A flow class will get your juices flowing, a restorative class will bring you to a state of deep relaxation, and a yin class will make you ache. Fun, right? Yin and Yang are two parts of a beautiful whole but most of us are robbing ourselves of half of the gifts that yoga has to offer. I am a huge fan of Yin yoga and want to share it with as many students as I can, and even better, train more teachers to teach it. But I didn’t always love it. In fact, for a time, I really hated it.
Perhaps you’re indifferent, skeptical, or have convinced yourself that you don’t need or like Yin yoga. I hope that the seeds I plant here might get you to consider working Yin yoga into your regular practice for a month or two to see if you start to feel like you’ve tapped into something really big and incredibly healing. Maybe you’ll even decide to train to teach Yin yoga to others.
My Yin Yoga Journey
My first introduction to Yin was in what was supposed to be a restorative class with a beloved teacher in my early yoga days. We always ended with a long restorative pose or supported savasana, but the rest of the class was a pretty intense Yin practice, and that’s exactly the way I liked it. This practice, and this teacher, saw me through an auto-immune disease diagnosis, a cancer diagnosis, and treatment. After surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy for breast cancer, my body was wrecked. That’s the point, right? Chemotherapy lays to waste everything from the inside out. It’s a rough journey. An incredibly painful one. But it was worth it, because here I am, nine years later. I practiced yoga as I could during treatment, but the cumulative effect was harsh, and my physical recuperation took more than a year after treatment ended. During that time, I leaned into Yin yoga a lot. Naturally flexible, it had always been a go-to for me, and some days I just couldn’t muster the strength it took to take even a heavily modified flow class. I understood that my muscles weakened during treatment, so the many months it took to even attempt a modified chaturanga were not in the least bit frustrating.
I knew I had to rebuild strength, so I just kept at it as energy allowed. But I didn’t understand the effect of chemotherapy on my joints and connective tissue. No one talked about that. Not my doctors, not my yoga teacher, not my acupuncturist. It seems obvious now, but really, how much do we pay attention to the strength and vitality of our joint tissue? Injured athletes pay attention. Pregnant women pay attention, for a time. Those with RA and other joint-related chronic illness pay attention. The newer trends of functional mobility exercise pay attention now. But nine years ago? Not so much. So what happened to turn me from love to hate to love again in my yin yoga practice? During my cancer treatment recovery, I went way beyond the limits of my joints in deep, long-held pigeon poses, twists, folds, backbends, and hamstring stretches that were even more accessible to me with weakened, thinned joint tissue throughout my whole body. Most painfully, I damaged my SI joint and herniated a disc which sent ripples through my torso and legs and debilitated me just as I was starting to notice more strength overall. It was a physically painful and emotional setback that took months to recover from. Fast forward through three years of an increasingly strong vinyasa flow practice and I found myself in yoga teacher training. I couldn’t get enough yoga. The anatomy, the philosophy, the practice. It was a magical time. Until we got to Yin yoga week.
One of my teachers seemed surprised and shocked to see me raise my hand in the “hate Yin yoga” camp. I assume it was because I was naturally flexible and seemed to find the poses relatively easy, but I’m not sure. I never asked him why. I did give him my reasons, though: debilitating injury not completely healed and fear of making it worse. His answer to this shocked me. Yes, he said, these are injuries that you will have the rest of your life. What?! I have a defiantly independent feminist streak in me and although I didn’t say it out loud at the time all I could think was NO, I don’t accept that. This person is not going to tell me that I’m broken. Of course, we’re all broken in some ways, but that wasn’t the point. The point, at the time, was that I knew that there must be more resources out there and it was time for me to do some deeper healing. So I asked around to other yoga teachers and physical therapists and found ways to strengthen around the damaged, weakened connective tissue to find a better balance of strength. Those spots are still vulnerable, of course. But nothing like what they were, even at the height of my strength in athletic style yoga practice. With years of both Yin and Yang practice since that time, I have found ways to work with chronic illness and injury along with a desire and need for strength and athletic conditioning.
The Physical Practice
Yin yoga is a complementary practice to the more active and athletic Yang style yoga (Iyengar, Ashtanga, Power yoga, Vinyasa, Hatha). In Yang styles, we focus on contraction of muscles to stimulate, strengthen, and stretch. In Yin yoga, we focus on the dense connective tissues around and within muscles and joints to stretch and strengthen. Our objective in a Yin practice is to stimulate, strengthen and revive tissues that are less emphasized in the active styles of yoga. We move the body into a Yin yoga pose where we stay, passively, while feeling a moderate sensation. We relax and find relative stillness, holding the position for 3 to 10 minutes. We stimulate dense connective tissue (bones, cartilage, fascia, tendons, ligaments, blood, fat, lymph) to promote its strength and vitality and to hydrate and revive it.
Those knots in your neck and shoulders aren’t just muscle, but contracted fascia. Likewise with those “tight” and shortened hamstrings: you can try to lengthen the muscle all you want, but if the fascia is contracted and dehydrated, you will return to the same, shortened resting length over and over again. You get to choose how deeply you go into a yin yoga pose, just as you choose to use 50%, 80%, 100% of your strength and concentration in a power flow class. But in Yin yoga, we slow it way down and keep reminding ourselves to go for the moderate sensation, not beyond. Holding a 10 minute pigeon is no joke, and if you start way beyond your edge, you’ll injure yourself quickly. If you stick with the moderate ache, you will see over time that the range of mobility changes. And even after one class of moderate aching, you will feel freer, lighter, clearer energetically almost immediately.
Subtle Body Effects
If connective tissue is, as many energy workers suggest, the biological substratum through which energy flows and communicates within the body, a Yin yoga practice that focuses on the connective tissue promotes energetic circulation and flow. As yogis, we often experience emotional release in our practice. We understand through experience that with or without scientific research, our tissues hold unprocessed emotion. Movement in and out of poses in an active practice as well as long holds using compression, tension, and stretching in a still,
Yin yoga practice unlock pathways for our emotions to emerge and release. Consider also the mental aspect of your yoga practice. In an active practice, we are asked to concentrate and focus on our breath while tuning into physical sensation. We’re often reminded that yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind, and too often, that translates in practice to controlling the mind. In a Yin practice, we are asked to be receptive, to increase our capacity for receptivity, to allow for what is, and to cultivate inaction.
Isn’t Yin Yoga Worth A Try?
Fluidity in movement, better coordination, stronger joints, body awareness, less injury, emotional release, mental receptivity and clarity. Aren’t each of these benefits of Yin yoga worth an investment of your time? As my personal practice and teaching continues through the years, awareness of Yin and Yang imbalance has become my focus when deciding how to practice each day. Some days I need a strong sweat and strengthening, some days I need release and stillness, and some days I need both. I’m guessing you are the same, so I invite you to build Yin yoga practice into your regular weekly schedule and tap into this powerful other half of yoga.
By Jennifer Winther
Jennifer Winther. LA based Yoga Teacher Trainer. Retreat leader. PhD. Writer. Traveler. Camper. Hiker. Walker. Cyclist. Meditator. Breast cancer survivor. Motherless mother. Karateka. Libra. Art Lover. Creative dabbler. Bi-racial hapa. Scout leader. Community builder. Novice chef. Advocate. Ally. Community member YBIC. Badass ninja mom. @JenniferWintherYoga
NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body image.