Carliann Langley explores the wonderful healing powers of yin yoga, one of the ancient discipline’s more subtle forms
Although the name yin yoga is relatively modern, we can trace this style of practice back thousands of years to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Patanjalis Yoga Sutra.
You can be quiet and powerful. Before we delve into why we all need some regular yin time, let’s first look at what yin yoga is all about. It’s a slow, simple, mindful, practice of long held postures, which cultivate energetic balance, physical harmony and peace for the mind.
You may know the sutra ‘Chitta Vritti Nirodha’. Yin allows our body to settle better into meditation. The purpose of yoga is to enter into a meditative state from which realisation may arise; yoga is a psycho-spiritual practice aimed at ultimate liberation. It’s a science of building harmony and overcoming disharmony, so the mind can shine in its true nature of purity, warmth and peace. Yin yoga and meditation are the perfect partnership to enable us to progress on this path so we can cultivate balance of sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, mind and body, conscious and unconscious.
A brief history of yin
Although the name yin yoga is relatively modern, we can trace this style of practice back thousands of years to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Patanjalis Yoga Sutra. It has been around since the beginning of the physical practice of yoga. The guidance we are offered about asana is that they should be sthira and sukham: steady and comfortable. These are very much yin qualities, compared to the style of asana we see performed today in more dynamic yang style classes. When we are still and the mind undistracted, meditation can arise.
Whilst no one teacher can be given credit for inventing yin postures, Paul Grilley is a main pioneer. After bringing together his inspiration and teachings from Paulie Zink, Dr Garry Parker and Dr Hiroshi Motoyama, he then went on to enthuse his student Sarah Powers – and between the two of those wonderful, inspiring teachers the world started to understand and love the power of balancing life with a slower, more mindful yoga practice.
Yin yoga is the fundamental practice for slowly and gradually unravelling knots of tightness and tension from the body. Our yang (dynamic) yoga practices work our yang tissues (the muscles). Yin is the other half of the story, working our yin tissues, ligaments, joints and fascia. This naturally leads to an improvement of the mobility and flexibility of the body. While there are practices where we can strive and be pulled and twisted into pretzel shapes, in yin there are very little adjustments from the teacher, perhaps just some suggestions to enable you to feel more comfortable and safe – but the magic of yin is that your body unfolds with no forcing, rushing or striving. It’s an art, and through the cultivation of acceptance and surrendering, you will find that if you offer your body a little patience and kindness it will respond in a more positive way. It’s the same for life really: often the more we surrender the easier things flow.
Yin is a gentle, very accessible practice, but gentle doesn’t always mean easy. Yin can be a very challenging practice, but in a quiet powerful way. We often have this mind-set that we must be grunting, struggling, rushing our way through life; but there is actually great power in slowing down, especially when it comes to cortisol (the stress hormone). Yin taps into our parasympathetic nervous system (tend and befriend) which balances cortisol levels within our bodies – the healing power of slowing down is not to be underestimated.
Life is increasingly busy and our minds are often cluttered, overwhelmed and lacking in clarity and tranquillity. Yin offers an opportunity to create some space to slow down that constant flow of thoughts, that never ending current of ‘to do’ lists (you know they never end, don’t you?). It offers us space to cultivate mindfulness. Initially as we drop into a posture the mind may focus on the subtle or stronger sensations of the shape as the body melts into the posture. Then once we allow the physical body to settle, we practice awareness of the breath; the breath allows in a little less past and future and a little more ‘now’. It is the mind’s nature to wander, we just do our best, to practice keeping it still from moment to moment, breath to breath. With time, we cultivate some well needed space between our thoughts. This for me is where the real magic happens. Ultimately, it is a practice for the mind.
Every emotion we experience is held in the consciousness of our cells deep down. Although the initial emotional reaction of anger or upset may pass in hours, days or weeks, our cells still hold onto this long after the emotional reaction has passed. Ever wondered why you shed a few tears in your yin class (we’ve all been there!)? This is why we are creating space in our tissues – often referred to as the meridian tissues for our energy (prana/chi) – to flow a little better, and with this balance and flow of energy we release trapped emotions. Some of these have been embedded deep down for years, so the odd tears are a good sign in yin; it means you are mastering the art of letting go. Trapped emotions do not serve us well and I strongly believe that if they are not released this can manifest in disease.
We know stress is one of the most harmful toxins in our bodies, so with the guidance of an experienced teacher yin can be a safe place to cultivate a release of what is not serving you.
To soothe ourselves we often look outward, to external sources such as food, alcohol or television. These things may offer some temporary relief from our emotions, but it is superficial. For a deeper, long lasting soothing, it is necessary to look inward.
Whilst it is not a necessity to have a formal specialist yin qualification to teach, yin is certainly not a slow Hatha class. There are key fundamentals that make it such a unique way to practice. We should try not to take yang mind-sets or teachings into our yin class. For the student’s experience, and progression in both body and mind, seeking out a yin trained teacher is important. The gifts of yin potentially may take months or years rather than days or a week to reveal themselves. But the validity of the experience is not something you can read or intellectualise, it has to be experienced and embodied in mind, body and soul.
Theories of practice
Long held postures: The ‘yin tissues’ do not respond in the same way the ‘yang tissues’ do, therefore a different way to train them is needed. While muscles require movement and repetition to gain in strength, the yin tissues are less elastic in their nature; they are more plastic, therefore require gentle, long-held postures applying a safe amount of stress to keep them healthy.
Stillness & softening: We cultivate stillness to allow our bodies and minds to calm and settle. The stillness in yin isn’t feeling like you are frozen and can’t move, it’s a feeling of being comfortable and at ease with the present moment.
Let go of perfection: In yin we honour when our body is at its edge. We apply manageable stress to the body, and then patiently wait; it’s finding that sweet balance between feeling a deep, subtle intense challenge, but being able to remain calm, settled and quiet. Yin should never be painful, but switching off that striving yang nature can be very challenging for many students. It takes time and practice to cultivate a nature of surrender. Keep reminding yourself it’s never about how the shape looks it’s about how it feels for you as the individual.
Carliann Langley is a yoga and meditation teacher based in Liverpool (peaceloveyogauk.com) | Om Yoga