My experiences with Yin Yoga – From Yinginner to Yinster!
So at the beginning of this year in a hot yoga Shala in the Goan jungle, as the scorching sun of the day was just starting to set to the sounds of the serenading monkeys and birds all around us, I was introduced to Yin yoga: a form of yoga which left me somewhat out of my comfort zone in terms of a yoga practice, due to the utter stillness and prolonged sustaining of the poses that contrasted so profoundly with my own style of choice up until then, Vinyasa. But a style that has come to be one of my yoga practices of choice as I have learnt to embrace the teachings that it has to offer me over time about myself.
Whilst Vinyasa is fast paced, expressive, sweaty and leaves you feeling strong and energised; I’m quite literally bouncing off the walls after some Vinyasa sessions. Yin in contrast, requires you to take to the floor, pretty well all poses are performed sitting or lying; calm your body and mind; and to go inward, yielding and melting mentally and physically into a pose. Here gravity not your muscles are what pull you into the asana being practiced. Patience and acceptance are the order of the day!
The principals of Yin are simple:
1. Come into the pose to an appropriate depth (this is known as ‘The Goldilocks’ spot. Not too far, but just enough so as to feel that you’re working. Trust me! Time and gravity will do the rest for you and you’ll be surprised how much deeper in the pose you may end up)
2. Resolve to remain still (exercise mindfulness. Being present with your breath work helps you to come to an agreement with the conflicting voices on each shoulder that seem to define the settling into each new asana and the accompanying committing to stillness).
3. Hold the pose for time (by going into the pose cold and holding it for between 3-7 minutes we can start working with the yin like tissues in the body such as tendons, ligaments and fascia, over the more Yang like major muscle groups).
Physiologically Yin works along the same lines as acupuncture and acupressure, whereby applying pressure to certain internal organs through a sustained yoga pose we stimulate the associated meridian to that body part and in turn free up any energy blockages, aiding the flow of energy, or ‘Chi’ in our bodies.
Yin yoga has its routes in Taoism from China and Traditional Chinese medicine, unlike the more widely practiced Hatha yoga which stems from India; although, they share most of the same ideas just with different terminologies. It is also worth adding here that even though some of the same poses can be found in both Yin and Yang practices, Yin has its own set of names so as to imply the Yin focus and intention of the asana. All poses in Yin have English names, unlike Hatha where you will encounter the name in both Sanskrit and English.
Surrendering to a pose and staying still!
Yin works mainly with the bottom 6 meridians found in the lower body from the Naval down. The starting point of these meridians are in the feet, as opposed to the hands where the Yang associated meridians begin. As a yoga practitioner who embraces the surge of dynamic energy that one encounters in a well executed Warrior, Inversion or Arm balance, working so closely to the ground brought with it its own set of challenges when I first started Yin practice, many of which were more mental to physical.
‘How much longer until we change position?’ Your Yang voice on your shoulder asks. ‘What will be will be.’responds your Yin voice, safe in the knowledge that wherever you find yourself is a short and impermanent state that will change after no more than a few minutes. ‘This is uncomfortable and I want to fight it, to change it.’ Says your Yang voice. ‘Play your edges. Go deeper inside and see what you find. Don’t judge what you find, just confront it and accept it. Only then will you learn lessons from it.’ Says your Yin voice; whilst all the time urging you to release a little bit further into your hips/hamstrings/lower back.
And indeed many of the lessons that I’ve learnt from Yin have been emotional insights or personal realisations that I wouldn’t have confronted in my daily Yang practice. Yin is said to deal with the ‘issues in your tissues’ and it’s true that for many of us we will experience a deep emotional release as we spend long periods with our own thoughts, opening up the parts of the body where we typically stores our emotions such as in our hips. Here we are working with our parasympathetic nervous system, our ‘rest and digest’ response to slow everything down, calm us and bring us into a more meditative state.
As time has moved on I have learnt that in order to have a balanced Yang practice I must include an element of Yin within it. Like the small white dot within the black swirl of a Yin Yang, neither is complete without a part of the other. More dynamic practices such as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga are fundamental to keeping our muscles strong, our metabolisms fired up, our creativity ignited and to initiate the healthy flow of energy throughout our body. However, I now understand that incorporating an element of that white dot into my weekly or daily practice is what makes me stronger from the inside out and that my Yang practice is so much more conscientious as a result of it.
Lessons I’ve learnt from Yin yoga (or at least those which I’m happy to share!):
• That committing to stay still in a pose, and actually doing it! Can be as empowering as pulling off an advanced asana in terms of self-achievement.
• That the breath is the most powerful tool for calming the mind chatter that constantly fills our heads. Try to slow your breath to a cycle of 6 breath cycles per minute. Counting to 4 on an inhale, pausing, exhaling to 4, then pausing again.
• That especially as a mentally and physically active person, we all need time to slow down and reflect. And that not allowing yourself this time can bury physical and emotional problems to a depth whereby they could manifest in injury or mental unrest.
• It is possible for everyone to meditate. Mediation is not comfortable or easy, neither is Yin. Daring to face our discomfort head on and staying with it is part of the process. Never have I meditated more willingly and naturally as after a Yin yoga session.
• Letting go of the ego and accepting wherever you’re at on that day is crucial. Forget what the person next to you looks like and forget what you could or couldn’t do last week/month/year. Yoga is now; it is what’s happening in this present moment. It is the breath and the energy that is flowing to connect you to all that is around you and all that is within you.
• You are stronger than you think you are! You already have peace within you, and you will find a way to embrace it! Stick with the practice and one day very soon you will reap the benefits.
Yin has taught me mindfulness, patience and acceptance, which transcend into my day-to-day life. It has been a tool for me to deal with grief, anxiety, injury and stress. When life feels like it’s spinning at a hundred miles an hour around my head, Yin centres me and draws the universe in. Yin completes my Yang, as Yang completes my Yin. With both practices in my life I am more rounded and complete. Need more reasons to begin? Let’s dive in and embrace the Yin!