What is Yin Yoga?

What is Yin Yoga?

*Update* – From 22nd March 2017 I am teaching a weekly Yin Yoga class at  Evolve Wellness in South Kensington – Wednesdays 6-7.15pm. Come along to slow down and find some stillness. 

The word ‘yin’ comes from the Chinese philosophy of Taoism, where all is composed of the complementary elements of yin and yang. While yang is faster, hotter and more active, yin is slower, cooler and passive in comparison.

Yin yoga is a deep, meditative practice where physically the focus is on moving deeper into the connective tissues of the body (ligaments, tendons and fascia – the cling-film-like ‘tissue’ which holds our muscles together) in areas such as the hips and spine, for instance. This typically involves holding poses for three to five minutes.

The ‘god-father’ of Yin yoga Paul Grilley describes our muscles as Yang tissue and bone and connective tissue as Yin. Most of the physical yoga we tend to practise in the West is Yang by nature with an emphasis ‘doing’.  Yin yoga is much more about being and rather than doing or striving.  It teaches us to find a place of ease and acceptance as we hold poses that penetrate these deeper areas.

As it may look like we are not physically ‘doing’ much in a Yin practice it is sometimes categorised as an ‘easier’ style of yoga. But that’s somewhat misleading.  For some of us, slowing down and being still is a real challenge. Yet if that’s the case, it’s probably a sign that that’s exactly what we need. Also, unlike restorative yoga where the emphasis is on rest, relaxation and comfort, yin yoga can at times feel intense.

What to expect in class?

This will very much depend on the style of the teacher and their particular approach, but on the whole poses are mostly on the floor (seated, lying down, kneeling) and tend to be held for three to five minutes. Along the way you are invited by the teacher to go further into the pose, but this is not about forcing your body. Less is more. You find our own intelligent edge in each pose – there might be discomfort or intensity here (but certainly not pain) and that can be very humbling for the ego.  Yet, what invariably happens by staying here, and staying with the breath is that your body settles and opens up that bit more into the pose.   It’s a great antidote to other activities where we may rely on our physical strength to power through.  And it’s a great metaphor for how we can choose to respond to situations away from the yoga mat.

When I attended a workshop with respected Yin yoga expert Sarah Powers back in 2012 she invited us all to meet our limitations during our practice and to recognise where we were resisting. As Sarah put it, “Instead of needing to be comfortable to relax, we learn to relax with discomfort. That is a very transferable skill.” 

Just one of the benefits I find of this practice is that this slowing down allows you to really tune in and pay attention to what is going on with your body. With that awareness you are more likely to take your body only to the point where it is ready to go in any given pose.

You can expect to notice your breathing slowing down as you move through each pose and the meditative pace of the practice has a calming affect on the mind as well as the body. So, Yin yoga is much more than stretching. Other reported benefits of a regular Yin practice include, alleviating anxiety and reducing stress.

Is Yin Yoga for you?

There is an argument, if you are already hypermobile as to whether Yin is necessarily a good practice for you.  Yin by it’s nature will take you deeper and lead to more opening, but if you are already very open is this what you need?  My feeling is that it is hard to be prescriptive about these things as we are all different.  If you are hypermobile it is possible that you may not receive the signals that you are overstretching until it is too late, so mindfulness is key, I feel.  I would humbly suggest using the greater space for awareness that this practice provides and taking note of recognising your own edge to avoid that risk.  In this sense, part of your yin practice if you are hypermobile will likely be about learning to engage your muscles during the poses with support and stability for your body in mind – so, an opportunity to practise holding back, to a degree, rather than total surrender.

Also, if you already have a diagnosed condition such as osteoporosis I’d recommend seeking advice from your doctor first and if you are practising then being especially aware of your alignment. Speak to the instructor about modifying poses accordingly and note whether there are certain poses that you might want to omit. As my Yin yoga teacher, Norman Blair says, there is always an alternative. As ever, it is very important practice with awareness towards your own body.

In all classes I would say listen to your body – you are the one who lives there – and trust yourself first.

Overall, most people can benefit from incorporating a Yin practice into their routine.  If you already practice a lot of dynamic yoga styles or sports then this can be a wonderful complement.

We all need both yin and yang to be in balance in our bodies and minds. When we have this balance then contentment, better health and happiness follows.

*Update* – From 22nd March 2017 I am teaching a weekly Yin Yoga class at  Evolve Wellness in South Kensington – Wednesdays 6-7.15pm. Come along to slow down and find some stillness. 

To experience a dose of Yin and Restorative yoga in one class, come along my Flow & Restore classes. The first half of this beautifully balanced class guides you through a series of flowing postures to develop strength and flexibility. The pace then slows for the second half of the class where the focus is on restorative and yin poses allowing your body to release both physical and mental tension. For class times see my class schedule. 

Insight Yoga by Sarah Powers

Insight Yoga by Sarah Powers

Each month on my U Can Yoga website I have been featuring yoga related books that I’ve really enjoyed and want to share with you guys reading out there. For anyone who has missed the titles featured so far, I am including some my previous ‘Books of the Month’ here. I hope you enjoy:

Insight Yoga by Sarah Powers

Insight Yoga by Sarah Powers

Insight Yoga by Sarah Powers

Sarah Powers combines elements of yoga, traditional Chinese medicine and Buddhism in this fantastic and easy to follow introduction and guide to Yin yoga.

Including chapters on meridian theory, how to begin a Yin/Yang yoga practice, pranayama and mindfulness meditation, this book makes self-practice simple.

