Despite the slow pace of Yin yoga, it is increasingly featuring on studio schedules everywhere. It might be less enticing than your vigorous, sweat-inducing flow, but once you spend more time in the passive, static stretches of Yin you’ll reap the surprising rewards of slowing things down, turning inward and moving deeper.
PRAVAYAMA talks to Yin experts Melanie McLaughlin, founder of The Yin Space and Duncan Peak, founder of Power Living to understand why Yin has become a huge movement in the world of yoga. Here, Melanie and Duncan explain the physical and meditative benefits and make a strong case for scheduling in some Yin.
If a dynamic, sweaty class is your practice of habit, you might be missing out. Melanie says to not see Yin as equally important to more energetic (Yang) styles of yoga is overlooking some amazing aspects of ourselves and our body. “Yin has a very different attitude and approach to a Yang practice, giving us an opportunity to experience ourselves slower, gentler, more mindful, meditative, introspective and patient.
“We are such a fast-forward moving society based on overworking, overachieving and overwhelm, constantly in our sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system. For the majority, it’s a welcome relief to drop into ‘rest and digest’, our para-sympathetic nervous system, to remember how good and necessary it is, and how missing this side of ourselves has been.”
Duncan adds that dynamic styles have amazing benefits that are essential in many ways, but they must also be complemented by a gentle physical practice. “[Yang] styles of yoga focus on the general wellbeing of contractile elements in the body, like muscles and tendons. It builds strength and endurance and bone density. Gentler styles such as Yin focus on non-contractile elements such as fascia, ligaments and joint capsules.”
Fascia describes the membrane of connective tissue (a continuous network) that weaves throughout the entire body wrapping around organs and muscles, enclosing and stabilising them. It is made up of tightly packed bundles of collagen fibres that provide firmness and support, but due to this very nature it can become tight and make us feel stiff.
In a Yin class, we disengage muscles in a target area of the body with the aim of “releasing the fascia” in the target area. Melanie explains that when fascia is gently stimulated in a long hold pose (usually 3-5 minutes), it responds by building itself stronger and more elastic and hydrated; it becomes more lubricated by way of greater production of hyaluronic acid (that coveted skincare ingredient designed to plump up our skin).
While the emphasis is on the fascia, the posture also benefits other connective tissue in the target area such as ligaments (bone to bone) and joint capsules (encloses joint cavity and its synovial fluid).
Duncan says that over time and with awareness, sensations shift in the body. “You can actually feel the change from the contractile tissue stretching, to feeling it relax, and the tension being taken up by the fascia, ligaments and joint capsules.”
The process of releasing slowly and gently into the joint area allows the joint more freedom to move to a fuller potential, subsequently stimulating blood flow, and increasing synovial fluid production and lymph activity (important for detoxifying).
The benefits of settling into long hold Yin postures is similar to those of acupuncture. Both Yin yoga and acupuncture target intersections of meridians to stimulate and restore prana (energy, life force), or in Traditional Chinese Medicine, to restore qi.
Recent research by Dr Daniel Keown (Western and Chinese Medicine doctor) has been lauded for its attempt to demystify fascia. Keown’s research explains the intrinsic relationship between fascia and prana/qi, meaning the health of this network of connective tissue is as integral to our wellbeing as our skeletal system, muscles and organs.
For some, the challenge of a Yin class is greater than the challenge of a dynamic flow. When the Yang discipline of hugging into strength and stability, engaging bandas or using the Ujjayi breath is stripped away, there is little to do but surrender to the pose and allow a slight state of vulnerability. Easier said than done.
The depth and stillness of the pose can amplify negative and limiting thoughts, and we might contract and resist the depth of the pose as we experience some physical discomfort. But Melanie says tuning in and trusting the intelligence of the body is key, “Am I in good pain or bad pain? What feels right? What shape do I need to make to feel into the target area, even if it’s different from my neighbour?
“When we practice Yin it’s a time to be introspective and develop mind skills for dealing with focus and discomfort and really having a compassionate understanding of our bodies. It’s beautiful mind training and self-love to sit with what’s uncomfortable and stay anyway, without distraction, judgment or self-criticism.”
Tips from the Experts
Props are your best friends in a passive long hold. Use them to ease into the pose and remove them if the body allows greater depth
Tight bodies might benefit from a little Yang or warm up before heading to the cooler Yin to experience more ease and depth
Yin is not the go-to for injuries. Despite the greater flow of qi that can assist with healing, an injury needs to be settled enough so the repair bonds don’t break under the pressure of a pose. Go and see your teacher for a one-on-one assessment
The Yin ‘hangover’ is real so get drinking plenty of water. The toxins that are released will circulate the body and need to be flushed out, otherwise the fascia will dry out and contract and the body will get tight again