But what is Yin Yoga?

It is interesting to observe the growing popularity in recent years of this much slower style of yoga, with an increase in the number of Yin Yoga teacher trainings and yin classes across the world but particularly here in Cape Town. I wonder if its emergence as a popular style of yoga, is in part due diminishment of the controversy surrounding it (Jason Crandel once referred to it as an “extreme practice”).  The controversy was around the vast subject of connective tissue, more particularly ligaments, and whether or not we should be stretching them in yin asana.  This reflects a common misunderstanding of Yin, that of stretching.  As though this is the ultimate goal of the practice. It is not.  In fact stretching is not part of the Yin Yoga parlance at all.

So then, what is Yin Yoga? And if we are not going to get supple in the process, what are the benefits? Why would we want to do it at all? Haven’t we got better and far more productive things to do with our time? There are many aspects to this question for Yin is not a simple practice, and yet it is profoundly simple.

Yin Yoga encompasses long held, static postures with the intention of stressing the deeper connective tissues, and increased flexibility is often a byproduct of the this (hence its reputation as the yoga of flexibility) but t’s real physical focus is that of stressing the connective tissues, particularly ligaments (cue shock/horror), bones and joints, particularly in the hips, pelvis and spine, with the intention of strengthening them. These are considered “yin “tissues, to the more dynamic “yang” muscular tissues. Yang tissues need to be stressed in a yang way and yin tissues in a yin way.  Stress has a bad reputation, with its numerous negative connotations and associations to an array of (mental) health issues, but let’s not confuse chronic stress with stress itself.  Everything requires sufficient stress in order to grow and an appropriate amount stress creates strength and resilience.  If we don’t stress our muscles (eustress) they atrophy, but if we stress them excessively, we enter a state of distress or fatigue.  Equally, if we never face challenges, we become emotionally fragile unable to face the world, and if we are chronically stressed, we burnout. So it is with our connective tissue, it too needs stress, but the right quantity. Searching for the eternal balance.  Not too much and not too little. And always followed by rest. I love this as an approach to all things in life. It makes sense as it is a style that perfectly counterbalances more active pursuits, tending to our deeper tissues and the quieter, deeper parts of ourselves, physically, mentally and energetically.

Yin Yoga is often misconstrued as an unchallenging and rather a relaxing practice, with an emphasis on relaxation.  And while it certainly asks you to relax into poses (so too do more yang styles – it’s one of yoga’s superpowers – relaxing into challenge), it’s an active relaxation and so, unchallenging it is not – 3 minutes in toes curled under Seiza can be tough and don’t get me started on the dragons!  But the challenge is not one of pushing through hardship or willing exertion, it’s more the mental curiosity of meeting yourself in poses. Will it give you bigger biceps? Certainly not. 

In our modern western culture there needs to be visible outcome to our endeavours – a currency of calculation – fit and strong, visibly.  We value mental strength in terms of endurance and tenacity that we might overcome and, when we do, relating to a tangible outcome, but we pay little heed to the inner world. Tuning inwards allows for both Mindfulness and, to coin Christine Caldwell’s phrase, “Bodyfulness” awareness,  embodying, observing the our own motion in stillness, those soft and subtle rhythms that constitute the rhythms of existence, truly noticing yourself. 

This is a secret power of Yin Yoga, acute observation, and an awareness and skill that can then be transposed to more dynamic movements and moments. This simple tool grows intelligent awareness, with the potential to positively impact the nervous system and promote self-regulation. Its exploring and navigating unnoticed, unmapped inner terrain. Growing and developing the capacity to fine tune your attention to your own inner workings and refining that awareness over time. 

As with any relationship you might have, listening patiently is an important part of cultivating a healthy body/mind relationship. Interoception is the sensing of the shifting of our internal bodily functions and sensations, as we perceive them from the inside out,  connecting with both our intellect and emotions.  Simply put, Yin affords the opportunity to potentially deepen our experience of ourselves in way that potentially supports nervous system regulation.  “we don’t use the body to get into the pose, we use the pose to get into the body” – Bernie Clark

So is Yin a restorative practice then? Yes and no.  it certainly assists with the facilitating a calm and restorative state, but it is not to be confused with Restorative Yoga itself.  Restorative Yoga is a style and methodology in its own right and one that depends on the use of a number of props.  Restorative Yoga is in fact far more Yin than Yin Yoga is! It restores, rehabilitates and soothes and frequently uses even longer holds, always in a purposely supported shape.  Restorative yoga depends on its props. And while the Yin styles certainly advocates props, they are not a prerequisite for the practice.

No explanation of Yin Yoga would be complete without mentioning the Meridian organ system. When things are in balance, the Chinese called this middle point of harmony Tao. When you drift away from the centre, then you begin to experience disease or disharmony. We can trace pathways of energy flow through the complex organ meridian system, rivers or conduits beneath the skin. Through the postures we can stimulate certain points and mobilize the energy to optimize and improve our health. Different postures target different organs.  It is a system of homeostasis, working towards balance.

However, Yin Yoga is a practice and as with any practice, it needs to be experienced to be understood.  So find a class, switch on YouTube and explore it for yourself, maybe more than once. 

Dive beneath your own skin.

Climb on in.