You’ve probably heard of “yin yoga” or seen a yin class offered at your local studio. But what is yin, and what does it have to do with the practice of yoga? At first glance, you might think nothing at all! The two terms are actually a conflation of traditions—one from China and the other from India—and putting the two together warrants some explanation.
The Chinese term yin is the counterpart to yang. Yin and yang are the basis for understanding classical Chinese medicine, in which the body is viewed as a complex network of channels, or meridians that conduct the body’s energy, or qi (frequently written as “chi”). If you have ever received acupuncture or practiced qi gong, you might be familiar with these ancient ideas. Many people view yin and yang as opposites, but they’re more than that—they are entities completely dependent on and complementary to one another, and furthermore, nothing is completely yin or completely yang. Things that are yin are typically darker, more material and heavier than things that are yang. For instance, nighttime is yin; daytime is yang. Females are considered more yin; males are considered more yang. The moon is yin; the sun is yang. Getting the picture?
This tradition springs from Daoism—not yoga. So what happens when we apply the Daoist concept of yin to the practice of yoga? We get a practice that is much slower, more grounded, and more concerned with lengthening and conditioning deep connective tissues than a typical flow practice. We also get a practice that was designed with an awareness of our body’s meridians and the flow of qi to release energetic and physical blocks in a quiet and still manner. You will not find a single sun salutation in a true yin yoga class. Instead, floor poses are held for at least 3-5 minutes at a time—and some can be held for much longer. This type of stretching and holding gives the body time to reach beyond the muscular body to target the deep, connective tissue surrounding the joints (think hips, pelvis and lower spine) in a way that a “yang” styles of yoga do not.
If this type of yoga sounds boring or “too easy,” give it a try, and be prepared to change your mind. This is not a restorative practice. Holding these poses for long periods can be quite challenging. Just imagine attempting to maintain a meditative mind state and keep the grimace from your face in a five-minute pigeon! However, the benefits can be huge and include: increased mobility, better lubrication and protection of major joints, a calmer emotional state, and greater stamina for your yang practice.
The concept of yin and yang is all about balance. A yin practice is a wonderful way to balance your yoga practice and your life.
Have you tried yin yoga? What has your experience been?