What is Yin Yoga?
09 Dec 2017
At the crudest level, Yin Yoga is an approach to the practice of asana that differs significantly from the most common practice styles in the west by its emphasis on the changes in the individual’s experience of an asana when it is held for long periods of time . While using much of the physical vocabulary of yoga asana, Yin Yoga organizes the practice around the concepts of traditional Chinese medicine rather than Ayurveda, and builds its theory of mind around Buddhist teaching rather than the Vedas and the Upanishads. It is the similarities between these different traditions that enable them to fall under the shared label of “yoga”, even while the practices themselves appear dramatically different.
The most obvious difference is that the practitioner spends a lot of time holding each asana in a Yin practice. This single fact leads to a multitude of differences in content and approach. Yin practice requires sustainability in each posture in a way that doesn’t even occur to a Vinyasa practitioner. To make each posture sustainable, liberal and creative use of props becomes an essential skill for Yin practice.
The time factor also changes the attitude of approach to the postures. A level of sensation that is acceptable when held for three to five breaths becomes intolerable after three to five minutes. The body also responds differently to a sustained hold, with muscles, nerves, fasica, and even organs adapting over time. The changes in the body bring about changes in sensation. Mental states, and the practitioner’s experience of their own self also change as the practice proceeds.
All of which brings us to the purpose of Yin practice: interrupting thoughts. In much the same way that Vinyasa practice is rooted in Vedic practice and thought, Yin yoga is rooted in Buddhist practice and thought.
An opening circle
Yak yak yak Yak YAK yak yak yak Yak
the body, mind
a lotus of ten thousand leaves
opened to the wind
Buddhism teaches that the mind arises from the integration of sensory information. Because the focus of Yin practice is upon the sensation of opening, it also opens pathways to the mind. And in the same way that the body is encouraged to open through the use of gentle technique, the mind responds to continuous moderate sensation by delving deeper into hidden layers of the thought-body. This naturally offers opportunity to practice various techniques of Buddhist meditation, steadying the mind during the physical practice, but also developing skill for the practitioner to use them in daily life.
Shamatha meditation is the practice of calm abiding. It is rooted in the body and practiced with simple attention to the breath. In a sense, shamatha meditation is a practice of fully identifying with the body, from a relatively passive stance.
Just as there are supports for the body during asana, there are also supports for the restless mind during shamatha practice. Many of these (e.g. the sensation of breath through the nose) are similar to the sensory cues used to assist the mind to stay present during savasana and yoga nidra. A notable exception is the use of silent, inward, counting to still the more active mind. In a counting practice, whether ascending or descending, if the mind wanders, the practitioner simply restarts from the beginning.
Vipassana meditation is the practice of becoming aware to the nature of the thoughts which arise in a meditation practice. In this way, it contrasts with shamatha meditation by identifying with the mind, rather than the body. If shamatha practice is the mind becoming fully present in the body, then vipassana is the practice of the mind becoming fully aware of itself.
There are also supports for the mind during vipassana practice. One class of these supports involves engaging the body physically (e.g. walking meditation) rather than in a simple seated posture. In this there are also similarities with Ashtanga/Vinyasa practice which use the breath combined with deeply-learned action to enter a state of moving meditation.
Vipassana meditation is better known for the practice of “noting” or “labelling” (depending on how one wants to translate the Pali word sati). “Noting” supports the mind by giving it an active response to sensations and thoughts that arise, allowing it to remiain focused on the act of observation, rather than be carried away by the observations themselves. In a “noting” practice, when a thought or a sensation is recognized, it is labelled with a simple expression which summarizes its essence. This allows it to subside as it has been provided with space in the thought-body.
Yin practice is physically more grounded than Ashtanga/Vinyasa yoga practice. This is a direct outgrowth of the need to make postures sustainable: if an asana requires muscular effort to maintain, it will become physically compromised when practiced at the duration typical of a Yin practice. Therefore the seated and other “floor” postures from traditional Hatha yoga practice are the common starting point for Yin yoga asana. This is wholly in alignment with the traditional yoga texts which also have a significant emphasis on seated postures.
In spite of the physical similarities to traditional hatha yoga asanas, Yin practice uses an entirely different nomenclature for its collection of asanas. This serves to remind the practitioner that the essence of the posture is the sensation rather than the form.
An additional benefit to the different nomenclature in Yin practice is that it reminds the teacher and practitioner that the asana forms can vary widely. This is reasonable in view of the vast differences in bone structure that arise between individuals. The emphasis on seated work and closed-chain postures makes adjustment and adaptation by the teacher essential for a student to have a good experience with Yin practice. Because the ground does not move, the body must in order to accomodate the natural variation in hip, knee, ankle, shoulder and cervical (just to name a few!) geometries.
The sensitive and timely intervention of a teacher is also essential to the mental well-being of students during Yin practice, as so many people in our society are indoctrinated to the idea that “pain is gain” and addicted to ever-increasing sensation as a way of suppressing the activity of the mind. In this light, the teacher’s role is to keep the practiced balanced, so that the mind is stimulated but not overwhelmed.
Chinese medicine, particularly its description of the energy body in meridian theory, informs the sequencing of asana during a practice as well as the form of each asana being practiced in Yin yoga. While many postures can be used to stimulate multiple meridians, when brought together into a sequence they can bring harmony to a major organ system (and its connections throughout the body) or chaos by leaving energy stirred up without resolution. Additionally, postures are adjusted to bring a gentle sensation to the target meridian in a skillfully-sequenced practice.
Yin yoga pratice is beneficial to everyone, although some people are more drawn to it than others. It is of particular benefit to those who have some level physical difficulty or injury, as the emphasis on moderate sensation and physical adjustment makes it easier to accomodate individual variation. Yin practice also is a tremendous complement to the expression and power stimulated in an Ashtanga/Vinyasa style practice, bringing the practitioner towards a more sattvic ideal.
The deep connection with meditative practices in Yin yoga also makes it ideal for working with mental and emotional trauma, especially as trauma gets lodged in the physical body. With this approach to Yin practice, it becomes a mini-laboratory where the practitioner can learn techniques that can aid healing on the deepest levels of the whole body-mind.
This document was translated from LATEX by HEVEA.