What is Yin Yoga (with Five Simple Poses for When the Energy Reserves are Low)

Yin yoga is a unique practice that works to improve the health of our joints while cultivating stillness in our minds.  Unlike cardiovascular exercises that focus on 'powering through' for the benefit of working your muscles and heart, yin yoga works in an opposite, still and calming way, to exercise the joints through focusing on the actual physical connections within the body.

The practice consists of various poses that are usually mat based and target connective tissues (ligaments, tendons, bones and fascia) by applying moderate stress to them for several minutes. Anatomically, these tissues are usually in the region of the hips, pelvis, inner thighs and lower spine.  These physical areas are not often exercised by the more active, ‘yang style’ movements (such as running or power yoga) so yin yoga can be very complimentary to those who practice them.  The higher energy ‘yang type’ practices can also result in inflammation of the deep fascia tissue which can cause pain and stiffness that the long-held ‘yin stretches’ can help release.

There are also many other benefits to practicing yin yoga and physiologically some of the most significant ones are improved circulation around the targeted area and stimulation of the bodies’ meridian lines (or energy pathways) that originate from the principles of traditional Chinese medicine.  Although all kinds of movements stimulate these meridians, yin yoga can be especially effective because its poses are held longer which gives the life force in our bodies a chance to expand for longer too. This should result in a more balanced distribution of energy and by association, increased healing and vitality.

It’s important to understand that there isn’t specific dedicated yin or yang poses per se, what matters is how the poses are practiced.  For example, a wide legged forward fold (dragonfly) practiced the yang way would mean continuous engagement of the inner thigh muscles and using the exhale breath to lower the belly closer towards the ground in a continuous motion. The same pose practiced the yin way would mean setting the body up in to the shape where it feels most appropriate for the individual– this space should usually be towards the edge of someone safe range of movement – where there is no pain but a mere sensation of expansion.  It won’t be an entirely comfortable experience but one that the person can sit still with for several minutes.  Encompassing the physical body this way creates a sense of calmness in the mind and allows for plenty of space to practice mindful meditation or just self-reflection. This is probably why a sense of ease and lightness usually follows my own yin yoga practices and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Yin yoga can be wonderful to practice at home because it doesn’t require much energy or a lot of time.  The below five poses work to engage all of the major meridians and don’t require any special set up.  If this is your first time practicing yin yoga, I would recommend setting a two minute timer to hold each pose (or each side) and gradually with practice, you will be able to build up the time and stay for longer (for up to eight minutes a pose).  It’s important that you stay tuned into your body and listen to its limitations, easing off on intensity or coming out of the poses sooner if it feels appropriate.  Take your time with both, coming in and out of the poses and move in a way that feels most natural as you do so. With all that being said, enjoy the practice and allow it to work it’s wonders on you with an open (and alert) mind.

To begin, just set yourself up on a flat surface and don’t forget to alternate sides for the two poses where one leg comes forward at a time. Once finished, take a couple of minutes to lie down flat on your back or allow the body to recalibrate. 

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Full Forward Fold Slowly ease into the pose by gradually allowing your torso to just drape over your legs through gravity and allowing the body to stay soft. If your upper back or hamstrings are particularly tight, this will feel very challenging so it can be nice to prop your head up with pillows or bolsters too. 

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Dragon Get into the lunge position and set the hands up under the shoulders. If this feels challenging you can use blocks to get more height and if it feels like the pose is putting too much pressure on the back knee, try adding some soft padding underneath to make it more comfortable.  The upper body is activated slightly so try to maintain a long spine and softer shoulders as you hold the pose.

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Butterfly Soles of the feet come together and the knees fall out wide.  As with the full forward fold, allow your body to drape over your legs with gravity and prop your head up higher if it feels too intense to release completely.  Once settled, you should feel an expansion along the length of the spine as well as on the inside of the thighs. 

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Pigeon Start in a table top position and slowly begin to bring one knee forward until it can settle slightly wider then that same side of the hip. Keep both hips facing the front and maybe use some props to add more height under the forward side of the hip if it feels too strenuous. To intensify, the front foot can come further forward (more parallel to the front of the mat if you are using one). Once your feet are happy, you can start to descend down onto forearms and maybe all the way onto the ground.  If this pose doesn’t agree with your knees, you can try taking a figure four stretch lying on your back instead. 

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Seal Lie on your belly and slowly begin to push yourself onto your forearms into Sphinx pose. If your lower back feels happy you can continue straightening the arms and come all the way up. This is quite an intense backbend so stay really mindful of your lower back and belly.  Once you found your edge, try and allow the hip and bum muscles to soften and work on keeping an open heart as you breathe. 

“Within you, there is a stillness and a sanctuary to which you can retreat at anytime and be yourself” Hermann Hesse

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