I want to thank my father for first inspiring me to take up and self-learn the art of Yoga as a teenager. I feel fortunate to have encountered these arts so early on.
I want to thank all my teachers, especially my first teacher, Dharmacari Narapriya, who first taught me, with so much playfulness and commitment.
I would like to acknowledge the work of Paul Grilley and Sarah Powers with respect to the art of Yin Yoga.
I was introduced to Yin Yoga by my yoga buddy, Padmadarshini who was just back from working with Sarah Powers and Paul Grilley in California. She and I were running yoga weekends for teachers to share whatever we were currently exploring or learning in our yoga and teaching practice. It was obvious at the beginning Yin Yoga was a useful practice, primarily in terms of countering the tendency towards a "pushy", aggressive practice (common to many of us in the modern era) and as a bridge between an active, dynamic Yang practice to the stillness of a sitting meditation practice. Yin Yoga can feel like a series of short five minute meditations, with enough movement and change of internal physical sense experience to keep the mind engaged, but not too much movement so that we get lost in the busy-ness of constant posture change. Each posture offers its own unique "experience" so we are presented with an ever-changing pattern of experience to explore. For me, it satisfies the pscychonaut within.
More recently I have been thinking in terms a Yin Yoga as a restorative practice. A quiet practice; largely based around floor postures and minimal muscular effort is useful, especially to counter an already busy life-style with a lot of activity. A restorative practice gives the body chance to open and soften and release tension without much investment of energy.
However, a dynamic practice is indispensable in developing a stronger body, fitness and stamina. It may be we are tired and feel blocked and stuck and what we actually need is a dynamic practice to raise our levels of energy and break through various tensions and blocks. Discriminative intelligence is always necessary in the application of Yoga.
A Yin or restorative practice can be seen as a tool in the tool box of methods and techniques we have at our disposal as yoga practitioners. Sometimes stillness is useful, sometimes dynamic, sometimes no practice at all! Yin Yoga can be preparation for a more active practice to allow the heart, mind and body to arrive into the practice space as well as a wind-down form after a more active Yoga.
The Yin/Yang concept
This concept or in fact image comes from the Chinese Taoist tradition. It explains reality in terms of "unity", the Tao (a deeply mysterious and difficult to pin down concept) dividing into two or the duality of Yin and Yang. Below I offer some opposites to get a feeling for what can be described as Yin and what, Yang.
We are using this concept primarily to help differentiate two modes or approaches to the practice of Yoga. It is worth pointing out the the Yoga tradition itself has a similar concept or image, that of Ha and Tha or Hatha. The psycho-physical technology the yoga tradition which we are studying here; of asana, pranayama and meditation techniques and methods is sometimes called Hatha Yoga, which refers to a Yoga disciple based in working with the body energy, prana, or chi or ki.
Yin and Yang are concepts always relative to each other, Yin exists in relation to Yang and cannot exist in itself. We can say they are mutually dependent. Hence we can understand them by looking at their opposing nature.
There are a couple of interesting threads to draw out of this Yin/Yang concept. Firstly, it represents a duality, but as you can see form the image a duality where each element includes the seed of the other. There is a black seed in the white swirl, a white seed in the black swirl. It suggests a duality that is not absolute. We cannot describe absolutes but need to refer to relative truths and descriptions of our reality or experience. We can only define the light with reference to shadow. This suggests a philosophical and metaphorical truth of a pluralistic and non-dogmatic nature.
And secondly, there is an implication, at least so far as the Yin/Yang symbol goes, that as we enter more profoundly one aspect of this duality we enter into its opposite. Yin leads into Yang, Yang leads into Yin.
We can see this very clearly in the Yin and Yang styles of yoga. A fluid, fiery, dynamic Yang yoga practice leads to a strengthening and toning of the body i.e. the Yin quality of density and stability. The passive Yin yoga approach leads to the softening and flexibility of the body, a Yang quality. Yin and Yang are always relative to each other.
