What is ‘Yin’ yoga?
The term ‘Yin’ itself is 3000 years old, and is often referred to in conjunction with its partner term ‘Yang’. Yin can be translated as ‘shady’ and described as ‘cooler, slower, inner’, whereas yang can be translated as ‘sunny’ and described as ‘warmer, quicker, outer’.1 In essence, yin and yang are about balance.
Yin yoga can be described in basic terms as a practice which involves staying in poses for up to several minutes. Staying in asana’s for a long time has been described and taught by various teachers over the years including Krishnamacharya and Iyengar. The practice now widely known as Yin yoga originated from a blend of yoga, qigong, and Daoism practised by Paulie Zink, which was learnt by Paul Grilley in the 1980s, who then incorporated what he called ‘Daoist yoga’ into his own teaching. This form of yoga was then taught by one of Paul’s students Sarah Powers, an Ashtanga practitioner looking for a softer practice, and she called this practice Yin yoga. In 2003, the first weekly timetabled Yin yoga class began in London taught by Norman Blair, and by 2016 there were about 100 classes London, with many others across the UK.1 So why the rising popularity of this Yin yoga?
Yin yoga’s rising popularity
‘Modern life is rubbish’ is the title of the 1993 Blur album, and is a phrase that occasionally pops into my head when juggling the demands and stresses of modern life. It can be argued that we spend much of our time in a yang state, out of balance with yin – constantly ‘doing’ and striving rather than ‘being’ and accepting. If our ‘down-time’ involves watching TV, engaging in social media, or surfing the Internet, we may not give our minds time or space to switch off from chatter and truly relax.
In addition to the demands of our own busy lives, the environment and external events around us can make us fearful and anxious. Stress and anxiety activate the sympathetic nervous system, the fight or flight response of the autonomic nervous system. Repeated activation of the stress response over time contributes to high blood pressure, clogged arteries, and brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction. Chronic stress may also contribute to obesity by causing people to eat more, and by decreasing sleep and exercise.2 Modern Western lifestyles are often sedentary, and involve sitting in restricted postures for long periods of time when working and relaxing. Poor posture can result in stiffness, poor breathing and fatigue, amongst other problems.3
Many people have explored yoga to help address some of the issues of modern life. Whilst having many benefits of their own, some styles of yoga such as Ashtanga and vinyasa can be described as yang because of the physical effort required for the practice. Yin yoga, which is about calming and surrendering, may offer us a balancing practice and antidote to the stresses of modern life. When practising Yin yoga we can help balance the yin and yang partnership of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system allows us to rest, digest and calm the body down.2 During practice, we can become still long enough to be aware of our breath, an important part of practice; deeper breaths stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.2,4 Physically, although some muscular engagement is required in parts of the body, Yin yoga involves relaxing muscles and staying in postures for long periods of time. Therefore, connective tissue is gently stretched, helping to relieve muscle stiffness and tension.5 Mentally, we can observe how our bodies feel during a Yin yoga posture, helping us to be fully aware and present in the moment.1 This mental focus help us switch off the chatter in our minds. The body and mind are connected, and Yin yoga offers us a practice which can be beneficial to both. The comments below from two students in my Yin yoga class indicate they have felt benefits in body and mind.
“Since starting Yin yoga I have noticed a definite improvement in my flexibility and a reduction in my lower back and hip pain. Before starting Yin I had not realised how little I stretch and how little I relax. Being able to relax into the stretch, feel a greater benefit and see the improvement in flexibility over the short time of 3-4 sessions gives me the enthusiasm to keep going. I didn’t think I’d like it this much!”
“I enjoyed my experience of Yin yoga as a break from day to day life. The very meditative stretches gave me a deep sense of calm and relaxation as well as helping with muscle tension.”
I believe that these benefits have contributed towards the rising popularity of Yin yoga. Yin and yang represent balance, and balance has an important role to play not only in yoga, but in life.