga was first introduced to Europe and the Americas in the late 1970’s by Paulie Zink, a martial arts champion and Taoist practitioner. After studying under several Taoist yoga masters, Zink started sharing his knowledge with those around him coining the term “Yin and Yang Yoga.”
It wasn’t long before Zink started nicknaming this practice “Yin Yoga.” Prominent practitioners like Paul Grilley and Sarah Powers were some of Zink’s earliest followers and, over time, learned to teach this style of yoga themselves.
While Zink is considered to be the father of Western Yin Yoga, Grilley and Powers are attributed with sharing the style with the masses. By teaching Yin Yoga in various workshops and studios across the United States, Grilley and Powers sparked an interest in the style throughout the yoga community.
Today, Yin revivals Ashtanga and Hatha as one of the most frequently practiced styles of yoga in the Western world. The slower pace and emphasis on stretching make Yin approachable for seasoned practitioners and new yogis alike, so only one questions remains…
Are you ready to introduce Yin Yoga into your practice?
Yin vs Yang
Have you ever wondered what those Yin/Yang bumper stickers, t-shirts, mood rings, and tattoos that were all the rage in the 90’s actually mean? Well my friend, you’re in luck because one of the cornerstones of Yin Yoga is the concept of Yin and Yang!
According to Taoist principles, all aspects of nature can be categorized as either Yin or Yang. Together, these concepts are viewed as the opposite, yet complimentary, features of nature.
Yin is usually described as stable, unmoving, feminine, passive, and even cold. As an example, the moon is usually considered a Yin force due to its association with the feminine divine and its cool, relaxed energy.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Yang is described as changing, moving, masculine, active, and warm. The sun is usually considered a Yang force for its hot, active presence!
The most important take-away from the concept of Yin and Yang is that one cannot exist without the other and both are needed to maintain the balance in nature. Likewise, neither Yin nor Yang are “good or bad.” Instead, think of them as complimentary forces that work together!
Within the context of yoga, Yin and Yang are associated with different parts of the body. Stiff, connected tissues in our bodies (like our tendons and ligaments) are considered Yin, while the muscles that move most frequently and the blood are considered Yang.
Our bodies would fail without the Yin parts of our anatomy, just as they would if we lacked our Yang blood or moving muscles. As you can see, Yin and Yang are needed to maintain a healthy, functioning body just as they are needed for a balanced world!
The Anatomy of Yin Yoga
Yin as a Tool for Meditation
Unlike other styles of yoga, the goal of Yin is to strengthen the lower body to ease the physical strain of meditation. Think about it like this: do your legs start cramping up just as soon as you start to relax in a seated meditation? Do you fidget, drum your fingers, or crack your joints during a laying meditation or savasana?
If so, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. We all know the mental, emotional, and even physical benefits of meditation, but it can be tough to settle in long enough to give our minds a chance to turn inward.
The stretches, or asanas, of Yin Yoga are intended to strengthen our lower extremities and core, making it easier to sit or lay in meditation. As an added bonus, most Yin asanas are restorative by design and can having a calming effect on the mind as well!
Hold it! Prolonged Holds in Yin Yoga
One thing that sets Yin Yoga apart from other styles of yoga is the length of time that each asana is held for during practice. While movement styles like Hatha and Ashtanga poses are usually only held for a breath or two, each asana in Yin Yoga is held for 45 seconds to 2 minutes.
Seasoned Yin practitioners are accustomed to holding asanas for upwards are 5 minutes or more, meaning that an experienced Yin yogi may only move from one pose to the next a dozen or so times during practice.
If the prospect of holding asanas for several minutes sounds a bit daunting, don’t worry! Yin Yoga asanas are much more relaxed than the dynamic Downward-Facing Dog and Chaturanga poses you may be used to in yoga class.
Yin Yoga asanas, many of which are performed in a seated position, can be enjoyed for several minutes during class and can even serve as a nice stretch while you’re binging the latest TV show on Netflix!
Yin vs. Hatha
If you’re used to practicing in a Vinyasa flow class, the poses below may seem familiar to the asanas you practice in traditional Hatha Yoga. While these asanas may look the same, the Yin Yoga variations are much less dynamic.
You should experience little to no exertion when in a Yin Yoga pose, allowing you to fold into the stretch more with each breath and calm the mind.
Likewise, while these poses may look similar to Hatha poses, the asanas of Yin Yoga are given intentionally different names to remind the practitioner not to practice it in the same way as he or she would in Hatha!
As a general rule, stop and reset if you’re straining at all during a Yin Yoga practice. The time you set aside for Yin Yoga should be relaxing, restorative, and meditative!
The Use of Props in Yin Yoga
While you certainly don’t need props to get started with a Yin Yoga practice, these tools can be a helpful way to deepen the stretches you experience in Yin Yoga or help guide your body into these unique poses.
A set of yoga blocks can help bring the earth within closer reach during folding asanas, and can also relieve tension during reclining poses (check out our use of blocks in Supported Fish pose, or Matsyasana below!).
Yoga blankets are also great if you experience any tenderness in your back during laying poses, and can be folded into a variety of shapes when you need a little extra cushion during a prolonged pose!
Some of my favorite props to use during my own Yin practice are bolsters. While yoga bolsters come in a variety of shapes and sizes, pranayama bolsters and large cylinder bolsters are the most common ones used in Yin Yoga.
Pranayama bolsters can be used to support the spine during reclined poses, and large cylinder bolsters are great for promoting greater relaxation and relieving tension.
Want to learn more? This comprehensive list of yoga props curated by expert Yin practitioner Bernie Clark is a great tool for incorporating props into your Yin practice!
