When I first started practicing yoga, I began with yin yoga because I was recovering from knee surgery. At the time, this practice that involves holding stretches for three to five minutes, was difficult for me. I had a hard time staying still for that long (in my body and my mind). Over the years, yin has become my favorite asana practice, because it's what I need the most.
This time of year is perfect to start a yin practice if you don't already have one. Yin provides the opportunity to slow down, and nourish your body. The benefits of this accessible style of yoga include: calms and balances the mind and body; reduces stress and anxiety; increases circulation; improves flexibility; releases fascia and improves joint mobility; balances the internal organs; and improves the flow of chi or prana.
In Yin Yoga, we let go of effort by allowing the muscles to relax, and then intentionally stress the joints and the fascia. Staying for three to five minutes allows the dense connective tissues to respond. When we release the pose, we experience increased blood flow and energy coming back to the places that were under stress. It takes time and patience to allow for this release, so the practice also helps us return to the parasympathetic nervous system (our state of rest and digest).
Bernie Clark, author of The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga, explains that yin tissues (connective tissues such as fascia) are stiffer, dryer, and harder and, therefore, require more time to become pliable than the more fluid-filled, elastic yang tissues (muscles). Connective tissue responds best to a slow, steady load, so we spend minutes rather than seconds in yin poses to allow “the stress to soak into the tissues.” The body responds to this stress by making the tissues a little longer and stronger, just like lifting a barbell strengthens your muscles.
Our connective tissue is found throughout the body in every bone, muscle, and organ, but is most concentrated at the joints. If you don't use your full range of motion, the connective tissue will shorten to the minimum length needed to accommodate your activities. Years of underuse will essentially result in a shrink-wrapping of your joints by shortened connective tissues.
Yin is a great practice for engaging in introspection and interoception (the ability to interpret sensations coming from within our bodies). It requires listening to your body and responding to what you feel. There's a delicate balance between sensation that is beneficial (moderate stress that might feel a bit achy), and going too far and experiencing sharp pain. As you practice, you observe the sensations you feel. The intention is to remain on the mild end of the sensation spectrum, rather than pushing, pulling, or striving to go deeper, recognizing that more is not necessarily better. In yin yoga, students are encouraged to modify poses to find an alignment that allows them to reach the intention of each posture in their own bodies.
Yin yoga is a wonderful complement to yang forms of movement like vinyasa yoga, running, cycling, or strength training. Adding this slower, more contemplative practice to your routine can benefit your mind and body, and keep you mobile as you age. The practice has increased my range of motion and flexibility, but most importantly has allowed me to tune into my body and its sensations. If you're local, join me for a 60-minute yin yoga practice at True Yoga on Thursdays at 4:00 p.m. Mountain Time. I also teach a vinyasa-yin combo class via Zoom on Wednesdays at 11:30 a.m. Mountain Time. Visit the Yoga page for more details.