As of late, I find myself reinspired by Yin Yoga, “the practice of quiet power” as Biff Mithoefer calls it. For those who are interested, below is an introduction to Yin (also known as Taoist Yoga). It is an excerpt from the final paper I wrote for my Yin teacher training.
What is Yin Yoga and why would someone want to practice it?
Yin Yoga marries traditional Hatha Yoga postures with Taoist philosophy, and as such is a practice unique in purpose, method, and results. In Taoist thought, there exists a subtle, infinitely creative and vital force called chi, which animates and pervades the manifest universe. As this force operates in the physical realm, it condenses into two polarities: Yin and Yang. While these terms are contextual and not absolute, Yin and Yang can be said to have specific characteristics and operate in predictable patterns. Yang is used to describe that which is apparent, dynamic, bright, superficial, and upward-moving. Yin, on the other hand, represents qualities of subtlety, depth, solidity, stillness, downward movement, and darkness.
In the context of Yin Yoga, Yin describes not the specific shapes/poses themselves, but rather the type of effort and intended results. From a physical perspective, it targets the Yin (inelastic and deep) tissues in the body: the connective tissue (ligaments) that forms joints. In order to affect these tissues therapeutically, the practitioner must appropriately load the ligaments, become still and muscularly soft, and stay for long stretches of time (3-20 minutes). With this gentle, prolonged traction, the body’s repair response is stimulated, and the joints become more pliable. Over time, the postures increase flexibility in the joints within their natural, optimal ranges of motion. Yin Yoga cultivates more ease in sitting, lightness in movement, and can rehabilitate damaged or aging joint tissues.
Of equal importance in Yin Yoga are its energetic benefits. In Taoist philosophy, health in body and mind are wholly dependent on the balanced flow of chi through meridians, or subtle energy pathways in the body. Disharmonies in chi flow, whether from energetic obstructions or weakness, are the root of all illness and imbalances. Yin Yoga effectively addresses this primary determinant of health in a few ways. First, by therapeutically pulling and pressurizing bodily tissues in Yin postures, chi flow in the meridians housed by those tissues is enhanced. Importantly, energetic congestion is found primarily in the joints; thus, by targeting the joints (unlike more “Yang” or active styles of practice, which target muscles and more superficial tissue), blockages in chi flow abate over time. Finally, chi flow is further harmonized by Yin Yoga’s particular focus on breath and mind-training while in postures (discussed further below). Thus, in its emphasis on supporting energetic health, regular Yin Yoga practice can cultivate natural physical vitality, emotional balance, and mental clarity.
Other important benefits of Yin Yoga are of emotional, mental, and spiritual nature. As noted above, in Chinese medicine, the relative health of an individual’s energetic system determines his/her emotional balance, and emotional states in turn influence the quality of chi. Therefore, by cultivating harmony in the energy body, Yin Yoga also can aid in harmonizing one’s emotional life. In addition, the practice, with its emphasis on stillness and long postural holds, creates the optimal environment for meditation. The practitioner has time and space to engage in mind-training, cultivating an undistracted attention able to meet arising (and potentially uncomfortable) sensations, thoughts, and feelings with an awake presence. The practitioner may use the breath as a primary point of focus, either enhancing the breath or simply observing its natural rhythm. As disturbing emotions or thoughts inevitably arise, he/she trains in meeting the feeling or mental impression with a Yin attitude – one of inclusive observation, allowing the moment to exist exactly as it is without interference, manipulation, or judgement. This Yin presence, so rarely accessed by many of us, can reveal to us our deepest, spiritual nature: compassionate, limitless Awareness that is untouched by the changing nature of sensation, emotion, and thought.