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People flock to Yin Yoga classes expecting a slow, calming class that stretches the physical body. When I first began teaching Yin Yoga, I thought it was about sitting in poses to get a deeper stretch of my hips, hamstring, and back. But Yin Yoga is so much deeper than any physical stretch. The intention of Yin is to still the body, breath, and mind.
What is Yin Yoga?
When I ask people what yin means they do not have a clear definition other than that it’s the opposite of yang. Yin is a Taoist term that describes a restful, receptive mental and energetic state or quality. It is associated with the coolness and darkness of the moon, with surrendering and yielding to the nurturing side of life. Physically, yin is associated with the left side of the body. Yin energy connects us to stillness and tranquility—qualities that are important to our well-being. “Stillness and tranquility set things in order in the universe,” according to ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching.
We are all too familiar with yang energy—the energy of movement and busy-ness. We think of yin and yang as opposites. But they are partners; they balance each other. There are times when we need to be energized, but when we are rushing around too much, we can benefit from more stillness. Fortunately we can connect with our yin energy at any time—especially through Yin Yoga.
Applying Yin principles
In Yin Yoga, Taoist principles are applied to hatha yoga postures. Taoist philosophers believe that stillness is the path to tranquility. So in a Yin Yoga class, we hold shapes for longer periods of time to allow the body and mind to become aware of what is occurring, to discern what we need, and to find calm in the moment—regardless of the physical shape or mental state you are in.
Yin Yoga allows you to ride the ebb and flow between physical sensation and mental concentration, weaving a blanket of awareness that culminates in a sense of calm and peace even in the midst of life’s continuous movement.
Yin in practice
The design of this practice is simple, with a few steps to access each shape. The shapes should bring a balanced, “not too much, not too little” sensation. I recommend you hold each position for five minutes—the number five symbolizes balance—but you may choose to adjust or come out of the shape. You are never stuck!
Identify and gather props that can support you physically in the shapes. You may want blankets or blocks to support your body and offer comfort while you settle into each pose. I purposely remind you to pause and reflect after each pose and to determine if and when you proceed to the next shape. Trust your body.
There will be times where you consciously feel your body, where you hear your breath, where the mind does what it does best: think. A yin attitude is accepting, so revel in what is. Appreciate the stillness. Trust that no effort to make the shapes and no amount of time in them is wasted.
Begin in a seated or reclined position that brings comfort and ease to the body and mind. Consider that you may be seated for most of the practice. Examples of positions: lie on your side, back or belly. You may also choose to kneel or stand. Give yourself some free movement to prepare your body and mind for the still portions of your practice. Take 5 minutes to tune in, to relax yourself, and to calm the energy around your practice space.
Release your centering position. Determine if and when you proceed to the next shape.
Come to a seated position with your legs extended forward. Place the bottom of your right foot inside of your left inner thigh. You may want a blanket or block to support either knee. Sit up and notice what physical sensation you feel. Adjust your shape when needed. Pause for 5 minutes. Release the shape. You could sit still to reflect or move your body to loosen before the next shape. Determine if and when you proceed to the next shape.
Separate your feet to create a “V” with your legs. Bend your right leg, bringing your foot out to the side so that your knee points out to the right and your foot rests behind you. Bend your left leg to create an angle and bring your foot across the midline of your body toward your left knee. Your left shin and right thigh will be approximately parallel. Sit up and observe your body, breath, thoughts. Pause for 5 minutes. Release the shape. You could sit still to reflect or make movement with your body to loosen it before the next shape. Determine if and when you proceed to the next shape.
Half Butterfly with Twist
Begin in Half Butterfly with your right leg bent. Place your left hand on any part of your right leg. Place your right hand next to your right hip. Turn your belly and chest to the right. You may turn your head and neck or keep them facing forward. Pause for 5 minutes. Release the shape. You could sit still to reflect or move your body to loosen before the next shape. Determine if and when you proceed to the next shape.
Deer with Forward Fold
Repeat Deer with left leg in front. Twist to the left and fold toward the left leg. Rest on your hands, forearms or elbows on your mat or a prop. Pause for 5 minutes. Release the shape. Sit still to reflect or move your body to loosen before the next shape. Determine if and when you proceed to the next shape.
Repeat Half Butterfly, Deer Pose, Half Butterfly with Twist, and Deer Pose with Forward Fold on the opposite side.
Place your forearms and knees on the floor. Shift your knees to place them under our hips. Lower your chest or forehead to the floor. Extend your arms forward or cross your forearms. Pause in the pose for 5 minutes before releasing the shape. You could sit still to reflect or move your body to loosen before the next shape. Determine if and when you proceed to the next shape.
Lie on your back. Bend your knees and place the bottoms of your feet on the floor. Separate your feet so they are wider than your hips. Bring your knees and inner thighs to touch. Shift your hips as needed to settle you lower back. Rest your arms and hands on your abdomen. Pause in this position for 5 minutes or more. Release the shape and lie still to reflect or move your body to loosen before the next shape. Determine if and when you proceed.
Wrap a folded blanket or towel around a block or a thick book. Set it on your left side. Lower down on the left side, resting on your left leg and hip, and place the props under your left underarm. Support your head with your left hand or another prop. As an option, you could extend your arms overhead. Hold the pose for 5 minutes or more. Release the shape and shift the block away. Lie down or sit still to reflect or move your body to loosen up before the next shape. Determine if and when you balance the other side. Repeat Side-Lying Banana on your right side.
Half Wind Relief
Lie on your back. Bring your left knee in towards your chest and hold your left leg with both hands or with your arms wrapped around your shin. Pause for 5 minutes or more, then release the shape. Sit still to reflect or move your body to loosen it. Determine if and when you proceed to the next shape. Repeat Half Wind Relief with your right leg.
Lie on your back with your arms out to the sides, palms down. As an option, place a block or folded blankets under your lower back, supporting your hips and tailbone. Extend your legs in the direction of the sky. (You could also rest your extended legs on a wall.) Pause for five minutes or more, then release the shape. Sit still to reflect or move your body to loosen up before the next shape.
Bring your physical practice to completion.
Don’t forget to breathe
As we conclude our physical practice, continue to cool the mind with pranayama and mantra meditation. This practice focuses on the left nostril which is associated with cooling energy of the Iḍā Nadi. Repeating the mantra “so hum”—I am that which breaths life—is another technique to draw the mind toward a space of yin.
To practice, come to a comfortable seated position. Close your right nostril with any finger, using light pressure. Breath in and out of your left nostril only and repeat the mantra with each round of breath.
Breath 1: So Hum (I am that which breaths life)
Breath 2: I Am That
Breath 3: I Am Tranquil
Breath 4: So Hum
Breath 5: So Hum
Release your right nostril and relax your hands on your thighs. Gently conclude your pranayama practice.
About our contributor
Kiesha Battles, RYT-200, is the creator of the I Am Yoga organization in Charlotte, a co-Director of the Yoga Retreat for Women of Color™, and the author of The Yin Yoga Guidebook. She has been Yoga Director at Charlotte Family Yoga Center and has conducted numerous workshops around the country. With a graduate degree in Asian studies, Kiesha brings knowledge of Asian philosophy, religion, and language, as well as Eastern philosophy including Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. In addition to being a teacher, she is a wife and mother. Follow her @iamyogaclt