What is yin yoga?
I am asked that question at least once a week from students, friends, and anyone else who is willing to listen to me talk about yoga. Yin is my main at-home yoga practice, and I am totally in love with it. I’ll keep this as brief as possible, because I could go on for days, but I’ll assume my reader doesn’t have days. So…
Yin yoga is the opposite of yang yoga. A very large majority of the yoga classes that are offered today, especially in the Bay Area, are taught in the yang style. Ashtanga, vinyasa, hatha, and flow yoga are all forms of yang yoga.
Physically, yang yoga requires us to activate a certain group of muscles in order to lengthen another group of muscles. Think about a forward fold. We engage our quads to stretch our hamstrings. We activate our feet, lift our knee caps, and press our spine out long as we lengthen through the crown of our head.
Mentally and emotionally, the yang parts of us are the more extroverted, open, bright, loud, moving, masculine, and active sides of our personality.
Yin yoga, on the other hand, calls for the least amount of muscular action possible–so while practicing a yin style forward fold, we would relax all muscles and just allow our torso to fall forward. This will look and feel different from a yang style forward fold. And that’s good, because your connective tissue, joints, ligaments and tendons are being opened while practicing yin, where as your muscles take the majority of the stretch in a yang style pose.
The yin characteristics of our emotional bodies are the parts of us that are more introverted, still, receptive, contracting, quiet, darker, mysterious, and feminine.
Many beginner students are told to go to a yin class, wrongly so, because we hold the poses for a long amount of time and only a few poses are taught in each class. But in reality, yin is not necessarily a beginner’s practice. Yes, someone who has never been on a yoga mat before would be fine, physically at least, but yin does not by any means lack the intensity of a kick your ass level 3 yang class. Yin poses are just as physically intense, but even more so emotionally. We aren’t used to quiet, to stillness, to sitting with ourselves. So this can be scary and super emotional, especially for someone who hasn’t done yoga before.
Yin yoga is not popular in the Bay Area. There are only a few studios that offer classes, and of those studios most of them only have one or two yin classes per week. This is confusing to me because when we live in a place like we do, that is full of people and traffic and parties and coffee, I would think that we would crave something to balance out our extremely extroverted lives.
I love yin yoga for many reasons–the quiet, the stillness, and the ability to allow myself to actually be that shy, private, observant person that I have always been. But the thing I love about it the most is the balance it gives me. As a climber, it is my goal and passion to fight against gravity all day, sometimes for weeks at a time. Many people see climbing as a fight against the rock itself, when in reality we are trying to figure out a way to move our body in which gravity doesn’t prevent us from climbing up a rock. So when I practice yin yoga, where I can finally give in to gravity, surrender to it completely and allow it to pull and pull and pull, one could imagine how good this feels. It may sound hippiedippie but yin is my way of respecting gravity and the physical forces of the world. Release. Surrender. Gravity rules, always.
It is confusing and difficult for me to have a yoga teacher tell me to stay within or stay quiet or something like that when we are doing handstands and deep backbends and crazy arm balances. Those poses are large, robust, celebratory, and I have a hard time keep a yin mind while doing such extroverted poses. It is a shame that there isn’t more yoga here in the yin style–because I think that’s truly what people want when going to a yoga class. They show up, craving quiet and solitude, but then get taught these loud, fast, classes and wonder why they care so much about how their poses look. Or how their hair looks. And then their yoga practice becomes another thing they have to worry about.
I’m not knocking yang yoga, I teach a flow class after all, and some days all I want to do is dance around on my mat with music blasting and do backbends the size of Texas. But we must balance this out, or else the yin sides of our physical and emotional body get neglected. We also live in a society that favors yang, so it is more crucial than ever to have some kind of practice that gives props to our yin side.
Happy holidays, happy new year! Be well,