Yin Yoga – A Technical Perspective
This section is written to provide a technical understanding of my interpretation of Yin Yoga, and is aimed at experienced Yoga practitioners/teachers, bodyworkers, therapists and health professionals.
This is not intended to be a comprehensive and compete explanation of Yin Yoga, merely to expand on my personal interpretation.
One of the attractions of a Yin Yoga for me has been its non dogmatic approach, and the ability to adapt and explore in an experiential manner.
If you asked a dozen Yin Yoga teachers to explain Yin Yoga you would get a dozen different answers.
Variously, Yin Yoga can be interpreted as:
- A variation of classic Hatha Yoga, but with postures held for a longer time and mostly floor based
- A practice of intense stretching, playing edges, and with deep stretches held for an extended period, aiming to work with connective tissue, possibly with a mild element of discomfort being tolerated by the practitioner.
- A restorative type practice aimed at cultivating inward yin energy in the body.
- A practice of insight which prepares for, and allows space to be held for, personal enquiry
My interpretation absorbs elements of all these approaches dependant on context.
It’s important to recognise that Yoga is far more than physical postures (asana). Classically asana is one of the eight limbs of Yoga in Patanjalis Yoga Sutras. In a modern context if exercise or physical therapy is a students primary aim then I feel that a purely physical discipline such as pilaties or gym based exercise are likely to be more efficient, or possibly a yoga practice with a teacher who biases more towards a physical practice.
However my observation is that many people enquiring about yoga seek something more, possibly relaxation, calming a hectic life, a non religious spiritual connection, mindfulness, or to address specific physical or psycho emotional issues therapeutically, eg back pain, IBS, anxiety. The mind body connection, relaxation and general well being is where I believe yoga, as I interpret it, excels.
I consider the energetic aspects of yoga are important. Depending on your outlook, this could be interpreted as the freeing and movement of Chi or Prana, or simply the somatic benefit of gentle movement and slow breathing. In Yin Yoga this means nurturing yin energies, broadly correlating with stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system and rest/digest response.
Physical elements of Yin Yoga: Yin Yoga is generally considered to work with connective tissue, in particular fascia, tendon and ligament, utilising slow gentle stress, with maximum muscular disengagement. This contrasts to repetitive strengthening movements which are considered to work muscular Yang aspects of the body. Classically Yin Yoga is practised with the body “cold” rather than warmed up as you may for other physical exercise, meaning the muscles are less elastic leaving more work into the connective tissue.
I believe the division between working connective tissue and working muscle can sometimes be reductionist and unhelpful, partly because of connective tissue and muscle coexisting in the structures of the body, and partly because muscular disengagement can be challenging for some students. I therefore prefer an approach that recognises both types of tissue are being worked, but with a transition in the posture from working muscle to working connective tissue as the student moves into the posture.
I am cautious around the language of “stretch” in yin yoga practice, recognising that aspects of connective tissue, eg tendon and ligament structures, generally would not benefit from hyper laxity. I prefer to use the term “stress” partly to suggest a more gentle approach, partly to reference the benefit in mobilising and freeing these tissues rather than stretching them. In colloquial terms I like the analogy of reshaping a woollen jumper coming out of the washing machine – it needs a stress to coax it back to intended shape, rather than a stretch to misshape it. However the subtly of this distinction may not be appropriate for all students and many want the simplicity of what they understand to be a “good stretch” with reference to muscular regions of their body, eg a student with tight legs will probably suggest they would like a hamstring or quad stretch, without a differentiation between working on muscle and fascia, and the fixed nature of origins and insertions.
There is sometimes debate about the merits of stretching, and I am aware of the danger of over stretching and the induction of laxity. As mentioned above, I prefer “stress” to “stretch” in the context of this practice, and feel that in many cases there is little benefit to the student in pushing beyond comfortable range of motion for an extended period. I prefer to discourage “pushing” and “strife” in the Yin aspects of a yoga practice.
Hyper-mobility: It sometimes suggested that Yin Yoga isn’t suitable for all students, eg those with hyper-mobility issues. I disagree with a blanket contra indication on this basis. With appropriate awareness I believe the practice is suitable for all, however people with hyper-mobility may benefit from greater muscular awareness and assistance from yoga props. I believe the only circumstance in which yin yoga and hyper-mobility may be contraindicated is where the practice is taught in a physical basis only as one of stressing connective tissue, and even then it needs to be recognised that hyper-mobility is not a blanket condition throughout the whole body.
Back pain or other specific conditions: I consider a yin style Yoga practice can assist with back pain or, indeed, other specific somatic ailments, with appropriate guidance to the student and, where necessary, use of yoga props. Key to this will be understanding the students condition, and advice received from other medical and therapeutic sources.
Some conditions may benefit from an initial private class to allow the student to integrate into a general class if desired.
I recognise that strength and stability are also important in some instances, and that in general Yin yoga is best at providing release. Because of this I prefer a non dogmatic approach to practice; freeing up yin energy in the body does not have to clash with developing strength and stability, indeed although muscular work is generally considered to be yang, strength and stability are yin traits. The energetic benefits of a slower Yin style practice, and stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system, are useful in both managing pain, releasing physical tension, and in addressing psychosomatic tension.
Beginners: I consider a yin style practice is suitable for beginners, with appropriate guidance.
Yin Yoga v Restorative Yoga: the suggestion is sometimes made that these two practices are conflated. They are separate practices although there is a substantial cross over in my experience. My style of teaching Yin Yoga errs towards Restorative.
Technical Aspects of Movement: I have completed extensive training in Anatomy and Physiology, both class room and lab based working on cadaveric material. In general, whilst this technical knowledge is useful, it can be overly prescriptive in a class environment, and thus although it educates my approach to teaching I try and keep things simpler in class.
Therapeutic Benefits of Yoga: my approach has always erred towards therapeutic rather than exercise, reflected in my also being a Yoga Therapist
In general I err away from a reductionist approach to yoga practice, and believe in a whole person well being approach that is far more than exercise.