I stumbled across yin yoga on accident about two years ago.
I’d tried a gentle yoga class at a local studio – my first yoga class ever – and I was interested in starting my own practice, something mellow and quiet to balance out the strength training I did throughout the week. I did a YouTube search and found a video by Ekhart Yoga called “60 Minutes Yin Yoga for the Spine.”
Ever since then, I’ve been hooked.
What is yin yoga?
Yin yoga is a slow practice where postures are held for minutes at a time. Many of these poses tend to be seated, like pigeon pose and caterpillar pose. (So, it’s not a practice with epic-looking, gravity-defying postures that some people associate with yoga.)
Unlike active (or yang) forms of physical activity that tend to activate more superficial muscle tissues, yin yoga offers your body the chance to surrender to gravity, deepening into postures that slowly stretch and engage connective tissues. Sometimes referred to as a quiet practice, it can involve long periods of silence where you focus on the breath.
This post isn’t meant to be a deep-dive into yin yoga, so for those who want to read more, I’d encourage you to check out books by people like Bernie Clark (The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga: The Philosophy and Practice of Yin Yoga) and Paul Grilley (Yin Yoga: Principles and Practice 10th Anniversary Edition).
With that said, books are no match for experience when it comes to deepening your knowledge of this stuff. Books are valuable, for sure, but investing time in the practice is where the real learning begins.
Since I’ve been practicing yin regularly (roughly once a week) for about two years now, I figured I’d reflect a bit on some of the things I’m learning from having a quiet practice.
1. Sitting at a desk is surprisingly brutal on the body.
I didn’t realize the toll that sitting at a desk was taking on my body until the first few sessions of yin yoga. I was fit and active when I started, with a habit of incorporating stretches into my fitness routine, but I still have vivid memories of some of those first long holds for parts of the body affected by long periods of time of sitting at a desk.
Even today, if I don’t practice yin for a couple weeks, I notice the difference.
2. Whenever possible, find your edge.
In yin, I love the fact you sink into a posture to the point where you experience resistance – the place where you feel uncomfortable, though not at all in pain. In other words, you find your edge. And then you hang out there.
I’ve found this mindset trickling into circumstances off the mat. Where I was once “go, go, go!” without much consideration about an edge – maybe not even being conscious of one – now I’m more likely to isolate a challenging limit.
3. Allow life to nudge you beyond your edge.
The cool part about finding your edge in yin is that, by finding it, you’re in the best position to move beyond it. In other words, if you try to force your body to endure more than it can handle very quickly, you’ll get injured, thereby delaying your progress.
But if you hang out at your edge and keep breathing, it takes a relatively short period of time before the circumstances of the pose and gravity come together to sink you deeper into the posture.
This experience can bleed over into other areas in life, where external circumstances may seem like the source of a struggle but, when granted another look and infused with some patience, they may actually make a strong ally.
4. Don’t forget to breathe.
It’s interesting how many of us restrict something so fundamental to existence – the breath – when we’re undergoing duress. I have a tendency to clench my jaw and hold my breath when I’m challenging my body, whether it’s a tough yin posture (I’m looking at you, pigeon pose) or a yang-style activity like strength training.
Yin practice gives you the time and quiet to turn to the breath, focus on it, and allow it to work with you when slowing sinking deeper into postures. Certainly, different activities may require different breathing patterns, but I think the clarity you can gain from simply being cognizant of the breath remains the same across all areas of life.
Some yin postures can be pretty uncomfortable (but never painful!). Hanging out in that discomfort and observing your head-space can reveal a lot about your inner tendencies.
Do you get angry? Do you feel sad? Anxious, maybe? Are you quick to jump out of the posture, even if the mild discomfort is perfectly tolerable? While observing these tendencies, the idea is not to “fix” them or force them away (which can actually attach you to them even more). Instead, you’re just glancing at the thoughts as they pass by like clouds overhead.
I’ve noticed that this practice of observation has trickled into other areas of life. Sure, I still react to things sometimes, but I’ve noticed that I’ve also cultivated a tendency where thoughts that once had weight are now phrases that I observe for a bit, and since I’m not particularly attached to them, they’re free to drift away. And they do.