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My Sunday afternoon yin & meditation class gets busier every week, and it seems it’s not just in London... Yin yoga teacher Jo Phee thinks it’s probably only in the past five years that yin yoga has gained popularity around the world. “A lot of people feel that they need to balance the busy lifestyle, which is very yang, with the yin half, which is slowing down with meditation and yoga,” says Jo.
Often referred to as yoga for the joints, Yin Yoga can also be described as a LIFE CHANGER for those with tight hips and hamstrings. Not just for the physical benefits (increased mobility and flexibility to name a couple), but working past the mental frustration of why your body just. does. not. move the way you want it to.
The term yin yoga comes from the ancient Taoist Chinese tradition of yin and yang. Yang relates to rhythm and repetition, creating heat in the body. Yin is passive, cooling the body through prolonged stillness. Seemingly opposite forces – yet interconnected.
People often confuse yin with a restorative form of yoga. And no, you won’t break a sweat, but those who have done a class can testify that it can be one of the most challenging styles of yoga. It will take you out of your comfort zone – triggering flight or fight responses. Yin Yoga teacher Bernie Clark says, “Yin yoga is not meant to be comfortable; it will take you well outside your comfort zone. Much of the benefit of the practice will come from staying in this zone of discomfort, despite the mind’s urgent pleas to leave.” In fact, some teachers don’t recommend yin for yoga beginners, so if this is you, just let the teacher know so they can help you modify your practice if needed.
Providing a counterbalance to the fast pace of modern living, each pose in Yin is held for several minutes, usually between 2 and 5. This is a lot longer than most types of active yang-like yoga, where poses are usually only held for a few breaths. The yin yoga theory is that by relaxing into the posture over a prolonged period of time, you gain deeper access to the body, therefore unlocking greater mobility in the joints by softening the muscles and moving closer to the bone.
For me, and many others that have wondered why, after all these years of dedicated practice we still can’t realise that elusive pose; Paul Grilley, whose form of Yin Yoga is what we know today, says that these restrictions we feel in our body is down to “your joint being in a state of either compression or tension”. He says, “making a distinction between these states is going to help you understand and value your body in new way.”
Gaining understanding of Yin yoga requires a short anatomy lesson at this point. And let’s caveat here by saying that nothing with the body and anatomy is simple! But for the purpose of this context, compression in yoga is defined as bone on bone compression – so where bone is hitting bone. Tension, is muscle resistance or contraction – which as we stretch effectively; we can work towards lengthening the muscle fibres, alleviating this tension. Through yin yoga, you will explore your body’s capabilities in a completely different light to a more dynamic practice. Feeling the distinction between compression and tension, and learning which parts need to be worked with yin deeper exercises, and which respond to more ‘yang’ active exercise.
Paul suggests visualising the difference between yin and yang movements, in the same way you look to affect change on the teeth. If you want to straighten crooked teeth, you wouldn’t use ‘yang’ movements such as wiggling and hammering as this would result in them falling out. Whereas gentle tension held for long periods of time (yin movements) will slowly move them in the direction you want, just like braces do. Paul urges you to think of the parts of your body in the same way – that some require ‘yang’ ways of exercising, whereas other parts respond better to ‘yin’ stressors.
In Yin, by cultivating a sensation of patience and surrender, we allow the connective tissues to slowly and gently unwind. It’s a passive way of releasing tension. You get really deep down into the connective tissue such as ligaments and even the bone. What you’ll find, is even if you are an experienced yogi, you’ll be working on joints of the body that are not exercised in a more active ‘yang’ style of yoga such as Vinyasa Flow or Ashtanga.
Yin and Yang can only ever co-exist, and you only have to look at the well-known black and white symbol to remind yourself of this. Yin yoga is a not only a great complement to your other styles of yoga, but your everyday life too! Learning to find comfort in the uncomfortable is a lesson we could all use.