Yin yoga is the gooey-gooey type of yoga that your tight "everything" needs. Cucumber versus chillies is my favourite analogy. One cools; the other heats.
"Yang" yoga is the initial drawcard for many new to the yoga world. Styles like vinyasa, power and Ashtanga are vigorous, fast-paced classes that turn up the heat, make you sweat and leave you feeling like you've run 10 kilometres. On the other hand, yin, yes, can make you feel blissed out. It can also challenge you mentally.
While “yang” yoga focuses on your muscles, yin yoga incorporates principles of traditional Chinese medicine with asanas (postures) to target your deep connective tissues, like your fascia, ligaments, joints, and bones. It’s slower and more meditative, giving you space to turn inward, teaching you how to breathe through discomfort, and tune into both your mind and the physical sensations of your body. The sound of the sea, the breeze in your hair and the warmth of the sun on your toes are just a few of those sensations you can experience during our Activ Life yoga classes at Sunset House (pictured). You can view our class schedule here.
For beginners, yin poses can be held from 45 seconds to two minutes; more advanced practitioners may stay in one asana for five minutes or more. The sequences of postures are meant to stimulate the channels of the subtle body known as meridians in Chinese medicine and as nadis in Hatha yoga.
Need more convincing? Here are just a few of the many benefits yin may bring to your life.
1. Lengthens connective tissue
Think of your fascia like shrink wrap around your muscles and bones. When this connective tissue is underused, it becomes less elastic which can lead to aches and stiffness. A yin pose gently stretches connective tissue allowing the body to respond by making it a little longer and stronger.
2. Increases flexibility
Elastic fascia and mobile joints lead to better flexibility, which is one of the key benefits to a regular yin yoga practice. Because fascia needs at least two minutes of sustained stretching to actually affect its elasticity, yin is one of the most effective ways at improving your flexibility and releasing tension in tight spots thanks to its long holds.
3. Boosts your circulation
By breathing into each pose and targeting your deeper tissues and ligaments, you bring more oxygen into your body and to your muscles. This helps increase your blood flow and circulation.
4. Reduces stress levels
That calm you feel after a yin class is very real. Studies have found yin yoga to have a significant impact on lowering stress and anxiety and reducing the risk of depression.
Because yin yoga is practiced in a non-heated room, it’s easy to do anywhere, anytime. The key is holding each pose for an extended length of time, typically for two to five minutes (or even longer!). As for the poses themselves, many yin yoga postures are seated or reclined poses, since they require your muscles to be fully relaxed. Think: Butterfly Pose, Seated Forward Fold, and Frog Pose.
Butterfly: From a seated position, draw the soles of your feet together and slide them away from you, creating some space between your pelvis and heels. Gently fold forward, allowing your spine to softly round and your head to drop toward your feet. You can rest your elbows on the floor with your head in your hands, or place a cushion on your feet to rest your head on. If folding forward is challenging, sit on a folded blanket. Hold for 3–5 minutes. This pose targets your inner thighs, outer hips, and spine.
Sphinx: Lie on your stomach, and place your elbows under your shoulders. Let your weight rest into your forearms. Allow your lower back to relax, softening your abdomen and thighs. You’re looking for mild compression in your lower back. If you don’t feel this subtle stress, try pressing your palms down and straightening your elbows to increase your spine’s extension. Hold for 4–5 minutes. This pose targets your lower back.
Supine Twist: Lying on your back, draw both knees into your chest. Open your arms to the side like wings and drop the knees to one side. Adjust the body so hips are stacked directly on top of each other, and then soften into your anatomy rather than forcing the twist deeper. Hold for three minutes on both sides. Rest in between each side, flat on your back.
Wide-kneed Child's Pose: Open a blanket wide to pad your knees. Then, from tabletop (with your hands under your shoulders and knees under your hips), take your knees wide with the intention of gently stressing your inner legs. Move your hips toward your heels, and either place your arms overhead or rest them along the sides of your body. Hold for 3–4 minutes.
Inside Dragon (or Lizard Pose): From tabletop, step your right foot to the outside of your right hand. With your right knee more or less above your right heel, slide your left leg back (taking care to pad your back knee with a blanket) and allow your hips to sink down. You can place your hands on blocks, keep your hands on the floor, or consider lowering your forearms to the floor. This pose targets your hip flexors (back legs), adductors, hamstrings (front legs) and outer hip (front legs).
Caterpillar (or Paschimottanasana): From a seated position with your legs straight in front of you, fold forward, allowing your spine to gently round. Consider sitting up on a folded blanket or two and resting your head and arms on a bolster or cushion. Relax your legs and spine; it’s OK if your legs externally rotate a little when you do this. Hold for 4–5 minutes.
Straddle (or Wide Seated Forward Fold): In a seated position, take your legs out wide. If you feel any tension on the inside of your knees, bring the legs closer together or add a soft bend at the knee. Inhale to prepare, and exhale to fold forward. Again, feel free to prop your sitting bones up on a blanket and resting your head on a bolster or cushion. Hold for 3–4 minutes.
Swan (or Half Pigeon): From tabletop, draw your right knee toward your right wrist. Bring your right foot in front of your left hip, and slide your left leg back—seeking sensation in your right outer hip and the front of your left thigh and avoiding sensation in your right knee. Consider supporting your right hip with a blanket or block; also consider letting your right hip come all the way to the floor, allowing your left leg to externally rotate slightly. Hold for 3–5 minutes, then switch sides. This pose targets your outer hips (front legs) and hip flexors (back legs).
Corpse Pose: Return to lying on your back, and rest your arms alongside your body with palms facing up. Release any muscular tension, allowing your body to rest and fully relax. Consider a wider version of Corpse Pose (called Pentacle) by taking your arms wide overhead and moving your feet beyond your hips. Hold for 10 minutes.
While you’re in each pose, work to find stillness. Avoid fidgeting or moving around as best as you can in order to release fully into the posture. You want to push yourself to a point where you feel a deep sensation (known in yogi terms as “comfortable discomfort”) that helps stretch your fascia and ligaments. However, you should never stretch to the point of pain.
Breath is an important component of yin yoga, too, because it gives you something to focus on in the more difficult and uncomfortable postures. In yin, you’ll breathe from your diaphragm—with every inhale, feel your belly and ribs expand and with every exhale, pull your navel into your spine. Another good rule of thumb for deep breathing in a restorative yoga flow is to make your exhales twice as long as your inhales.
Yin yoga is also a great place to make use of props for added support or lengthening. (After all, the more your bones are supported, the more your muscles can release.) Blocks can be used under your knees in a forward fold, for instance, while a bolster or rolled-up blanket can be placed under your seat during butterfly to ease tight hips.
Remember that it should take you 30 seconds to exit each yin pose, moving as effortlessly as possible out of the postures.
Yin yoga is not less of a workout than its yang counterparts, but rather provides us with a different challenge; an ideal offering to ensure that we keep our exercise routines fresh, different and enticing.
Louise FitzRoy is the Principal of Activ Life, a leading health and wellness company based in the Cayman Islands. If you enjoyed this article you may also like: The power of sound in yoga and Yoga pose modifications for inflexibility.