The Hidden Benefits of Yin Yoga

By Shannon Stephens for Yoga Medicine®.

I was recently asked to discuss some of the more subtle benefits of yin yoga. I love this prompt because yin yoga, by nature, is subtle. Rooted in the complimentary principles of yin and yang, yin yoga is a restorative practice that incorporates long held, passive poses aimed at balancing the subtle and gross body. Our bodies naturally seek equilibrium and steadiness as we continually oscillate between yin and yang. Regardless of how we live our lives, we all need yin.

In terms of a dualistic presence within us, yin and yang forces regulate our bodily functions. The sympathetic nervous system that is guided by yang energy gives us the push we need to accomplish tasks, while the parasympathetic nervous system associated with yin is responsible for our rest and recovery. Muscles allow us to move in expressive ways, while deeper connective tissues such as ligaments provide more passive support to our joints and bones. Within the energetic body, Ida refers to the chandra (yin) energies of the moon while pingala refers to the surya (yang) energies of the sun. These dualistic forces help to regulate the prana, or life force, within. Our modern lifestyles encourage us to push the needle toward a perpetual, yang state of doing and accomplishing. Yin, on the other hand, is the practice that invites us to accept, surrender and simply be. These seemingly subdued characteristics of a yin practice are potent medicine to both the mind and body.

Yin Reveals the Unseen

There are so many ways to explore meaningful connection through movement, and we should partake! Whether you find it through a challenging vinyasa flow, Tai Chi, a hike, or competitive sports, movement is a great connector to sustained awareness. Yin yoga slows everything down, allowing us to simmer in awareness. Through yin we have the opportunity to connect in meaningful ways—to see and experience things we may otherwise miss when we’re constantly on the go. To demonstrate this, I like to compare driving (yang) to walking or riding a bike (yin). Our cars place us in such a state of arriving that we may miss subtleties often observed on a walk or while riding a bike—subtleties like the way the sun filters through the trees, birds singing on their branches, or the smell of freshly cut grass being carried by the breeze. Yin yoga helps us to observe and be with the subtleties in life. Unclouded by performance or expectations, we can awaken to our internal environment, our wisdom, creativity, and curiosity.

Yin Strengthens Interoception

When we hold a pose for time we can start to fine tune our awareness. Collecting information about different stresses to the tissues, their location, intensity, and quality all provide a glimpse into our inner worlds. Once we learn to listen to our body’s signals we can begin to cultivate an internal state of balance. We better understand how to influence our nervous system, monitor emotions, and even manage pain. Off the mat, these skills translate in remarkable ways. For example, being able to sense muscular tension within the body is a reminder to soften our grip or change posture. Noticing an elevated heart rate when we’re nervous might help us to remember to pause and take a deep breath. A headache could signal we need a break from looking at our screens, or that we’re dehydrated. Tuning into our changing moods and thoughts throughout the day helps us to make better decisions as we navigate our daily lives.

Yin Is a Reminder that Nothing Is Permanent

On a physical level, subtle stress to our tissues offers the chance to get curious about what’s happening beneath the skin. Holding a pose for time, we experience the sensation of our tissues lengthening and compressing, or the feeling of fluids flushing through the body right at the point of release. Emotionally, we have the opportunity to meet ourselves during times of uncertainty, as well as in times of joy or ease. Connecting to the experiences that make us squirm or feel out of control urges us to uncover the underlying source of our discomfort and better understand how to hold space for them. Coming closer to joy encourages us to savor and appreciate the moment like a precious gift. Through yin that we can recognize and embrace the power of impermanence.

Yin Teaches Us How to Respond Rather Than React

Life is hard. Pain, uncertainty, disappointment, shame, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear are all part of the human spectrum. Because we’re human, we have a deep seated compulsion to distract ourselves from discomfort. When we practice yin, however, we have the opportunity to stay open to whatever arises. We can find and tend to our stuck points with tenderness and a lot of grace.

Physical pain is always a signal to come out of a pose, but stillness in yin often reveals a different type of discomfort. The edginess or impulse that precedes emotion or reaction is like fuel to a fire when it comes to habitual patterns. The urge to mask or squelch discomfort may feel good in the moment, but often leads to more suffering. Staying with edginess, restlessness, boredom, or anything less than ideal in a yin pose can help to break the cycle of reaction and open other ways of being. Training in learning how to stay soft and vulnerable humbles us. Here we open toward spaciousness and an attitude that everything is okay. Off the mat, we become more resilient to the ups and downs of life. We become better equipped to navigate stressful situations and more open to finding solutions.

Yin Allows Us to Explore the Subtle Body

I like to think of yin yoga as a link between asana and meditation. With one foot in each world we can explore the subtle or energetic body. We may use the poses as a way to target specific tissues of the body, or we may find the appropriate comfort to rest. Like many styles of meditation, yin invites us to cultivate stillness through exploration of the breath and an awareness of sensations as they arise. In this space between asana and meditation, we find room to consider the subtle body—meridian lines, the chakras, energy points and pathways.

I am personally drawn to meridian theory where I have focused my studies, practice and classes; however, any energetic or subtle body system can be explored in a yin practice. There is no limit!

Consider meridian lines like streams that run through your body. They recirculate fluids, moisten the body, and deliver nutrients throughout. Each of these lines corresponds to an organ of your body. In Traditional Chinese Medicine the main function of the organs is to store our essence (nutrients and Qi) and to transform and transport these nutrients. Imagine these organs as hubs or energetic centers of the body and the meridian lines as the means of transportation. We may experience pain, sluggishness, discomfort, or emotional disturbance when there is obstruction in these pathways. By holding a yin pose for time we stimulate the meridian lines that run through our arms, legs, and torso, clearing obstructions and allowing for free passage of Qi/energy.

Visualization is key, and so is moment to moment awareness. As you feel the tissues lengthening in a position of stretch or squeezing together in one of compression, you might imagine the meridian lines lengthening or constricting too. Pulsation, vibration, warmth, and a flushing feeling beneath the skin indicate recirculation. Our blood contains nutrients, so regardless of belief systems, we can rest in the awareness that the body is receiving nourishment in these moments.

Yin Awakens Compassion and Empathy

The very act of setting ourselves up in a pose can be ritualistic and/or an act of love and self-care. Through the yin practice, we have the opportunity to become our own mothers or fathers. I recently became sick with Covid and had no energy for a movement practice, but welcomed yin. Time on my mat allowed me to tend to achy joints and tender muscles. I practiced with all the props I could find, careful of how I set myself up for long held poses. The extra support and attention was a reminder of how much power lies in being gentle.

The tendency to guard and protect ourselves is human instinct. When we continually shut down to experiences that cause pain or that make us feel vulnerable, we contract in our thinking. Through yin, we can learn how to stay open, embracing sensations and emotions as they arise. Training in opening and softening allows us to arrive at the heart of ourselves. Here we discover the depth of our compassion and empathy.

I’ve always enjoyed finding parallels between time on my mat and the lived experiences off of it. Yin is an invitation to explore our own inner worlds. Most days are filled with ordinary encounters and experiences. We only need to change the way we approach the ordinary to discover that even the most mundane moments offer something sacred and beautiful.

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