You will find Yin sequences with clear photos, dedicated to different meridians (e.g. sequences for the liver and gallbladder) and Yang (dynamic flow) sequences for balancing a Yin practice. Added to this, Sarah Powers’ chapter on her personal journey, from graduating with a degree in transpersonal psychology and her humbling experience of her first yoga class in the mid-1980s to her now twenty-plus years of practice, puts into context why she is so passionate about yoga and sharing these practices and this comes through beautifully in her writing style throughout the book.

As an aside, if you are in London this New Year, I am teaching New Year Detox Yin Yoga Workshop – a practice to stimulate the liver and gallbladder meridians (two organs that play an essential part in the body’s detoxification process) on Sunday 3rd January 2016 1.30-3.30pm at Embody Wellness. For further details and to book please click here.

Moving with the Flow, Moving with Awareness

Moving with the Flow, Moving with Awareness

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Find joy in the present - image via thingsweforget.blogspot.com

“ Live with awareness for the sake of ourselves and others.” – Sarah Powers

So far it’s been a yin yang summer.

This summer marks a year of leaving the ‘security’ of my old job and beginning the journey of yoga teaching. I’d known long before that I wanted to take this leap and share my love of yoga, but I held myself back for a number of reasons (i.e. excuses) – my postures not being Cirque du Soleil enough, not looking the way a yoga teacher is ‘supposed’ to, worrying other people might think I’d gone ‘la-la-woo-woo’, and a teeny matter of being terrified of speaking in front of groups… Then along came my mate Redundancy to give me the firm kick in the posterior I needed.

Judith Hanson Lasater, when I trained with her earlier this year, joked that yoga teachers are the most “go-go-go” people she knows, often scheduled to the hilt.

I relate to this. I have always had workaholic tendencies, though I’ve increasingly spent the past months being all go-go-go. Working seven days a week most weeks (not only teaching, admittedly), out of necessity to make ends meet. I believed. But when your mind believes one thing it’s funny how the wisdom of the body tells you very clearly not to believe your thoughts!

A number of physical signs stopped me in my tracks, telling me I had to start doing things differently. (Like actually taking a day off occasionally.) So, I followed my gut instinct and did something that seemed illogical. I gave up a part-time job.

But I have faith that when you let go of one thing you clear the way for something new. And funnily enough… I’ve been having a number of serendipitous experiences.

In June I did a wonderful intensive training with Shiva Rea. The timing, though I did not realise it then, could not have been more perfect. One thing that particularly struck me, within learning about the essentials of teaching vinyasa flow, were the reminders about moving with the flow of life off the mat too.

Then this month I was lucky enough to attend a workshop with Sarah Powers – yin yang yoga and mindfulness meditation. This was certainly not my first experience of a yin practice, though it was my first (and hopefully not last) experience of practicing with Sarah Powers, and the timing seemed pertinent. On the mat we were invited to meet our limitations during our yin practice. To see where we resist and, to recognise the resistance rather than resisting resistance. Sarah talked about ‘implicit resistance’ and how we may manipulate a situation to tell ourselves, “I’m fine”. And she also talked about compassion (karuna) towards our habits of aversion towards the uncomfortable situations in our lives. In turn, this allowed me to think about where I resist off the mat too and how, indeed, I had ignored my own internal signals over the past months. I recognised how little compassion I had been showing myself in that time.

For our mindfulness meditation practice, using the breath (observing it rather than controlling it) as a tool to anchor to the present moment, Sarah talked about developing the observing mind, seeing what happens when we observe resistance, pleasure and so on.

“If you can’t listen to the breath, then you can’t listen to the subtle internal messages.”

It was in paying attention to my internal messages rather than listening to my ‘logical’ thoughts that I realised I had to change what I was doing and how I was doing it.

All of these things were reminders of what I already knew deep down, internally. But how often do we push these kinds of feelings aside in favour of what seems logical?

In talking about her own practice Sarah mentioned how it is amazing to notice when you don’t practice for a few days that everything turns into ‘thoughts’ and assuming that our thoughts are reality. Again I was reminded of Judith’s words during training – “Watch your thoughts but don’t believe them.”

So, in paying more attention to those internal messages and becoming more aware I’ve been finding some more clarity. That is not to say it is always comfortable, but I am practicing showing myself compassion along the way. It is a continual practice – usually compassion for myself has seemed to come last on the list. For how many of us has showing compassion towards ourselves seemed challenging or selfish? But it’s a little bit like the oxygen mask analogy. You know, when airplane cabin crew take you through the safety procedure and the little film tells you to put your oxygen mask on before assisting others with their masks? Self-compassion is not selfish. This applies whether it’s during our asana practice or our day-to-day life. Yes, all this may seem obvious, yet I feel grateful for the good and the ‘bad’ over the past months, which has led me to this point.

Related to this, where I have decided to move with the flow – to let go of worrying about what may or may not happen in the future and focussed on the present, unexpected opportunities have somehow appeared just when I’ve least expected it. And again, at every turn, I am incredibly grateful!

One such opportunity is officially joining the retreat teaching team at Sally Parkes Yoga. I am excited to be hosting a retreat in October at the wonderful Marsh Farm House in Sussex. Why not take a break from your frenetic pace and join me in feeling the joy of moving with the flow. But in the meantime, don’t forget to enjoy the present moment!

For retreat details please visit www.sallyparkesyoga.co.uk.