Yin Yoga Poses
You have your blocks, blanket, and bolsters…now what? We’ve sampled our favorite Yin Yoga poses for you so you know just where to start!
Melting Heart Pose (Anahatasana)
Start in a neutral tabletop position on your hands and knees, and slowly walk or stretch your arms forward until they are straightened at the elbow. Your hips should remain stacked over your knees, with your head hanging heavy between your arms.
Butterfly Pose (Badhakonasana)
Begin in a seated position and bring the soles of your feet to touch. Gently grab your ankles and slowly fold over your legs, letting your head hang heavily under gravity’s pull.
Yogi Tip: If you experience any tenderness or strain in your legs, rest your thighs on blocks to bring the ground closer to you! You can also keep one leg outstretched for Half Butterfly at first, working your way up to the full expression of this pose over time.
Camel Pose (Ustrasana)
In a high kneeling position, reach your arms behind you so they support your lower back. Stay here or, when you’re ready, reach for your ankles as you shine your heart towards the sky. Drop your head back, opening your throat chakra, and breathe into this slight back bend!
Begin in a seated position with your legs outstretched in front of you. Slowly fold over your legs and reach your arms towards your toes. Don’t strain! If you can comfortably reach your toes, great! If not, rest your hands on your thighs or shins.
Child’s Pose (Balasana)
Sit on your knees and reach your arms out in front of you. You can keep your knees close together for a stronger stretch in your legs, otherwise let your big toes touch and splay out your knees. Rest your head on your mat or a block and close your eyes.
Yogi Tip: Reach your arms back so they frame your legs for a deeper stretch in the neck and upper body! You can also fold a blanket and place it under your forehead for a make-shift pillow in this pose.
Begin in Butterfly pose and slowly move one leg so it is behind you. Both legs should be at a 90-degree angle, and you should feel a gentle opening stretch in your hips and thighs. If you experience any tenderness in your hips, place a blanket under the tender area to create a cushion.
Dangling Forward Fold (Uttanasana)
Start in a standing position and slowly hinge at your hips, folding towards the floor. Grab opposite elbows and let your head hang heavily. You can remain still in this position or sway slightly from side to side!
Lay down on your back and slowly raise your upper body. Rest your hands under your bottom and reach your head and neck back towards the ground.
Yogi Tip: Too much on your neck? Try Supported Fish pose instead! Rest a block along the length of your spine and lay back. Your spine will thank you!
Come down into a wide-legged kneeling position. Slowly lower your torso towards the floor, keeping your legs bent at a 90-degree angle. Your feet should also be flexed and the ankles should form a similar 90-degree angle.
Yogi Tip: Rest your head on a block or pranayama bolster if you find yourself straining to reach the floor!
Happy Baby Pose
Lay on your back and raise your feet up towards the sky. Bend your knees and grab your feet either by reaching your arms on the inside or outside of your legs. Stay here in a still version of Happy Baby, or invite small movement into this asana by swaying from side to side.
Sit on your knees and slowly lower yourself onto your back. If this causes any tenderness in your legs or back, rest back on a pranayama or large cylinder bolster! You can reach your arms overhead for a complete heart opener, or rest them on your abdomen for a grounding effect.
In a seated position, bring one foot in towards the opposite thigh (similar to Half Butterfly). Cross the opposite leg over this thigh so your legs are crossed and the feet are outstretched in opposite directions.
You can stay here or, when you’re ready, slowly fold over your legs. Once you’ve folded over this leg bind, let your head hang towards the ground.
Sphinx and Seal Pose
Similar to the Cobra pose in Hatha Yoga, Sphinx pose is accomplished by laying on your stomach and slowly raising your heart forward. However, in this variation, the forearms remain pressed on the floor and the chest is lifted ever so slightly.
To go into Seal pose, keep your arms exactly where they are and widen the space between your legs so they are approximately mat’s width distance apart.
Straddle or Dragonfly Pose
In a seated position, stretch your legs out to form a wide “V” shape. Slowly hinge forward at the waist, bending into the space between your legs. Let your head hang heavy and avoid any strain in this position. Flexibility will come with time!
In a seated position, bend one leg to a 90-degree angle with the other stretched out behind you. You can stay in this position with your hands at your heart or slowly fold over your bent leg to rest your head on your mat or hands.
Complete Yin Yoga Practices
Once you’re tried some of our favorite poses at your own pace, you’re ready for a full Yin sequence! Yoga Journal publishes Yin Yoga practices based on the ebbs and flows of the season, and their Summer Yin Practice is a seasonal treat to beat the heat during this time of year!
You’re all set to pick up Yin Yoga and begin soaking up the benefits of this ancient practice! Here’s a quick synopsis as you get started:
- Yin Yoga is rooted in the concept of Yin and Yang: the idea that there are different, yet complimentary, forces in nature.
- Yin Yoga helps prepare the body for the practice of meditation and poses are held for longer durations to achieve this goal.
- Although they may look similar, Yin poses are different from Hatha poses! These asanas are less dynamic and provide for a more restorative experience.
- Props like blocks, blankets, and bolsters (pranayama and large cylinder) are great for deepening your Yin Yoga practice!
Still have questions about Yin Yoga? Comment below!
1. Yoga Journal, Yin Yoga: https://www.yogajournal.com/yoga-101/types-of-yoga/yin
2. YinYoga.com: http://www.yinyoga.com/
3. Ekhart Yoga, Yin Yoga: https://www.ekhartyoga.com/more-yoga/yoga-styles/yin-yoga
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