The Taoists believe that everything can be described with the concepts of Yin and Yang – opposite aspects that make up each and every thing we can experience on this earth, including our own bodies. Yin and Yang are opposing yet complementary forces; Yin involves stability and the act of hiding something, Yang has to do with moving, changing, and revealing.
Yin Yoga is a type of practice that approaches yoga from this Taoist perspective. Since our bodies are made up of Yin and Yang, any exercise protocol we embark upon should be conscious and appreciative of this fact. Most exercise works the Yang elements (blood and muscles); Yin Yoga concentrates on the connective tissues and joints.
If the thought of “exercising” your joints makes you cringe, you’re not alone. But this is the beauty of Yin Yoga – it teaches us to rethink what exercise is. Traditionally, “working out” (and this includes most Western yoga practices) is a Yang activity. According to Paul Grilley, a Yin Yoga instructor living in Ashland, Oregon, Yang activity involves movement, rhythm and repetition – actions like lifting weights, running, even the simple act of inhaling and exhaling. So when we talk about “exercising” our joints, we visualize ourselves engaging in repetitive movements with our fragile knees and hips, bringing one word to mind: ouch!
But exercising in a Yin way, which Gilley explains as involving “stasis and long traction”, can strengthen connective tissues in areas like the hips, pelvis, and lower spine. Strengthening these areas not only compliments our typically Yang yoga practice by increasing flexibility and range of motion, but it also helps with maintaining longer seated meditations. For many of us, sitting cross-legged for a long period of time can be physically uncomfortable, making our meditations less effective, or causing pain or discomfort once we get up and get back to our day. This is because sitting is a Yin activity, which relies on the strength and power of the connective tissues in our spines and hips. No matter how strong your muscles are, or even how flexible and resilient you are in your practice, the Yin aspects in your body have likely been neglected, making them weak and susceptible to strain and injury.
This is where Yin Yoga comes in handy. “Years of a dedicated asana practice will make anyone healthier, stronger, and more flexible, but at some point the muscles will have reached their limit of flexibility,” explains Bernie Clark, creator of YinYoga.com. “New depths in postures, deeper ranges of motion, or an increased flow of energy may only be achievable by focusing on the deeper tissues of the body. This is why so many students are finding Yin Yoga to be the perfect compliment and balance to their more active, yang practices.”
Yin Yoga uses poses that will seem familiar to most yoga practitioners, but they are approached with a different mindset. First of all, the emphasis is on releasing muscles rather than contracting them; poses must be held for longer periods of time, since connective tissues respond better to slow, steady stretching. And it’s not as if you can simply approach a regular flow of asanas in a Yin manner – certain poses necessitate muscular action that is Yang by nature. So it’s important to learn the art of actual Yin Yoga if you want to reap the benefits and avoid the risk of harming fragile joints that can’t be worked in the same way as the rest of the body.
Interested? There are some great instructional videos on YouTube from Paul Gilley to help you get started (click here), or you can visit YinYoga.com for more resources, books and videos. Give it a shot, and maybe the next time you’re sitting in meditation, you can focus more on ohm and less on ouch!