I am a yin yoga devotee; I love teaching and practicing yin’s mostly seated poses, which are held in stillness for long periods of time. Given that the popularity of yin yoga has grown in the past few years, it seems that many people now share that sentiment. Most studios now offer yin yoga, and many students have tried a class or two.
Perhaps this rapid increase in popularity, without time for education, is responsible for the confusion that surrounds the practice. And it’s not just with students new to this style of yoga. Lately I’ve seen some iterations in the yin world that gave me pause, making me feel that somewhere along the way the foundational principles of yin have gotten lost—namely that it is a quiet practice usually intended to improve fascial health.
Now don’t get me wrong—one of the things I love about yin is the lack of absolutes. As my favorite yin yoga teacher, Bernie Clark, likes to say, “Never is never right and always is always wrong.” There is no one best way to practice yin. There is no one best time to practice yin. There is no one best person for whom yin is suited. However, I feel that there does need to be a conscious intention behind the decision to practice yin; for example, it could be to optimize the health of your fascia or to unwind after a long day or to cultivate a meditative focus. Having such a specific goal can better inform one’s choices about when and how to practice yin, more so than a search for the familiar sensation of stretching muscles.
With that in mind, here are five things I’ve seen in the realm of yin offerings that have made me scratch my head in confusion as I tried to tease out a connection to the yin practice that I was taught and that I espouse.
1. Heated yin
Yin practiced in a warm room free from drafts? Absolutely. But yin practiced in a hot yoga studio? Let’s look at that. As a reminder, one goal of yin yoga is to target the deeper tissues—the connective tissue, joint capsules, ligaments, and tendons. Bernie Clark explains here that one reason we don’t always get to this layer is that the muscles take in any positive stress placed on the tissues by way of a stretch, particularly when the muscles are warm—they can just keep absorbing the stretch, with little pressure reaching into the layers beneath.
So don’t fool yourself into thinking that just because the warmth in the room allows you to go deeper into the pose that your deeper tissues are receiving any benefit—that feel-good stretching sensation is probably just your muscles talking. That’s the feedback we’re used to listening to because we’ve been doing it for years. But if your intention is to work on increasing your flexibility by targeting the connective tissue—a worthy goal because it complements strengthening and stretching practices and improves overall joint health— then yin in a hot room is not the way to achieve that aim.
2. Yin offered/practiced only at night
Yin at night can be absolutely delicious. Those long holds, the focus on the stillness of the mind, body, and breath—what a great way to wind down after a busy day and prepare for sleep. Absolutely, when my intention is to calm my mind, yin at night is a great way to go. But if my intention is to target limitations in my flexibility caused by restrictions in my connective tissue, then nighttime isn’t the most effective time to practice. That’s because after a full day of to-ing and fro-ing, the muscles are usually quite warm—which means they’ll be more able to absorb the stress placed on them, with little transfer of that stress to the deeper tissue.
This is why I am often frustrated to see studios offer yin only at night. Yes, they are probably responding to students’ requests. But success in your connective tissue work will be limited at that time of day. On the other hand, the morning is a wonderful time to target the deeper tissues because the muscles have not yet warmed up. So mixing it up is good! Practice sometimes in the morning, sometimes at night—just know why you are doing so.
3. Yin before or after a strenuous workout
Yin before some more active “yang” movement is lovely. It allows the yin stretch, compression, and “tenderizing” to travel to the deeper tissues before the muscles have warmed up through the yang movement. However, I would be concerned if someone did a full yin practice and then went on to play strenuous sports, or run a half marathon, or something of comparable intensity. That’s because yin places positive stress on the joints, ligaments, tendons, and fascia. And while the intention is to create stronger, more functional tissues, it may be a good idea to let them recover (for hours rather than minutes) before asking them to quickly snap to attention with the sprints required in a soccer game or the jumps required in a basketball game.
Here’s an analogy I like to use in my yin classes when guiding students out of a yin pose: Imagine that the connective tissue is cookie dough. Through the yin process, we have transformed it into something stronger, just like the baking process turns dough into cookies. However, when you first take cookies out of the oven, they are fragile and prone to crumbling if you immediately try to remove them from the cookie sheet. But if you give them a few minutes to set, they can withstand that stress just fine and hold together when removed (and transferred straight into my mouth). In the same way, immediately after a yin pose the deep tissues may be slightly vulnerable. We rest in transition for a few breaths—in the pose after the pose—to allow the tissues to rebound.
Deep tissues take longer to “bounce back” than do muscles! But after allowing them this time to “set,” and after consistent and sustained practice, they will probably be stronger and more flexible. Still, it’s generally not a good idea to schedule your yin practice right before that big hockey game!
And while yin immediately following a strenuous workout may feel yummy, those warm muscles will just absorb all the stretch. There’s nothing wrong with that, but just know that yin practiced then will benefit your muscles and mind more than your connective tissue.
4. Yin taught by those with no specific yin training
I’ve noticed a trend lately of yin yoga being offered by new YTT grads with no yin training and even by fitness instructors who have no yoga training at all! The rationale seems to be that because yin is slow, it is a good class for new teachers to teach because they’ll have time to regroup between poses. While I firmly believe that learning can take place in a variety of ways, I would be wary of classes taught by someone with no yin experience other than having taken a handful of yin classes themselves.
Generally speaking, the majority of 200-hour teacher trainings do not even mention yin, as their focus is on teaching a more yang-style class. Yin is not just a slowed down yang class. So why would it be a good idea for a teacher who has only trained in vinyasa to begin their yoga career by teaching yin? To me, it would be like offering a job teaching history to someone who had just earned their geography degree—sure, it’s a degree, but it’s in a different subject entirely. Of course, I fully support new 200- or 500-hour grads teaching yin as long as they have taken the time to study it.
5. Aggressive yin
I think yin is a challenge for a lot of competitive, type-A personalities. They are so accustomed to working hard and pushing themselves to the limit that they may not know how to appreciate what is being offered to the body and its deeper tissues during a yin practice. When I see students aggressively flexing their joints and muscles in order to force a pose, I remind them that when teachers say to find your “edge” in a yin pose, we are talking about finding a sensation of stretch, rather than pain—and that it does not have to be, and probably should not be, the most intense stretch ever experienced.
For this same reason I am wary of using straps in yin to force the body to deepen into a pose by yanking or pulling past the “yin edge.” I also like to remind students to relax their joints—after all, a contracted muscle can’t release so as to allow the stimulus to permeate to the tissues beneath—and to let gravity assist in the pose. I like to think of yin as exploring with a magnifying glass rather than busting down a door with a battering ram.
The big picture?
Yin is a lovely practice and can be done at so many different times and places. I suggest maintaining awareness of the intention for the practice, not always giving those muscles what they “think” they want, and structuring a varied yin practice so that quietude can ultimately benefit mind, body, and breath.