Yin Yoga

Is an Advanced Practice NOT suitable for Yoga Beginners

Date published: 2011

YIN Yoga seems to be offered in most studios nowadays. Unfortunately, it also seems that many of the instructors do not have training in, experience with and / or understanding of the practice. Every time I drop into a YIN class I ask the teacher where he or she trained. Often what I hear is, “I didn’t.” or “I read a book.” In fact some instructors have said that they haven’t even tried a YIN Yoga class!!!

I was introduced to YIN Yoga in Vietnam in 2006. I was overwhelmed yet intrigued by the physical, mental and emotional intensity of the practice. Upon returning home, I bought the book, Yin Yoga, which was written by Paul Grilley, the founder of YIN Yoga. As well, I signed up for his training in Vancouver and for the only available local YIN Yoga class, which was taught by Kyle at the Yoga Loft in Edmonton.

YIN Yoga is meant to complement our regular (yang) yoga practice. Yin and Yang are relative terms, not absolutes. Yin is the female energy in the body and Yang is the male energy in the body. The lower half of the body is Yin; the upper half of the body is Yang. Yang tissues, like muscles, are fluid, soft, elastic; while Yin tissues, like connective tissue (ligaments, tendons and fascia) and bones, are dry, hard, stiff like plastic. Yin is stable and unmoving while Yang is changing and moving.

Most hatha yoga in the West is classified as yang since it is usually an active practice that focuses on movement, muscles, and the entire body. This type of practice improves our posture, strengthens our muscles and teaches us how to breathe. On the other hand, YIN Yoga stretches and strengthens the connective tissue of the hips, pelvis and lower spine. The practice enhances the natural range of mobility in the hips and pelvis and the flow of energy in the tissues around the joints. It also trains the mind to become comfortable with discomfort.

The practice of YIN Yoga is often referred to as yoga for the joints (specifically the hip joints) and is likened to self-acupuncture because specific meridians (energy channels) are stimulated. The Modern Meridian Theory, named by Paul Grilley, is based upon Japanese scholar and scientist Dr. Motoyama’s research and insight. It states that the meridians of acupuncture and the nadis of yoga flow through the connective tissue.

All of the YIN Yoga postures are floor postures that primarily work the hips and low back. They are held passively for up to 5 minutes or longer. The poses have different names because they are done with a different focus / intention. For example, Snail posture looks similar to Plow. However, in order to relax the muscles, it is done with bent knees and a round back rather than with straight legs and a long spine. Butterfly posture appears similar to Bound Angle. However, in order to relax the muscles, the feet are further away from the groin, the back rounds and the head hangs rather than with the heels in close to the groin with a long spine and neck.

There are 3 key principles to the practice:

  1. Softness: The muscles are relaxed and cool (not warm or hot). Come into the pose to your appropriate edge – where you feel something (Yin is not Restorative Yoga aka the yoga of being).
  2. Stillness: Remain still without moving, fidgeting or adjusting (unless there is pain or panic).
  3. Steadiness: Stay in the posture passively for time (3-5+ minutes).

These three principles must be included in the practice or it is NOT YIN Yoga.

Paul Grilley made it very clear that YIN Yoga is for people who have practised yoga regularly (daily) for at least 3 years. Why?

In order to get the physical benefits we, as yoga students, need to get past (relax) our muscles to the connective tissue. This requires keen body awareness and flexibility.

We also need to know if / when / how to use props and be able to differentiate between discomfort and pain since discomfort is part of the practice. Discomfort may be a dull, achy, deep tugging sensation. Pain may be a sharp, burning sensation. Only we can determine if what we are experiencing is pain or extreme discomfort.

Mentally we need to be still and present for up to 5 minutes. Most of us have trouble being still for 10 seconds. As Margo Balog, an exceptional YAA Certified Senior Yoga Teacher who recently passed away, would say, “We are ‘Human Doings’ rather than Human Beings.”

When I first started teaching YIN, Friedel Khattab, a dear mentor and YAA Certified Senior Yoga Teacher who brought yoga to Alberta in 1968, came to my class. It was a 45-minute introductory class. After class she said, “I sure hope there weren’t any Beginners in there!” When I told her the practice initially scared me with no warm-ups, alignment or counter poses, she said, “Advanced students do not need warm-ups or counter poses because their bodies realign themselves.”

A YIN practice teaches us to accept our limitations. During the practice, we sit with ourselves and thus, with our limitations (physical, mental, emotional). As we stay with our experience, we develop an awareness that allows us the opportunity to accept or change.

As instructors we must also remember to accept our limitations and only teach what we know and have integrated. At least 50% of being a good teacher requires practice (not instructing) of what we are teaching.

Angie Ackerman is an ERYT 500, a YAA Certified Training Teacher & owner of Breathe Yoga School & Studio in Sherwood Park, www.breatheyoga.ca.