Dina Amsterdam didn't enjoy her first Yin Yoga class. Or her second. Or even her third. Having just finished a three-year teacher training in a style that emphasized alignment and traditional sequencing, she found the practice's long, passive holds of seated and reclined postures uncomfortable, and she wondered about the lack of alignment. Yet the calm afterglow she experienced from the classes persuaded her to keep going back.
It took an unfortunate event—an exhausting illness—for Amsterdam to fall in love with Yin. As she lay in bed, weak and frustrated, she longed to move and stretch her body, but she knew that her usual active practice was out of reach. For the first time, she was grateful for Yin's surrendered approach. "When I did the Yin poses, I felt like a flower that hadn't been watered for a long time getting moisture," Amsterdam says. "It felt like the inside of my body had more space. There was more moisture, more fluid...sort of like a rusty car getting oiled." As her body opened to the experience, her mind followed. Instead of resisting the discomfort she had always felt in her body and mind from being still for long stretches of time, she was able to just sit and be with the sensations. "Emotionally and mentally I felt really soothed. I was aligning myself with where I actually was, so the energy I had been wasting struggling against the illness—and previously the Yin poses—became available to me again. For the first time, I found it deeply relaxing to be with my discomfort."
Yin and Yang
Yin Yoga is based on the Taoist concept of yin and yang, opposing yet complementary forces that can characterize any phenomenon. Yin can be described as stable, immobile, feminine, passive, cold, and downward moving. Yang is depicted as changing, mobile, masculine, active, hot, and upward moving. In nature, a mountain could be described as yin; the ocean, as yang. Within the body, the relatively stiff connective tissue (tendons, ligaments, fascia) is yin, while the pliant and mobile muscles and blood are yang. Applied to yoga, a passive practice is yin, whereas most of today's hatha yoga practices are yang: They actively engage the muscles and build heat in the body.
Much of the Yin Yoga practiced in the United States today was introduced by Paul Grilley in the late 1980s. Grilley's approach has a physical and an energetic aspect. He discovered the physical aspect when he met Taoist Yoga and martial arts teacher Paulie Zink and was immediately inspired. "I'd pretty much exhausted the power of vinyasa, Bikram—you know, anything heavy, hot, and sweaty, I'd already done it," Grilley says. "Paulie's practice was like a huge breath of fresh air, because his approach to the postures was first yin on the floor and then yang, and neither of them was that similar to my previous practice."
When you take a Yin Yoga class, you'll do mostly seated, supine, or prone poses, and you'll hold them, with your muscles relaxed, for long periods of time—up to 5 minutes or more. The theory behind this approach (proposed by Zink) is that staying muscularly passive for long periods of time gently stretches connective tissue, which gets stiff and immobile with age. The asanas focus mainly on the lower back and hips because the abundance of dense connective tissue around those joints requires extra care and attention.
Around the same time that Grilley was studying with Zink, he did a brief stint in acupuncture school and began to wonder whether Yin poses could affect the energy body the way an acupuncture session does. Working with Hiroshi Motoyama, the Japanese scholar and yogi who had studied the body's meridians and chakras, Grilley began to develop the energetic aspect of the practice: The long holds in Yin are thought to benefit the subtle body by targeting the meridians that run through the connective tissue of the hips and lower back. (Motoyama uses traditional Chinese medicine terminology, so instead of the yogic term prana, or life force, Yin yogis use "chi." Likewise, nadis, or energy channels, are referred to as "meridians" in Yin.) So, experienced Yin practitioners can construct specific sequences to stimulate the flow of chi through different energy channels to create a balancing effect on the body, the same way acupuncture does.
Grilley sees Yin Yoga as a great complement to most of the yoga that's practiced today, which is predominantly fast-paced, muscle-contracting, blood-pumping yang. First, there are the physical benefits. Yin poses can be modified and made accessible to anyone, and the long holds boost flexibility. Because so much of the work is focused on opening the hips, it's also touted as one of the best physical preparations for meditation. Sarah Powers, who learned Yin Yoga from Grilley, is a teacher who blends yin and yang principles with Buddhist teachings into what she calls Insight Yoga. "In Yin Yoga, you can maintain or recover the natural range of motion in the joints. And you can improve no matter what your age, strength, or level of flexibility, which makes it a practice you can take with you through all the stages of your life," she says.
Equally important are the mental and emotional benefits that make Yin a powerful practice. Powers places much of her emphasis on this aspect of the teaching. "The improvements to flexibility and chi flow are valuable. But they are secondary to the practice of becoming intimate with and accepting of the current state of the body and mind in any given moment," she says.
