What Is Yin Yoga? and Why You Might Care

Holly Zadra
May 6, 2019

Yin Yoga is a passive, slow, static, quiet, and receptive yoga focused on dense connective tissue health (the joints, fascia, and muscles). It complements an active yoga practice or other "yang" type exercise like CrossFit or running by targeting the heart of the tension in our bodies: it is estimated that our muscles hold 41 percent of the tension in our bodies, while the joints hold 47 percent. And it’s appropriate for beginners and long-term practitioners alike.

Current and ongoing research makes it doubtless that slow and mindful practices activate our body's parasympathetic system. When we do that, we enable our own exquisite selves to respond and heal from the inside out among a host of other benefits like increased connectivity with others and a sweeter tone of voice (helpful in indicating to our colleagues we aren’t about to sink our i teeth into their necks).

In the world of exercise theory, one stimulates — i.e. purposely stresses — cardiac muscle when pumping the heart during aerobic exercise. We do this to maintain cardio-vascular health. One stimulates — i.e. purposely stresses — bone tissue through impact and weight bearing exercises. We do this to maintain optimal bone density. One stretches and strengthens the muscles of the body in active yoga (yang yoga) in order to stimulate — i.e. purposely stress — muscle and fascial tissues. All of these forms of exercise and the accompanying health benefits assume two things: that the tissue be stressed (not too much, not too little) and that the tissue rest.

Likewise, the dense connective tissues of our joints need appropriate stress and rest for health. But most of us have been told our whole lives to avoid stressing our joints. And that’s partially true. We do want to avoid stressing our joints in a yang way, that is, through intense and quick stress.

Now, however, some research suggests we may benefit from stimulation — i.e. purposely, but appropriately stressing — the connective tissue of the joints. It is theorized that Yin Yoga increases hydration of the tissues and thus, detoxifies (imagine the connective tissue as a sponge and through Yin practice, we squeeze the sponge and then release it, allowing for improved absorption, release, and movement of fluid through the tissues). We restore and remember the structural integrity we were born with, but that may have been compromised by long bouts of sedentary work like sitting at a computer or collapsing the head, neck, and shoulders forward, i.e text neck; we prevent contracture, degeneration, and fixation of the ligaments, joint capsules, discs, and menisci; and we may even possibly remodel (the peer-reviewed, double-blind study on this does not yet exist) excessively cross-linked collagen fibers that result from illness, chronic inflammation, or immobilization.

Science or none, for me, the most compelling reasons to practice Yin Yoga are the immediate, but worthy-of-our-attention intangibles: Yin is a “bitter practice” with “sweet results,” a phrase that my teacher Josh Summers E-RYT 500, Lic. Ac. heard from his teacher in describing meditation practice, but that Summers believes, and I second, encapsulates the essence of Yin Yoga. Devoted Sundew yogini Denise Baker calls Yin Yoga, “medicine.” We don’t take medicine because it tastes good. We take it for its results.

Yoga practice, in general, is not exercise for exercise’s sake, and the benefits of yoga are often a little more esoteric than what is described in scientific, peer-reviewed studies. So it may be worth traveling down the less empirical path for a jaunt.

The intensity of a yin practice itself — a practice of staying with mild to moderate discomfort in the body — is life practice. The practice asks us to discover habituated responses to discomfort while purposely remaining uncomfortable for three to five minutes. I might experience any of the following while lingering in a yin pose:

I wonder what’s for dinner or imagine a fine cocktail. Fantasy. Desire.

I decide this is a stupid practice for people who have nothing better to do with their time. Aversion.

I see the deep lines and less tensile/dry skin of my formerly youthful feet and hands and feel death creeping nearer. Fear.

I look at the clock. It’s 4:34. I use my anchor, focus on the breath, count the length of the inhale, the exhale, and look at the clock again. 4:34. Boredom.

The ballerinas are doing the splits. Annoyance.

There’s little to no movement; the room is darkish; I stayed up too late watching Game of Thrones. Grogginess.

How long are we going to hold this pose? It’s 4:34. Impatience.

Or I might even think I’m some kind of superstar in my excellent, spiritually enlightened forward fold for which I excessively pat myself on the back. Ego.