Symbol of the Yin/Yang
Lunar - Solar
Tha - Ha
earth - sky
night - day
stability - flexibility
earth/water - fire/air
connective tissue - muscles
bone - connective tissue
receptive - dynamic
passive - active
letting go - holding on
listening - communicating
inward direction - outward direction
downwards - upwards
less elaborate - more elaborate
stillness - movement
forward folding postures - back bends
low - high
coolness - warmth
Winter - Summer
nurturing - giving
Wisdom - Compassion
How to do Yin Yoga
We adopt a particular pose - mostly floor poses - each pose offers a particular action and therefore texture and feel in the body.
Use the alignment of the body, positioning the limbs, joints, bones e.t.c. and the downward momentum of gravity as the primary force to create the desired action in the body.
Finding an appropriate edge - not too deep - never forced.
Use support where necessary to "bring the floor up" for example to support a floating knee or the head or sometimes to enhance the pose or allow for a more sustained period in the pose.
Let go - relax - use the minimal, if any muscular effort once established in the posture
Maintain "presence" of awareness through out. (see below for more details on working with our awareness in the practice)
Generally we are not actively working in the poses though some postures may require it either to protect the body e.g. the abdominal cradle of support to protect the vulnerable lumbar spine or to access a pose in a particular way e.g. legs gently active into the wall in the supported bridge pose to help open the rib-cage.
Generally we are following the path of least resistance in terms of alignment and positioning but it maybe appropriate to be more active as described above.
Yin yoga is a quiet practice i.e. useful to quieten the body, use when tired or low in energy or when one is in a quiet mood.
Longer periods in a pose allow the pose to work and penetrate the body more deeply, working closer to the bones and connective tissues.
How to be present in the Yin Yoga practice
In any yoga or meditation practice we are working in some way with the body experience, the body as a doorway to cultivating awareness. Of the 5 senses of taste, touch, smell, sight, and sound, we are focusing principally on the touch or tactile sense and sensations.
In a more spacious, quieter practice the "sixth" sense of mind and mind objects (citta & dharmas in Sanskrit) becomes more apparent and also workable; we become aware of the flow of thoughts, images, memories, plans, fantasies etc. We can begin to explore and get to know the way our mind moves, its habits and tendencies. In our practice, especially in a more Yin practice, we can follow one or all of the following approaches to cultivate our awareness.
I think of Yin Yoga or a quiet yoga practice as a time to explore and inhabit the realm of the sense experience and sense perception of the body. We can make a move a way from the conceptual mode of being, where we relate to our experience in an overly "heady" way into a more perceptual mode, where we experience the body more directly.
be aware of specific sensations around the area that the pose is working - this is a more focused awareness
be generally, globally aware, sweeping your attention around the body exploring the sensation landscape of your body
stay with the emotional tone of your experience with a spacious open awareness, be aware of reactions and responses to the pose and specific sensations in the pose.
become aware of the ebb and flow and movement of energy in and around the body
follow the breath rhythm
Benefits of the Yin practice
firstly we are developing our flexibility, in particular working the connective tissue of the body; ligaments, which join bone to bone, tendons, which encase then gather up the muscle fibers together and connect the muscle to the bone and fascia, which hold the internal organs in place, surround joints etc.
we are working the energy body comprised of nadis with prana flowing through as described in the yoga tradition or chi in the meridians or chi in the "sen" lines of Thai massage. Different postures affect different sets of energy lines.
the meditative mind can be cultivated, there is a deepening of awareness and stillness with the potential for a reflective process to take place.
Yin yoga is a quietening, calming practice and when one desires (or needs) a practice to calm down, relax and recuperate it serves us very well.
Exploring our limits - our edge
In yoga circles we sometimes talk about working with our edge. But the edge of what? I prefer to think of edge as more like a border area rather than an exact line of demarcation, it gives more room for playfulness. In working with our edges we look for a challenge, i.e. not so comfortable we just space out and feel very little, neither is it too deep that the body and mind harden, tense and close up. Be playful, play your edges.
