Yin Yoga 101: 4 "Bitter" and "Sweet" Stages of Starting a Yin Practice

Think Yin is easy? Josh Summers dispels the common misconception and explains why it isn't a restorative style of yoga.
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Yin Yoga Swan Pose with Josh Summers

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When students come to a Yin Yoga class, I often get the sense that they think of Yin Yoga as gentle, quiet, and meditative. That seems to stem from a common misconception that Yin Yoga is a form of restorative yoga. 

It's not.

Years ago, when I was on a meditation retreat with a Thai Forest monk, he described meditation as a “bitter practice with a sweet result.” As soon as I heard those words, I knew immediately they summed up the essence of practicing Yin Yoga as well.

On a physical level, there’s no escaping that Yin Yoga practice brings up a lot bitterness. You are asked to tolerate mild-to-moderate achy sensations that are likely outside your comfort zone. This doesn’t mean that every minute of every pose will be defined by bitter sensations, but—especially in the beginning—the realization that a lot of the poses aren’t exactly comfortable can plant seeds of doubt. 

“Why on earth,” you may ask yourself, “would I voluntarily subject myself to this type of sensation?” The answer: It’s precisely this kind of sensation that puts an appropriate level of stress on dense connective tissues that don’t normally get stimulated during active forms of exercise, like running or vinyasa. I usually suggest that newcomers suspend their judgments of the practice until after it's ended. That's when they will most feel the sweetness that has developed in their bodies. Their bodies may feel lighter and freer, less restricted, unencumbered by aches and discomforts.

Yin Yoga's mental challenge can be tougher. The stillness of each posture prompts your conditioned likes and dislikes to assail you with dogged persistence. Common thoughts include, but are not limited to: “I really should have taken that vinyasa class at 6:45” (desire); “I’m someone who needs to move. I don’t think being this still works for me” (desire and aversion); “This teacher really needs to stop talking so much and just get us out of the pose” (aversion); “Oh my God, when will the time be up?” (restlessness); “I haven't really felt these sensations in any other style of yoga. These can’t be good, especially all this compressing and jamming in the lower back. Every other teacher I’ve ever had has said never to do this” (doubt).

If you can gently tolerate these patterns of mental reactivity, you may find that you develop a different way of responding to them. After a Yin Yoga practice, things that normally irritate you may not affect you as much. Some may say this is because your practice left you in a state of equanimity. While that’s possible, and likely part of it, consider this as well: By tolerating your reactivity, you develop more understanding around it, which results in greater wisdom around ways of being with those same triggers—even when the state of equanimity fades.

The best way to understand what I've described is to experience it. Follow my instructions on feeling your way through through Swan.

4 "Bitter" and "Sweet" Stages of Swan Pose

Getting into the pose
Come to your hands and knees. Slide your left knee back a little and place your right knee behind your right wrist and your right foot in front of your left hip. Then slide your left leg back far enough so that your hips have room to sink. You want to try to feel sensation in your outer right hip, into the external rotators and gluteal area, and possibly down the IT band without generating any sensation in your right knee. To ensure this, you may have to experiment with alignment, either moving the right knee more toward the midline or closer to the right edge of the mat. If the right knee feels stressed, bringing the right foot closer to your hips may relieve it. Allow your right hip to lower as much as possible. You may want to place a blanket or cushion under your right buttock in order to bring mild stress to the outer right hip. Keep in mind that sensations may also surface in your left hip flexors and inner right thigh. Stay for 3-5 minutes.

Stage 1: Physical bitterness
This pose's physical intention is to allow the outer hip of the bent leg to gently marinate in mild sensations that are moderately stressful. When these sensations go on for 3-5 minutes, they can become dull and achy—slightly bitter—creating a broad, diffuse pressure. The area may feel blocked or stuck. You want to breathe as you normally would; your breath shouldn’t become strained in order to maintain the position. If you feel sharp, stabbing, burning, or electrical sensations, back out of your position or exit the pose entirely. Same goes for pronounced numbness or tingling.

Stage 2: Mental bitterness
Mental bitterness is often more of a hurdle than physical bitterness. When you’re in Swan (or any Yin pose) for 3-5 minutes or longer, your mind has plenty of time to get into the weeds. You’ll get restless and fidgety, convinced that the timer is malfunctioning. You’ll feel bored and wonder if you’re not better suited to practice vinyasa. You’ll become annoyed with the teacher for either talking too much or talking too little. You’ll get annoyed with yourself for getting annoyed at yourself, and you’ll judge yourself for being so judgmental. Ah, the wonders of our minds.

Stage 3: Physical sweetness
When you come out of the pose, you're probably going to feel like you’ve aged rapidly. This is because, post-exercise, the tissue is temporarily weaker. Don’t worry. It won't last. Soon, the tissue will feel normal—with the added relief of having released chronic tension and contracture. Enduring the bitterness means you'll be rewarded with the sweetness of fascial release.

Stage 4: Mental sweetness
The internal waves of reactivity can be challenging. Gently stay present to them. If you do, a team of wonderful qualities will develop and ripen: patience, tolerance, and receptivity. These are the desert roses of our hearts, blooming in the most arid and challenging of conditions. And it’s these beautiful qualities of mind that will continue to join you when you get off your mat, offering a quiet sweetness of being.

Now that you have a taste for what “bitter practice, sweet result” is about. Try it on your left leg.