Yin Yoga

The deeper philosophies of yin yoga

Beyond the slow stretching, there’s more magic to this popular practice.

In our lives we often push and strive, but more and more people are appreciating the need to slow down. We see that immersing in the stillness of practices like yin yoga provides balance to a life that is predominantly yang.

As far as yoga epiphanies go, my bet is that those cathartic releases (yeah, you know the ones!) most often happen during a yin pose. It’s in those sweet, still spaces that we feel all the old, murky stuff emerge. And sometimes, if we’re open to it, we can move through the mess and maybe even heal. There’s a reason for this — and it can be discovered in yin’s deeper philosophies.

Taoism and traditional Chinese medicine

While our modern, flowing yoga classes are generally based on ancient Indian traditions, yin yoga has been influenced by the philosophies of Taoism and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
Yin yoga stems from the Taoist concepts of meridians (which we can think of as energy highways throughout the body) and qi (the energy itself), as well as yin-yang philosophies and five element theory, which are the foundations of TCM.
Tahnee Taylor, a long-time yin yoga practitioner and teacher from the Byron Shire, eloquently describes the Taoist philosophy as “elegant and practical” and providing “a rich conceptual framework to orientate to as a teacher or student [of yin]”. Taoism explains how energy moves in our body and how we can influence that energy flow for optimal physical, mental and emotional health. There’s also a big focus on nature, the seasons and our interconnectedness with our environment.

When we work with the body’s meridians and qi, we impact the health of the individual organs, which, in TCM, relate to both physical and emotional health. Jody Vassallo, an author and yin yoga teacher from the NSW south coast explains that TCM theory believes “emotions store in the body and impact on our organ systems. So, when we stress or compress areas along that meridian in yin yoga in a pose, when we release and come into a rebound, our body sends energy (qi) and blood to the area we have been working on.”

For example, according to TCM the dominant emotion associated with the liver is anger. When we work with the liver meridian in yin, we influence not only the physical health of the liver but our relationship with anger. So, it makes sense, from an energetic perspective, that when we practise a yin pose that impacts the liver meridian, we may experience or release feelings of anger.

For the Taoist, it’s important that we work with the rhythms of Mother Nature. Therefore, each meridian is associated not only with an organ (or organs) and emotion, but also with an element (which is also related to different emotions and seasons). When we practise yin, we strive to create harmony by working with the meridians, elements and associated emotions and seasons. Through the different seasons of the year, we can work with different poses and sequences to honour the interconnectedness between humans and nature and create balance in the body and mind.

Yin and the physical body

Physically, in yin yoga we are working with the body’s fascia — the web of deep connective tissue that weaves throughout our entire body. When we practise more yang-style classes we influence the muscles, but in yin we go deeper.

In yin, we hold poses for minutes (sometimes up to 10) to access these deeper tissues, which tend to be tight and dehydrated. “Muscles need more yang-style movements, and this is why a vinyasa practice is great for the muscles, but fascia, joints, ligaments and connective tissues take time to release — so yin is a much more beneficial practice for these,” explains Jody. Many western practitioners and philosophers believe that fascia can hold onto old tensions and emotions, so by working with the fascia we can release old traumas and tensions.

It makes sense that when we close our bodies off for protection of the vital organs or, you know, because we’re sitting in front of a screen all day, the fascia in these closed places becomes tight and restricted. When we’re in a yin yoga class and consciously move in the opposite direction for an extended time, the emotions that cause us to curl in in the first place may start to arise and, ultimately, release.

Another beautiful benefit of yin for the physical body is that it helps us move from our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) to our parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). When we awaken this rest-and-digest state, we can become more in tune with our body and mind, accessing deeper layers of consciousness (which is what yoga’s all about, right?).

Finding balance

Yin yoga is largely about creating balance (between yin and yang). We need to spend time going slow because we spend so much time going fast. There’s a place for yang as well, and Taoism invites us to explore our relationship between the two. “Nothing can be completely yin or yang. However, by choosing a practice that counters the dominant energy in your life (and for many Westerners I teach, that force is yang), you create harmony. It often feels difficult to slow down … so yin can feel unnatural and unpleasant at first … but the cumulative benefits are huge… My teacher Paul Grilley describes yang practices as the exhale and yin as the inhale — I love this! Sometimes we need to top up and sometimes we need to blow off steam,” says Tahnee.

We don’t need to bring attitudes of pushing and striving into our yin practice. The focus should be on finding a sensation rather than aiming for that strong stretching feeling (popular yin yoga teacher Bernie Clarke refers to this as the “Goldilocks position” — not too much, not too little). You’re aiming to target the meridians, and so once you feel the sensation, that’s all you really need. Jody explains the importance of working with your individual body in yin: “If, for example, students are in sleeping swan, the target area is on the gallbladder line on the outside of the hip. To feel the target area, one student may need to have their hip elevated on a blanket, another student may be down on the mat, one may be upright with hands on blocks while another is laying on the mat. As long as they are feeling the sensation in the target area, they are doing the pose correctly.”

Go with the slow

The transformational power of yin yoga may be credited to many things. But in a world where we are constantly racing, there’s a lot to be said for simply slowing down. “With more time for contemplation and discussion in a yin class, there tends to be a sense of deeper exploration and education, usually around the breath, the body, and the practitioner’s relationship with emotion, physical sensation and the teachings,” says Tahnee.

Yin yoga provides a beautiful outlet for both physical and emotional healing. As we influence the meridian and fascial lines, the body releases old tensions and creates the space for new patterns to emerge. As we progress through these physical, emotional and spiritual layers, the opportunity for growth and expansion follows. But whether you understand the philosophy or not, you’ll still reap the rewards. Jody puts it perfectly: “Yin is one of the most transformational styles of yoga, if you are willing to show up, get truly still, breathe and soften into your experience.”

Jessica Humphries

Jessica Humphries

Jessica Humphries is a freelance writer, editor and yoga teacher who enjoys life in the slow lane in the Northern Rivers of NSW.

You May Also Like

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2022 08 10t155917.654

A new perspective leads to a new direction

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2022 08 10t145017.372

Yoga for self-study

The Hundred Draw

Exercising for the mind

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2022 08 01t142110.758

Leave your holiday feeling refreshed!