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What is Yin Yoga?

Shoelace Pose, Yin Yoga

Shoelace pose done in a yin fashion. Also known as Gomuhkasana.

I just completed a teacher training in Yin Yoga, as presented by the wonderfully intelligent and sweet Corina Brenner. While I’d heard of Yin Yoga in the past, I had no idea what it really was until this training. My personal practice has been transformed over just a few days of consistent Yin Yoga practice, and I now see the value and necessity of complementing “yang” vinyasa practice with the quiet, sustained holds of “yin” practice. In this blog post, I will attempt to explain what Yin Yoga is and why it is an important complement to more active, “yang” yoga practice.

Yin Yoga focuses on the connective tissue of the body (ligament, tendon, fascia, and bone). Yin Yoga is not a series of poses; it is rather an approach to practice. You can practice in a “yin fashion” once you understand the basic theory behind Yin Yoga. The basic premise to Yin Yoga is that the body has yin tissue and yang tissue. Yin tissue is bone and connective tissue. In keeping with the Taoist theory at the heart of Yin Yoga, yin tissue is that which is relatively hidden, closer to the core, slow to change, mysterious, cool or cold, and receptive. Yang tissue, or muscle, is closer to the surface, active, dynamic, flexible, and warm or hot.

Exercise is needed to maintain the body’s health and optimum performance. But many people, especially in our Western society, have come to relate the word “exercise” to something rhythmic and repetitive, like running, biking, lifting weights, or cardio workouts on a gym machine. However, to positively affect or “improve” yin tissue, it must be exercised in a yin fashion. Repetition and rhythm, the hallmarks of yang style exercise (and of vinyasa yoga!), would injure yin tissue. Just think what would happen if, in an attempt to straighten or “improve” your crooked teeth, you wiggled them back and forth. Eventually they’d fall out! To correct tooth alignment, steady sustained pressure is applied through braces. This is yin methodology applied to yin tissue (bone). So yin exercise for yin tissue is long, sustained holds with no movement. Likewise, yang tissue needs yang methodology to be exercised correctly: muscles respond to repetitive, rhythmic stress, like weight lifting, running, or vinyasa yoga, to become stronger.

Yang tissue, when exercised, becomes stronger. Yin tissue, when exercised appropriately, responds by becoming longer and more pliable over time. Since yin tissue comprises our joints and connective tissue, Yin Yoga improves and benefits the joints and fascia, keeping the body pliable, fluid, and able to move through a healthy range of motion. Range of motion and flexibility is influenced far more by yin body tissue than yang body tissue. Through aging, injury, or simply neglect, muscle atrophies (becomes weaker), while connective tissue becomes tighter, more rigid, and brittle (a condition known as “contracture”).

To maintain optimum health and be holistically balanced, exercise should include yin technique for yin tissue. This makes so much sense, but we are not taught to think about “exercising” our joints and connective tissue in an appropriate way. In the microcosm of the body, the connective tissue is equivalent to skeletons in the closet: don’t talk about it, don’t think about it, and just let it be, hopefully it will all work out in your favor. I’ll come back to this metaphor later, because Yin Yoga practice will help you clear out the skeletons, while keeping your connective tissue healthy and pliable.

An autopsy of the pectoral muscles of the chest showing the fascia.

So we’ve established the difference between yin and yang body tissue, and yin and yang methods of appropriate exercise. Yin Yoga adapts known yoga poses and performs them in a “yin fashion” to target specific connective tissue as well as meridians (energetic pathways of the body, a concept from Traditional Chinese Medicine) that correspond to the vital organs of the body. Yin Yoga works not just on the physical level (bone, tendon, ligament, and fascia) but also on the energetic level, by stimulating the meridian pathways of the body. How does it do this?

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and yoga, energy is said to move through the body along channels called meridians (TCM) or nadis (yoga). These pathways exist in the fascia! Fascia is a fibrous substance that can be thought of like a cobweb that encases and connects the entire body.  It is the substance that creates (or perhaps it is the negative space in the fascia; this is a theory in development) the meridians/nadis. So, by stimulating the fascia, we directly stimulate the meridians/nadis of the body.

Yin Yoga has taken this even further, and developed poses to specifically target the meridians which correspond to the vital organs (heart, liver, kidney, lung, spleen, intestines, etc.). When you hold a Yin Yoga pose, you stimulate the meridian pathways of the body by squeezing and stretching the body. You also appropriately stress connective tissue which increases the production of Hylauronic Acid (HA) in the body.

HA is a viscous substance with the consistency of  motor oil that draws fluid towards it (approximately 6,000x its weight). HA is the material that makes up your eyeballs, synovial fluid (the fluid in your joints) and it’s also thought to be the substance that actually creates meridian pathways in the fascia. So by doing Yin Yoga, you increase the production of HA in the body by appropriately exercising yin tissue. Increased HA means increased production of synovial fluid and increased transmission of energy signals throughout the body via the fascia network.

It’s pretty clear, then, that Yin Yoga positively affects the body, especially these “hidden” (yin) layers of tissue that are rarely considered by the average exerciser.

In four days of daily Yin Yoga practice, I noticed a definitive change not only in my flexibility (in particular my hips), but overall I felt “jucier,” an adjective used frequently by yoga practitioners to describe that feeling of your body being well lubricated at the joints, where movement is not just easy and free but also enjoyable and easily expressed. My first vinyasa yoga practice after practicing Yin for four days straight was an epiphany. I floated into arm balances and everything felt less effortfull. That’s not to say I didn’t heat up or sweat (I did!), but I felt that my body was working more efficiently. I’ve also noticed a deepening and easing in my breathing, an increase in my energy, a shift towards better food choices, and my joints have been”popping” more, which isn’t a bad thing. Joints pop for two main reasons. The one I’ll explain here is called “joint fixation” and occurs when the fluid in the joint causes two bones to suction against one another, like how a cold glass sticks to on a coaster on a hot day. The fluid forms a vacuum seal in the joint, and when the seal is broken, you hear a popping sound. There’s nothing wrong or bad about this, and the increased popping of my joints is proof to me there is more fluid in my joints, a result of Yin Yoga practice!

Oh, about those skeletons in the closet. Just because Yin Yoga practice is relatively still and incorporates little movement (this is already a very long blog post and I have barely described how Yin Yoga is done!) doesn’t mean it’s not intense. On the contrary, it’s very intense! My teacher Corina offers Yin classes at her studio in Philadelphia called “Yintensity.” Yah. Yin Yoga will challenge you in ways you’ve never been challenged before. Going deeper into body tissue doesn’t always feel great, and being still with the body for long periods of time brings up all kinds of thoughts and feelings. Another benefit to Yin Yoga practice is learning how to experience difficult sensations, not just endure them! Experience all life has to offer, even the stuff that makes your brain scream “I want to run away  now!!!!” I will try to elaborate on the actual physical practice of Yin Yoga, as well as the emotional aspects, in another post. So the skeletons will have to stay in the closet a little longer for now…

If you’ve never practiced Yin Yoga, I highly recommend it! Having been brought into this lineage of master teachers (that’s for another blog post too), I am now convinced that for optimum health, we must address our yin tissue as well as our yang tissue!

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