Yin yoga was created and brought to the West by Paulie Zink, master of martial arts and long-time student of the Taoist system of yoga from China. (He studied under Chinese Taoist yoga and kung fu master Cho Chat Ling). The Taoist spiritual and movement-based yoga practices, which are both yin (cooling, calming, feminine) and yang (heating, invigorating, masculine), began to evolve when both yoga and Buddhism came to China around 1,700 years ago. Yoga fused with qigong’s energetic movements and martial arts forms, taking on a cultural life of its own. The full range of Taoist yin and yang yoga is rooted in the shamanic practices of the cave-dwelling healers of China, and it teaches the student to move in harmony with nature and become one with the Tao. The animals, the elements, and the seasons all become our teachers. Master Zink’s famous students Paul Grilley and Sarah Powers have popularized the basic Yin form (intended to be one part of a balanced, more comprehensive practice), and many students worldwide are benefiting from this slower, more meditative practice.
Most of the yoga we see in our studios and gyms is more yang in nature—strong, active asana passed down from Krishnamacharya’s lineage. But the slower, softer side of yoga can be very beneficial too. Balance, right? And some of us, more than others, need the deep, long stretches that a Yin class offers.
Rather than active, muscular stretching poses (think triangle pose, warrior III, or handstand), Yin practices are passive in nature and speak to the restriction and tightness of connective tissue (specifically fascia). When we have restriction in our bodies, our fascia becomes dehydrated, stiff, weak, and stuck. Along with hydration and other healthy lifestyle choices, yoga (especially slow yoga like Yin) can change our connective tissue. Most Yin poses are held for over three minutes, and the results are remarkable—particularly for those who consider themselves terminally stiff or feel like the Tinman on their yoga mats.
There are many reasons we might feel "inflexible": genetics or bone structure; athletic activity that tightens hamstrings or hardens the core (like bicycling, running, or weight lifting); adhesion (scar tissue) in the body from surgery, accidents, or trauma; or inactivity that creates the feeling of stiffness or being out of shape. Anyone who's feeling stiff for any of these reasons may benefit from long Yin-style stretching, accompanied by conscious breath. I’ve even used a very modified gentle, Yin-inspired practice with great success in orthopedics and rehab settings, as it helps prevent post-surgical adhesions from limiting mobility. However, it is usually the uber-flexible “Gumbies,” praised for their hypermobile hips and spines, who make it to Yin class—because most of us are attracted to the skills that come easily to us.
However, while Yin yoga can be extremely helpful to many (and perhaps most) individuals, it contains inherent challenges for Gumbies. Gumby will easily touch her head to the floor in “shoelace” pose, or languidly ease into full splits. The Yin stretches come to her too easily and can destabilize her pelvis and hips. Her focus needs to be on strengthening the spine and joints more than deep stretching. As a Gumby-type myself, who has sustained shoulder injuries from "too much of a good thing," I now see moderation as a wise friend. Staying at a 90-percent stretch rather than going to 110-percent in Yin poses is beneficial, and overall, doing more strengthening yang-type practice is what works best for me. On the other hand, "Tinman" needs more yin and less yang for the same reason.
However, while Yin yoga can be extremely helpful to many (and perhaps most) individuals, it contains inherent challenges for Gumbies.
This is what the larger idea of Taoist practice is all about: balance!
There is also another individual who can really benefit from this Yin practice. I'll call her “Hothead.” Especially in summer months, Hothead needs to get out of the Bikram class and set aside the daily ashtanga in favor of chilling out with some Yin. While her fiery temperament may not want to acknowledge her feisty mood swings, they are often accompanied by inflammation. Pain, itching, acid reflux, rashes, redness, or acne may be good signs that the cooling effects of a slower pace, deeper breath, and more patient activity (all hallmarks of Yin yoga) are in Hothead’s best interest.
The other fascinating component of Yin practice is how it relates to the concept of meridians in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), which can be understood as energetic channels that run primarily through the fascia. Yin, like acupuncture, focuses on these channels. When these channels are blocked, it's said that disease, pain, or dysfunction may arise, and that we need help seasonally to release blockage or sluggishness. This means addressing the liver in the spring—as the liver is the organ associated with wood in TCM, and spring is "wood season." Or the large intestines and lungs—organs associated with the element of metal—in the autumn, the season related to metal. Different stretches in Yin yoga are said to assist these lines of energy, or meridians, back to healthy function. Most Yin classes you will attend primarily address the lower body and the digestive and immune system meridians, though I love to also include passive upper body stretches for heart and lung meridians in my classes as well.
So who should practice Yin yoga? It depends. Time of year and degree of stiffness are factors to consider, but even Gumby can do a weekly Yin practice if she is moderate and balances with some strength practices. Her meridians will benefit from the smooth, focused, tension-free movements. Tinman may feel awkward at first with his three extra blankets and his knees very bent in the seated forward folds. But upon completion of a class, I hear it so often: “My stride feels broader, I carry myself better, I can breathe!” Hothead will find the practice challenging, because her tendency is to “go hard!” But the calm of slow stretch is obvious after even a one-hour class, and hopefully the health benefits of lower inflammation will bring her back for another helping.
And underlying all of these long, often uncomfortable stretches, is a lovely secret: Practicing Yin develops patience. Instead of wiggling out of a posture when it gets a little uncomfortable, we stay and breathe and observe. The patience we acquire through practicing Yin bleeds over into our meditation practices—and all aspects of our lives, if we let it.
Who needs Yin yoga? Maybe you. Even adding a Yin pose or two at the end of your daily regimen can refresh a stale practice.
Yin yoga: use as needed.