Yin Yoga has become a staple at many studios. If you haven’t tried a yin class yet, you might simply be wondering what it’s all about. Or maybe you have dropped into a class or two, and have even more questions about this style of yoga!
Compared with more familiar “yang” practices (i.e., more active practices such as hatha, flow, and power-style classes, which typically focus on dynamic movement of both breath and body), yin classes have a much slower pace.
Yin postures are primarily passive in nature and held anywhere from one minute to well over five minutes in order to target the body’s connective tissues, rather than muscle groups. Sounds relatively effortless, right? Maybe not. Holding yin postures does often require a degree of physical effort, but it’s the mental work of long holds that is often the real challenge.
If you’re interested in beginning or deepening your yin practice but want to know more, I hope the answers to some frequently asked questions about Yin Yoga provided below will help you navigate your way toward your goals.
What are the general benefits of Yin Yoga? From a physical standpoint, yin postures are all about release. Postures and breathwork typically focus on manipulating the fascia—the deep connective tissues that fit like a sleeve around muscle groups and individual muscles.
Connective tissues such as tendons (which connect muscles to bones and help with skeletal movement) and ligaments (which connect bones to each other and help with overall stability), are also a focus of Yin Yoga. Since these tissues work hard to support and stabilize muscles and joints, they inherently resist changes from dynamic physical exertion. However, connective tissues lose elasticity if they are underused (which can happen if you have a mostly sedentary lifestyle) or as a natural byproduct of aging. This can present physically as stiffness, achy joints, or limited joint mobility.
By slowly loading various types of connective tissues with weight and maintaining long static holds, Yin Yoga aims to train muscular fascia to become more flexible and ligaments that support joints to become stronger. This creates space for our muscles to lengthen more in yang practices and our joints to safely enjoy an increased range of mobility during our daily movements.
And a regular yin practice might make it physically easier for us to sit comfortably for long periods of time—all the better for meditation!
What should I think about while I hold a pose? It’s true that during a yin practice you may find yourself with a bit more “mental time” to manage than in, say, a “one-breath-one-movement” vinyasa class.
Deciding how to handle your mind during this time is part of the effort that goes into a yin session. Using this time to allow yourself to be with your thoughts and emotions can allow you to better connect with and understand your Self, a fundamental component of a full yoga practice.
If you regularly meditate or want to begin a meditation practice, Yin Yoga may be an ideal opportunity to do just that. Holding a pose presents one of the few opportunities many of us have to simply just “be”—not forced to think about anything, do anything, or even move. Take advantage of that! Or become present to the various sensations and feelings that arise over the many minutes you hold a posture.
For example, you might notice areas of your body that feel stagnant or tight, or that feel spacious and open. Are there patterns in your daily movements that contribute to this? As time passes while you hold a particular posture, you may begin to notice that areas that felt “sticky” or “stuck” in the beginning have softened. This may be a very gradual experience that becomes more noticeable with a consistent yin practice.
You might also notice any mental discomfort or comfort you have with the yin practice. Is there a reason behind the discomfort or comfort that you can identify?
Or maybe you have a personal or professional goal that you have been working toward. Holding a yin posture may be a good time to singularly focus your mental energy on your goal, away from the distractions that bombard you throughout the day.
Should I keep my eyes closed? If you are new to yin, closing your eyes may allow you to settle more deeply into your body and mind. Since there is more stillness in a yin class than in a yang class, both external and internal distractions are definitely more prone to arise.
Closing your eyes can help eliminate visual distractions that lead to monkey-mind chatter (“Why does my neighbor look more relaxed than me?” “Where’s the mat spray?” “What’s the teacher going to be doing while we’re all just sitting here for five minutes?”).
However, if keeping your eyes open for the duration of the practice allows you to feel more mentally, emotionally, or physically comfortable, then certainly feel free to do so.
Does alignment matter? The concept of alignment in Yin Yoga is different from the concept of alignment in yang yoga.
In yang yoga, alignment serves to keep you from overstretching, to direct strengthening and lengthening to specific areas of the body, and to avoid straining the ligaments of the joints. In a faster-paced yang class, addressing these concerns helps to avoid stressing or injuring the body.
Since Yin Yoga relies on gravity to support postures and targets some of the areas that yang alignment rules hope to protect (such as your ligaments), the rules are somewhat different.
For example, you may be instructed to relax your upper body completely, allowing the spine to round, in postures that you’re accustomed to maintaining a long spine in while hinging from the hips, like forward folds (say, baddha konasana, “bound angle pose”).
Additionally, some familiar postures are referred to by different names. Baddha konasana, for example, is called “butterfly” in yin. This distinction aims to prevent muscular engagement preconceptions that students may bring with them from their yang practice.
Also, Yin Yoga emphasizes that every practitioner comes with their own history of injuries, trauma, skeletal composition, and joint insertion, and that these factors strongly influence how the practitioner accesses a posture. “Correct” alignment is therefore likely to vary by practitioner. If you feel sensation (not pain!) in the area being targeted, that’s an indication that your alignment in the posture is probably correct for your body.
Revisiting our baddha konasana/butterfly example, bone structure and muscular flexibility often dictate how much mobility an individual has in this posture. Depending on the shape of your femoral head and how it sits in its hip socket, external rotation may be more or less challenging for you. Rather than worrying about how close your knees are to the floor, or how close your heels are to your groin, notice the sensations that you feel along the adductors in the inner thighs and in the outer glutes. If it feels like a nice stretch, you’re probably in the right place for your body.
Additionally, if you have tighter hamstrings and want to target the connective tissue along the backs of your legs, practicing butterfly with your heels farther away from your groin may be more beneficial for your needs than for someone who would rather target the adductors (and thus would bring the heels closer to their body).
So when I feel discomfort, is that progress? Or should I be worried? If you’ve ever worked with the idea of “finding your edge” in your yoga practice, you’ll become quite intimate with the concept during a yin session.
Knowing that you have a longer period of time to find your fullest expression of a pose, there’s no reason to rush through your “edges.” When you reach your first edge, you can hang out there and explore the sensations you’re feeling and the thoughts you’re having, similarly to how you might in a mindfulness practice.
If you are feeling a strong stretching sensation across the span of the area that the pose is targeting (your side body in bananasana, “banana pose,” for example), but your breath is easy, you are probably in a place of “comfortable discomfort.” This is a good place to be as you move through your edges (and in yin classes, you may experience and move through several edges in a posture as you settle deeper and deeper into it); a good mental practice is to sit with any thoughts or sensations that arise in the stillness.
Discomfort that presents as sharp pain in concentrated areas or causes uneven, strained breathing should alert you to ease back.
Certainly, you should inform your instructor of any injuries you may have. A well-versed yin teacher should be able to offer an alternate posture or suggest prop placement that safely allows you to target the stretch and release you’re aiming for. Props are commonly used in yin classes to ensure that everyone is able to access postures in the most beneficial way.
In a world that is increasingly more go-go-go (i.e., more yang), yin classes can provide much-needed balance and the respite of stillness that many practitioners look for in yoga. Try more than one class if you are just starting out. The difference from yang-style yoga can be an adjustment, and it might take a couple of sessions before you notice how yin serves you. And you just may find that the ancient Taoists were right after all—that the forces of yin and yang are perfect complements.
(For more on yin, see The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga: The Philosophy & Practice of Yin Yoga, by Bernie Clark.)