Most of the asana and yoga practiced in studios in the West is very ‘yang’ or ‘active’. It works the muscular body, strengthening, toning and lengthening the muscles. Yin yoga is the counter to this – a gentle, passive practice where poses are held with support for longer, to work into the hidden aspect of the body – the joints and ligaments. Whilst the key words of yang yoga may be ‘engage, focus, deepen’, the key words of yin are ‘yield, soften, surrender, become receptive.’ Yang practice inspires change, Yin yoga inspires acceptance.
The terms yang-yin come from Chinese wisdom, representing the polarities in the natural world – and actually how seeming opposites are interconnected and interdependent. Yang: Yin is masculine: feminine, active: passive, external: internal, light: shadow, mind: soul. In yoga, the dance or ‘play’ between these two opposite forces is called ‘lila’, it characterises the ups and downs of life, and yoga is the path to bring both aspects into union, balance and harmony.
‘Yoga is a dance between control and surrender – between pushing and
letting go – and when to push and when to let go becomes part of the creative process, part of the open-ended exploration of your being.’
(Joel Kramer, The Passionate Mind)
There are Three Stages to Yin Yoga:
Find your edge
Hold for some time
Finding your edge involves using the asana (posture) to get deeper into the body, rather than using the body to get deeper into the asana. This requires a surrender of your ego. You have to work with the body and mind you have right in this moment on the mat. This is an invitation to begin your practice with a very honest and humble reality check. How am I really right now?
On being introduced to an asana you make self adjustments within the pose, exploring the interconnected muscles and systems in the body, so that you feel both comfortable to breathe (sukhim) and stable and balanced (sthira). When you find this alignment, unique to your body, you find 'the edge' – balancing a drive or depth, with a surrender and receptiveness to the body’s limits. The edge is where any more and you would be hurting or pushing the body beyond comfort into strain, and any less and the body would be inactive, lethargic, disengaged.
The muscles have a protective relationship to the joints – as you practice you will learn to respect the muscles' protective tightening, and then notice the moment when they let go and you naturally open deeper. This moment cannot be forced. Whilst muscles are elastic, soft, warm; joints are plastic, hard and cold. By applying a lesser, steady continuous pressure to the joints and ligaments we can strengthen the joint fibres and bring awareness deeper ligaments and tissues.
The mentality and approach must be very different to our yang practice – yin yoga must be practiced with compassion, sensitivity and a mindful softness that not only will ensure safe and comfortable practice, but can cultivate the 'mindfulness approach' that will ripple into your life and yang practice as well.
'Keep your eyes closed, and your mind wide open.'
The key phrase of yin yoga is ‘waiting without anxiety’. I would add, it is waiting without expectation, without destination. It is an open-ended conversation with your body and your mind; learning to observe without judgement or desire to change. Paradoxically, great change can and will occur in mind and body at the point of surrender. As such it connects to the most ancient roots of yoga, that of Svadhiyaya – Self Enquiry. Yin practice can be simply relaxation, time out – when even yoga practice feels like another thing ‘to do’. Yin is a ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’ form of yoga - a deeply healing and restorative practice and a great step into meditation and body awareness.
‘Offer in thy heart all thy works to me,
And see me as thy End of thy love,
Take refuge in the Yoga of reason,
And ever rest thy soul in me.’
Bhagavad Gita, ch. 18: v. 57