Sep 15

What is Yin Yoga: The Ultimate Guide to Principles, Benefits & Misconceptions

Yin Yoga Ultimate Guide Benefits

In 2002, one of my students asked me if I teach Yin Yoga. I was surprised and asked ‘what is Yin Yoga’? She told me that it is a new Chinese yoga style that is getting very popular in America. She described it as yoga for lazy people, so they don’t have to move much and still feel they went to a yoga class. She said that she gets very good sleep during the class and finds it very relaxing. I remember laughing aloud and saying, in that case, I will never teach Yin Yoga (I forgot the wise lesson to never say never ;).

Over the next few years, I got the same question many times and many of my students mentioned Yin Yoga. Some of them described it to be a very challenging way of doing yoga. This was very different from what I heard earlier. Now I become curious and decided to check about it. I researched a bit and went to learn Yin Yoga from a respected teacher Biff Mithoefer. There I experienced it as a gentle stretching form of yoga, focusing only on passive stretches with a lot of talk about meridians and energies.

During my course with Biff I learned that he himself had studied Yin from the founder of this relatively new style, Paul Grilley. So, I decided to learn more directly from Paul in order to understand and experience his teachings firsthand.

I attended courses with Paul for two years and my whole understanding of Yin Yoga changed. I realized that because Paul did not want to create a dogmatic system in Yin, he did not create a formal training system for it. But this has led to a lot of misconceptions and myths around it.

In this blog, I am going to explain what I have assimilated over many years of studying about and teaching Yin Yoga. And I hope to give you a clear understanding of what it truly is all about and what its real benefits are.

What is Yin Yoga?

In simple words, Yin Yoga is a new yoga style where certain passive yoga poses are held for a longer duration of time. The poses can be held for a duration of 3-10 minutes. Contrary to the belief that Yin Yoga is from China, this concept is actually taken from the ancient practice of Classical Hatha Yoga where the poses were held from 3-10 minutes. It is important to know that originally Hatha Yoga was practiced by monks who were practicing yoga as an austere practice. But when teachers like Swami Sivananda introduced Hatha Yoga to common people they modified the duration to 1-3 minutes to make it accessible for everyone.

In Yin Yoga, only the passive (Yin) poses are used. The use of muscles is kept to a minimum, so the muscles are gently engaged to hold the posture without any extra effort. As the poses are to be held for a longer duration, the use of props like cushions, bolsters, etc. is encouraged. The poses are also taken from Hatha Yoga but new names are given to avoid direct association. In his Paul Grilley calls Yin Yoga ‘Old wine in a new bottle’.

History of Yin Yoga

Some people believe that Yin Yoga is a centuries-old yoga style. This is not true and based on the association of the word ‘Yin’ with ancient Chinese medicine.

Yin Yoga started in the late 1980s when Paul Grilley saw a presentation on national television by Paulie Zink, a martial arts champion and Taoist Yoga teacher. Paul Grilley got impressed by the flexibility and range of motion of Paulie Zink. So, he went to Paulie Zink and attended his Taoist Yoga classes. There Paul practiced holding the poses for long durations of five to ten minutes. Even after doing Taoist Yoga classes regularly for many months, Paul saw not much improvement in his flexibility. So, he stopped going to the classes and continued to practice and teach the dynamic forms of yoga, like Vinyasa Yoga.

With time he started to teach some passive stretching classes to his students. The results were overwhelming, he saw quick improvement in the range of motion of his students. As he had the inclination to Buddhism and he did not want people to confuse his classes with Indian Hatha Yoga, he called his classes Yin Yang Yoga.

A student of Grilley, Sarah Powers pointed out that as he is only teaching passive Yin poses, he should better call it Yin Yoga. From this moment onward it started to spread throughout the yoga community.

Difference Between Yin Yoga & Other Yoga Styles

The primary difference is the duration of holding a pose. In Yin Yoga, we hold most poses between 5 and 10 minutes. This is in contrast with the dynamic forms of yoga like Ashtanga Vinyasa and Vinyasa Flow, where the poses are held for 5 to 10 breaths and we constantly move in and out of the poses.

Even though Hatha Yoga is much more static, most poses (for beginners) are held up to a maximum of 3 minutes. So, in Hatha Yoga too we usually do not hold the poses as long as in Yin Yoga. (FYI: Traditionally, however, asanas were held for 5 to 10 minutes too!)

When we hold a pose for a longer period, we bring the stretch to the Yin tissues, the deeper body tissues such as the tendons, fascia, ligaments, and other connective tissues. Our yin tissues are less vascular (supplied with blood) and less elastic and therefore need more time to stretch. When stretched regularly it increases the overall flexibility, circulation, and range of motion in the joints and ligaments.

In dynamic styles of yoga such as Vinyasa Yoga and modern Hatha Yoga, the movement makes the muscles take the main load and stretch. Muscles are Yang tissues; they are quick to warm up and stretch but also quick to cool down and rebound. That is why if you do not practice a few days you see a big decline in flexibility and strength.

So, if you practice only dynamic forms of exercise or yoga you will gain muscle strength but not necessarily a wider range of motion. To have a healthy range of motion around our joints many of us need to also stretch the deep connective tissue and the joints.

According to Paul, Yin Yoga is a complementary practice, not a substitute for the Yang exercises.

Concept of Yin and Yang

The concept of Yin and Yang are similar to the concepts of Ida (moon) and Pingala (sun) from the Hatha Yoga tradition. Yin Yang is mentioned in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ida Pingala is mentioned in yoga & Ayurveda.