As Amsterdam discovered on that fateful day when her defenses were down, the very nature of Yin Yoga creates the conditions for meditation—for becoming quiet, still, and aware of the present moment. And focusing first on the physical sensations of a Yin pose can be an easier point of entry for awareness practice than sitting on a cushion and being asked to watch your thoughts. "It gives you something tangible to work with when your hips are aching. It's easier to start out by being in relationship with that," says Amsterdam, who is pictured on these pages and who trained with Powers to teach Yin Yoga. "If you spend time being present with your aching hips and learn how to receive the sensations and bring kindness to that experience, then someday you'll be able to the feel the achy jitters of anxiety and bring kindness to that, too. So you cultivate skillfulness over time in the Yin practice."
Although Yin offers balance for yogis who love a more active practice, many students initially find it a turnoff. The poses aren't sexy. The sequences don't offer much to intrigue the mind. And Yin Yoga doesn't play into that sense of accomplishment that keeps some students coming back to the toughest of vinyasa classes every day. No matter how good it makes you feel, releasing your muscles and melting into the floor like a puddle is not particularly exciting.
Take Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose). In the traditional pose, you lift the chest, curve the spine into an even, graceful arch, and reach the legs back strongly to form the tail of a snake. Yin's version of Cobra is Seal Pose, which gently stresses the tissues of the lumbar spine. In it, you relax your legs, turn out your hands, and lean into your arms, which makes you look like, well, a seal. There is no aesthetic gain, no final form to "achieve." But this is precisely what makes the practice so liberating—the ambition that often seeps into asana practice, the intense fire to be better and go farther, can wane. With nothing to strive for, you can relax, be in a pose, and truly notice what's happening within you and around you. That's one reason Yin poses are referred to by English names instead of Sanskrit ones—so that yogis don't associate them with the yang forms and try to recreate them. Thus, a Yin Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose) is called Butterfly, and Supta Virasana (Reclining Hero Pose) becomes Saddle.
The pace of Yin Yoga also deters yogis who crave speed. It is an adjustment to go from holding poses for five breaths to holding them for 5 minutes. But within the stillness you'll find the gems of Yin. "Landing in this practice helps you take up residence in the body without a need for it to perform," Powers says.
When you stop striving and tune in to what's happening, you begin to truly feel the sensations in your body and mind as they arise. Once you accept that you will feel many things during a Yin practice—discomfort, boredom, anxiety—and learn to stay with the chorus of thoughts and feelings, your relationship to them will begin to change. You will learn that you have the inner strength to stay in situations you previously thought you couldn't handle. You will see the impermanent nature of thoughts and feelings as you watch them arise and then pass on their own. And when you stop resisting what's happening around you, you'll gain a sense of liberation and trust in life.
When Amsterdam was ill and no longer had the energy to resist the practice, she discovered that her dislike of Yin hadn't been so much about the poses as it was about her struggle against the physical and mental discomfort that came up. But when she surrendered to the discomfort—consciously relaxed, allowed it to be there, and stayed with it—she eventually experienced a deeply nourishing peace. This shift changed her entire experience of Yin and, eventually, her daily life. "You have two choices in Yin. You can be caught in that losing battle of trying to be somewhere other than where you are. This is a normal, habitual response to disliking something. Or you can soften and let go of trying to control where you are," she says. "And that puts you in the stream of what's authentic, what's true."
These days Amsterdam notices herself allowing the mystery of life to unfold, even though it constantly involves both comfortable and uncomfortable aspects. "I can be buoyant and float down the river, and there's much more ease, even when what's happening is sadness or pain or whatever it is."
Getting to Know You
Although a Yin Yoga sequence can be a complete practice on its own, combining it with a more active practice is most effective. Powers suggests that beginners land in Yin poses after an active practice and that intermediate students do the long-held poses before an active practice.
No matter how you incorporate Yin, if you make it a regular part of your practice, you will find yourself better able to be quiet and listen to your body and your thoughts without judgment, shame, or criticism. You'll begin to know which parts of your body need extra care and attention. You'll know when you need more sleep or when you feel strong and vibrant. You'll tune in to your emotional states and vulnerabilities more quickly. With all this knowledge, you will be able to build a practice that's responsive to your daily needs. And the Yin approach—what Powers and Amsterdam say is an open, relaxed, and curious exploration—will influence your whole life.
Before You Begin
As in any style of yoga, you may need to modify or abandon a pose. Come out of a pose if it produces a sharp pain or exacerbates a joint strain or injury, if you cannot breathe smoothly, or if you simply feel overwhelmed. An experienced Yin teacher can help you modify any pose with props, which can bring you to a level of comfort you might not otherwise be able to achieve.
Powers says that the breath is your best guide: "If your breath feels tight, shortened, or jagged, if you're holding it, or if you're involuntarily in survival mode, pushing your way through your hold time rather than being curious and interested in the experience, it's a good idea to come out."
With the exception of Seal and Saddle, begin by holding each pose in this sequence for 1 to 3 minutes. Eventually, you can build up to 3 to 5 minutes. Seal and Saddle may require that you begin with a shorter hold of 1 minute, eventually building up to 3 to 5 minutes.
