Yin yoga is the opposite to strong, dynamic “yang” styles of yoga and other physical activity. It consists of long held static poses that stimulate the muscles and deep tissues around the joints. The focus is on increasing range of movement in the body, mobility in the joints, and calming the mind.
In the more dynamic “yang” styles of yoga, the focus is on actively stretching and strengthening the muscles and, particularly in fast moving classes, getting the blood pumping and movement in the body.
In yin yoga, the focus is on long held poses, gently stretching a targeted area, increasing mobility and functionality. Both styles of yoga compliment one another and bring vitality and ease of movement to the body.
In practice, yin yoga might seem easy at first as there is not a strong deliberate stretch or much effort required, however the longer holds allow a depth that will take you to your ‘edge’ in a pose, where you feel a comfortable stimulation of the targeted muscle area. The goal is not to go deeper in a stretch, but to stimulate the muscle, allowing the deepening of the stretch to naturally occur without forcing it.
Benefits for your body
The body adapts to how you use it, so when you spend much of your day in seated positions such as at work, in the car, or relaxing on the couch, your body gets used to a limited range of movement. A lack of movement and stimulation over time can cause stiffness and reduced mobility in the joints. This is due to a build up of a connective tissue called ‘fascia’ in the joints which begins to degenerate.
Fascia is a sheath of stringy connective tissue that surrounds every part of your body. It provides support to your muscles, tendons, ligaments, organs, nerves, joints and bones. Because of the connectivity of fascia throughout the body it means that a small movement in one part of the body, pulls the whole web of fascia connected throughout the entire body. When your fascia is healthy, it’s flexible and stretches with you. When your fascia tightens up, which can occur due to a lack of movement, and also due to stress, it can restrict movement.
To keep the fascia healthy we need stimulation. The goal in the long held poses in yin yoga, is to stimulate the muscle not to reach our maximum depth, this is the key to finding your ‘edge’.
To increase range of movement you need to engage in a long held stretch and take it to your ‘edge’, then hold it there. Finding your edge is allowing your body the opportunity to open up, the essence of yin is yielding, not pushing or striving. Over time with regular practice, the stretch will become easier. As you increase your stretch tolerance, your body and your nervous system will become more comfortable with it and your range of movement will increase.
When the muscles are contracted, like in yang yoga or other activities such as running etc, the joint is protected by the muscle engagement, however while the muscle is contracted, the joint can not move to its full range of movement. The long held stretches in yin yoga compliment yang movements by allowing the muscles to relax and by engaging deep tissues in the body allowing your joints to move into their full range of movement.
It has been scientifically proven that static stretching, so long holds as practiced in yin yoga, is more effective at achieving long term range of motion compared to more yang styles of stretching.
Benefits for your mind
While there are many physical benefits to a yin yoga practice that will compliment your yang practices, no less important is the calming and stress reliving effects this practice entails.
The long held poses in yin yoga allow the time to observe the constantly changing body mindfully and meditatively. It presents an opportunity to become still and be with the sensations in the body, enhancing body awareness.
During a long held stretch, the minds focus is on the target area that is being stretched. When the mind is focused on something specific like this, in yoga it is called a dharana practice which helps to settle the activity of the mind.
We can use the breath to settle the body into a stretch and to relax other parts of the body that may inadvertently tense up. This is tied in with body awareness, so during a yin yoga class you will cultivate that connection between the body and breath, using the breath to settle body and mind.
Long held stretches are calming for the nervous system. Practicing Yin yoga creates a positive feedback loop with long held poses settling the nervous system, and when the nervous system is settled you can melt deeper into the pose.
Yin Yoga presents an opportunity to let go of striving, pushing harder and achieving, and allows you to yield and surrender into the body and the breath, and let go of any effort. This helps to bring a yin/yang balance and sense of equanimity in the physical body, the nervous system and the mind.
Retraining the NS: STRETCHING AND FLEXIBILITY - Physiology of Stretching (mit.edu)