Yin Yoga provides an opportunity to spend time with and make friends with my internal habits of reactivity. I get the chance to soften toward even those responses I wish I could avoid. In some ways, Yin Yoga fast forwards us toward body awareness and mental/emotional resilience that could otherwise take years to achieve in a more active, movement-focused (yang) yoga practice, one where a carefully curated playlist sweeps us away, temporarily distracting us from the quivering front thigh in Warrior II.

Holding a yin pose for three minutes can create an immediate sensation of fragility in the body as if we’ve suddenly aged 10 years. When you release a Yin pose, more often than not, your body responds immediately as if to shout, “Don’t move!” So we move slowly out of the pose with intention into what Summers calls a “resonance” pose — a kind of liberating counter pose in which you are free to feel what is happening in your body as a result of the gravity and time spent in, say, Swan. What arises is what I call body equanimity. This sweet release is akin to the melting of ice in spring as the tributaries, streams, and rivers of our bodies begin to thaw and flow again with ease. This body that has, at times, felt like a dirty trick played on me begins to feel integrated, vital, resilient, sensitive, still, and vital.

Did I say vital twice? That’s ‘cause it feels soooo damn vital. My body. Vital. Vital.

My teacher and a licensed acupuncturist Josh Summers who studied Traditional Chinese Medicine describes the immediate results of yin practice as “a quality of space in the body that is not obstructed by gross, dull sensation.” That quality is both subtle and delicious. And over time, I’ve found the practice helps me to be less reactive, less anxious, and little softer, more receptive, and able to navigate my own life with all its dips and dives with greater ease and a smidge more grace than when I’m not practicing.

PRACTICE

So how, exactly, does one practice Yin Yoga, and what is appropriate stress for the joints?

Imagine holding a bottle of molasses upside down. At first, nothing happens. But over time, gravity exerts its force on the molasses, and it begins to move. That’s similar to what happens in the joint tissue (viscoelasticity) and describes a healthy way to stress joint (yin) tissue, that is long-held, static stretching. Because of the viscoelasticity of the joint tissue — that molasses-like character — healthy stress to the joint should be mild to moderate and prolonged. In Yin Yoga, floor poses (gravity) are held for three to five minutes (time) to make use of the two main props of a yin practice: gravity and time. As opposed to heating muscle tissue to encourage stretch in the muscle tissue, in Yin Yoga, we keep the muscles relatively cool and relaxed to encourage stress transference to the joint where a mild to moderate stress over time may prove beneficial to range of motion and tissue health.

PRINCIPLES

There are four basic principles for practicing Yin Yoga.

1. Find and play your edge: your Yin teacher will offer some intentionally vague alignment cues to get you into a basic pose. Owing to the variation of each body’s unique skeleton, stress level, body awareness, background, and lifestyle, finding your edge — the place where you become aware of sensation in the area we intend to target (your teacher should indicate the intended target area)— will vary from person to person. Your pose may look dramatically different from that of your neighbor for all kinds of reasons. Yin Master Bernie Clark continually maintains and I agree that the pose must serve the person; not the other way around.

2. Try to relax the muscles of that target area so that the stress can then be transferred from the muscle to the connective tissue. Here, you will want to be aware of the difference between appropriate and inappropriate sensations in the body. Summers describes appropriate sensation in the target area as dull, broad, diffuse, or slightly bitter. Inappropriate sensations include any kind of pain or pinching whatsoever, or any sharp, intense, throbbing, numb, or tingling sensations. Also inappropriate is any sensation that causes labored breathing or extreme agitation (insert joke aimed at your teacher here).

3. Stay relatively still for time. While you may retreat, come back to the pose, go deeper, and, over time (that is, there is no need to remain still), and ultimately stay in the pose for longer periods of time, chronic tension lodged in the deep connective tissue begins to give way to an energetic and balanced fluidity of the body.

4. Come out of the pose slowly. Josh Summers articulates the “pronounced disinclination to move quickly” when coming out of a pose. Listen to your body. Move slowly with mindful intention toward the resonance pose and experience the “spaciousness in the body not obstructed by gross, dull sensation.”

Yin Yoga is one way means of exploring the self through the body slowly, with intention, and without distraction. You are your own authority and only you can experience the wisdom of your own particular and wondrous body’s sensations. When you are quiet and listening, you will make wise choices.

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