We can talk about working the physical body. Here we are taxing or stressing the tissues of the body; the connective tissue and muscles and heart and lungs. In Yin Yoga we are focusing on working the connective tissues, in a more Dynamic practice we work more the muscle and cardio-vascular body. Working our edge will be applied differently depending on the type of exercise we do. The key is working intelligently and sensitively, with a gentle coaxing and training of our body to fulfill its potential range of movements, challenge ourselves and strengthen and tone the body and build stamina.
Edge in a meditative Yin Yoga practice
Here we encounter more directly our mind, our habits of mind, our psychology if you like. In the relatively spacious Yin practice and the stillness of sitting meditation the body can be left alone and we can come into contact and explore with more subtlety the mind and body-mind connective matrix.
We are likely to encounter emotion here, sometimes strong emotions of aversion, boredom, blissful sensation, sadness, contentment and so on. Bring your mind in, cultivate presence. Working with your edges intelligently will determine how long you spend in a given pose or meditation. We can explore gently our desire to move, get up. Explore the emotional landscape that is before you.
I will talk about this later in terms of the Hindrances in Meditation. In Yin Yoga we will be exposed much more to our emotions on account of the slow, spacious rhythm of the practice.
Soft and hard edge
We can speak of the point where we begin to challenge the body, the tissues, or heart/mind, a point of manageable stress, the soft edge and as we move deeper into a given movement or posture we can talk about the hard edge where we are definitely at our body/emotional limit. In order to create a sense of playfulness and openness and investigation, work nearer your softer edge with the odd venture towards your outer limitations.
Sequencing in Yin Yoga
Sequencing in Yin Yoga is really a question of where you want to go and what part of the body you want to work. It can also be said that the kind of postures you do will both reflect and affect the state of mind or mood you are in or want to be in. Forward folds are calming and quietening. Back bends more opening and stimulating. Twisting elicit a deepening sensitivity to sensations in the spine and the heart and chest areas.
There is an emphasis on opening and softening the connective tissue in the pelvic area in Yin Yoga postures. This area is considered a more Yin area, closer to the earth in relation to the upper body. It is interesting to point out that the more Yang based practice of Sun Salutation, Surya Namaskar, works and strengthens the shoulder and upper body area, considered more Yang relative to the pelvis.
Almost always it makes sense to design a relatively balanced practice, though you may wish to focus in a given session just on one set of poses or one part of the body. Apply sensitivity and intelligence to doing poses combined with counter-posing.
When first introducing Yin Yoga to newcomers you could do a Dynamic-Yin practice, blending the two approaches weaving Yin poses into a flow sequence. This can be a playful and rich practice format. With more experienced practitioners you may prefer separating out Yin Yoga followed by a more Yang form.
Yin postures make good postures to begin a session, allowing us to arrive into ourselves, the body and the heart. Also, they make good “wind-down” poses to finish a session, allowing muscles to lengthen passively and quietly and giving us time to balance our energies. So a Yin-Yang-Yin could be a satisfactory practice format.
The postures of Yin Yoga
Here is a list of some of the basic postures we can use in the Yin Yoga practice. This list is not exhaustive and please feel free to be creative and inventive with variations and new postures, bearing in mind the working principles of Yin Yoga, relax and let go!
Group 1 Inversions and reclining poses
legs-up-the-wall, viparita karani
supported bridge (feet into the wall)
reclining butterfly, supta baddhakonasana
reclining heroes pose, saddle, supta virasana
lying down with roll under upper back
star pose (savasana)
Group 2 Hip openers
Group 3 Back bends
supported bridge (blocks under sacrum)
saddle or half saddle
Group 4 Twists
simple sitting twist (from box)
shoe lace twist
lying twist (many variations)
forward lying twist (with support under torso)
half-dragonfly twist, parivrtta janu sirsasana
wide child twist
Group 5 Forward folds
simple lying on belly, poorvasana
wide leg child