Benefits: Lengthens the inner groins and lower-back muscles; increases range of motion in hips.
Instructions: Sit with the soles of your feet touching, about a foot in front of your pelvis. Keep your sacrum tilted slightly forward. If your hips allow it, lean forward. When you reach an appropriate edge, let your back round gently.
Modifications: For knee or hip strain, support the thighs with blankets or bolsters. For neck strain, support the head with bolsters or hands. For sacroiliac strain or disk displacement, lie with your back on the floor and feet on a wall.
Contraindications: Knee strain or sharp back pain.
2. Saddle (do Sphinx if you have knee issues)
Benefits: Restores and maintains the arch of the lower spine; restores and maintains full knee flexion; lengthens quadriceps.
Instructions: Sit on your heels, knees slightly wider than hip width. Moving slowly and evenly, lean back until you reach an appropriate edge. You may be able to bring your head or even your upper back to the floor; otherwise, place a support (blankets or a bolster) under your middle and upper back. Come out of the pose on an inhalation, using your arms and abdominal muscles and trying not to torque to one side.
Modifications: For knee pain, sit on a low support; in addition, place a thin towel directly behind the knees, between the calves and hamstrings. For ankle pain, place a towel or blanket roll at the bottom of the shins.
Contraindications: Limited knee flexion or sharp back pain.
Benefits: Restores and maintains the arch of the lower spine.
Instructions: Lie belly-down with your forearms on the floor in front of you, shoulder-width apart. To go deeper, place your hands about a foot in front of your shoulders and turn them out. Straighten the elbows. To lessen the intensity, take the hands farther away from you. Exhale to come out of the pose.
Modifications: To decrease sensation in your lower back, try engaging or releasing the buttocks and varying the space between the legs.
Contraindications: Disk displacement or sharp back pain.
Benefits: Stretches external hip rotators; opens the groins and the lower back.
Instructions: Begin on all fours. Cross your right knee behind your left so that your right knee and shin come to the floor, then sit back between your feet so that your knees stack on top of each other. If your lower back rounds, sit on firm folded blankets to keep your sacrum tilted forward. If your hips allow it, lean forward, letting your upper back round gently.
Modifications: For discomfort in the lower knee, do the pose with that leg pointing straight forward. If the hip sensations are overwhelmingly intense, sit on blankets or bolsters and use your hands on the floor to bear some of your weight.
Contraindications: Knee pain. Omit forward bending if you have sciatica or disk displacement or are in your second or third trimester of pregnancy.
Benefits: Opens the hips, groins, hamstrings, and lower back.
Instructions: Sit with your legs spread 90 to 120 degrees apart. If your lower back rounds, sit on firm folded blankets. If possible, walk your hands forward with a straight back. Rest on a bolster if needed. When you reach an appropriate edge, let your back round gently.
Modifications: For pain at the back of the knees or painfully tight hamstrings, bend your knees; you can also place a rolled blanket or towel behind each knee or engage your quadriceps. Alternatively, bend toward one leg at a time, either facing each leg in turn or sidebending over each leg.
Contraindications: For lumbar disk displacement or sciatica, remain upright.
6. Reclining Twist
Benefits: Stretches, rotates, and releases tension around the spine.
Instructions: Lying on your back with your arms straight out at shoulder height, bend your left knee and draw it toward your chest; then draw your left leg to the right and let it descend toward the floor. Gently draw your left shoulder toward the floor as well. Experiment with the following: moving the knee closer to your feet or your head, extending your left arm overhead, and keeping your head neutral and turning it to each side.
Modifications: For lower-back sensitivity, bend both knees in the twist. For rotator cuff injury or other shoulder pain, use blankets or a cushion to support the shoulder that you are twisting away from.
Contraindications: Continued shoulder pain or sharp lower-back pain.
7. Happy Baby
Benefits: Opens the hips, groins, and hamstrings.
Instructions: Lying on your back, draw both knees toward your chest, shoulder-width apart. Aim the soles of your feet straight toward the ceiling, making your shins perpendicular to the floor. Grasp the soles of your feet (from the inner or outer edges, whichever you prefer) or your toes, and actively draw your knees toward your armpits. Experiment, first allowing your tailbone and sacrum to curl up toward the ceiling, then drawing them more toward the floor.
Modifications: If holding the feet is uncomfortable, hold the backs of the thighs.
Contraindications: Pregnancy; neck, disk, sacral, groin, or knee injuries.
Finish: After you come out of the pose, bring both knees briefly to your chest, then stretch them out along the floor and spend 5 to 10 minutes in Savasana (Corpse Pose) as your final relaxation.To find a Yin Yoga teacher near you, visit yinyoga.com.
Lisa Mari teaches yoga in Marin County, California.