These are ancient principles that describe the two opposite forces in nature that are present in everything.

Yin refers to slow, soft, passive, and cold. It is also associated with water, earth, moon, femininity, heavy, and night. Yang on the other hand refers to fast, hard, active, hot, masculine, light, and day.

In yoga, we see this difference in the practice of asanas. Some yoga poses are passive and activate Yin qualities in body and mind whereas other poses are more dynamic and active, activating Yang qualities.

Yin & Yang Tissues

Bones, tendons, ligaments, and discs are yin tissues. Muscle and blood are yang tissues.

Yin tissues resist stretching and they rebound slowly like stiff dough. Muscles stretch easily and rebound quickly like rubber. All tissues are a blend of yin and yang qualities. For example, the tendon of a muscle can be dense like a ligament (yin), but the belly of that muscle can be quite soft and elastic (yang).

Yin & Yang Yoga

According to Paul Grilley, all tissues can be worked out in a yin way or a yang way. What is unsafe in a yang practice might be safe in a yin practice and the other way around.

If you train fascia in a yin way, it becomes longer & more elastic. If you train fascia in a yang way, it becomes shorter, stronger, and stiffer. Yin Yoga is slow and static-like traction, Yang Yoga is rhythmic and repetitive like weightlifting or running. In Yin style the targeted muscles are relaxed. In Yang Yoga, targeted muscles are generally contracted.

Functional Principles of Yin Yoga

When practicing and teaching Yin Yoga, you should keep these principles in mind:

  1. The purpose of yoga asanas is to harmonize the flow of the prana (life energy) in our bodies. This is accomplished by stressing the deep connective tissues.
  2. In a functional approach to Yin Yoga, there is no perfect pose. Every hand and foot position either helps or inhibits our ability to stress the target areas. The most effective way to do this varies from person to person.
  3. Every bone in every individual body is different. What is easy for one skeleton may be impossible for another.
  4. The three stresses used in the yin poses are tension, contraction & compression.

Flexibility refers to the extensibility (capacity to stretch) of the myofascial groups, ligaments, joint capsules and discs. Compression is the ultimate range of motion in every person.

What are the Benefits of Yin Yoga

Physical benefits

The most important benefits of Yin Yoga can be summarized by understanding the effect on the following tissues of the body:

Fascia– with long holds we stretch and stimulate the layers of fascia in our body. With regular stress our fascia becomes subtle and the flow of nutrients increases. This results in the improved overall functioning of the body.

Ligaments – our ligaments connect bones to bones. Ligaments are stiff and strong fascial bands that protect our joints from going out of place and therefore limit our range of motion. But ligaments are always contracting with age. With Yin Yoga we gently stretch our ligaments and maintain the range of motion of our joints. In other words, we stay younger by stretching our ligaments.

Tendons – our tendons are the connective tissue that connects muscle to the bone. With yang exercises, the tendons become strong and short. This results in a decreased range of motion of the tendons. This is the top reason for injury in athletes. With Yin Yoga poses we pressure and lengthen the tendons gently and retain their range of motion.

Joints – All physical movement happens at our joints. But due to the modern lifestyle that promotes lack of movement and short-range movements, the fluids in the joint capsules deteriorate. This decreases the lifespan of the joint. In this practice, we put gentle pressure on the joints which revitalized the joints and renews the fluids.

Viscera – With gentle and long pressure on our internal organs we stimulate them and improve their functioning.

Myofascia – as the quality of the connective tissue is improved, the range of flexibility in our muscles (myofascia) is also positively affected.

Mental benefits

Stress release – Yin Yoga helps to release stress which is stored in our deep connective tissue. That is why you will often see people getting emotional or silently crying in Yin classes. You should know that such reactions are completely normal and can be, in fact, expected.

Emotional balance – Yin Yoga stimulates our endocrine glands by pressuring them during the long-held poses. The effect is an improved hormonal balance which results in more balanced emotions.

Clarity – There is power in stillness. The regular practice of sitting still and focusing brings mental clarity.

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Yin Yoga Poses – The 5 Archetypes

Yin Yoga poses are bases on five archetypes. Each archetype targets specific muscular and skeletal areas in the body. Each Yin pose can be associated with one archetype and they can also be interchanged if a pose is too difficult or too intense. The five Yin Yoga archetypal poses are:

1. Archetype Shoelace

Variations: Tight, Loose, Untied, Broken

Target areas:  Glutes, adductors, thoracolumbar fascia

Physical Benefits:

  • A deep hip opener, stretching the dip lateral rotators.
  • Stimulates knee joints and stretches spinal ligaments.

Contraindications:

  • People with stiff hips or knees will need modifications in this pose to avoid straining their knees.
  • Pregnant women should keep the back straight.

Instructions:

Begin by sitting on your heels and then slide onto one buttock and bring the outside foot over toward the opposite hip. Once the legs are in position, and if comfortable, bend forward.

Modifications:

  • If this is too uncomfortable you can sit cross-legged or half-lotus position and then bend forward.
  • People with lower back issues can keep the back straight.
  • People with tight hips or knees can sit on a folded blanket or block.
  • If the pressure is too intense in the hips or knees, remain upright or take more weight into the hands and arms.
  • To ease the flexion, you can place a bolster under the chest.
  • When folding forward, you can support the head with the hands, leaning the elbows onto the thighs or a block or bolster.
  • Hands can be to the side or in front of the body or stretch the arms back behind the body.

Counter poses:

Corpse Pose, Angel Pose, Child’s Pose

Recommended hold time (beginners): 3 – 5 minutes each side

Read more: How to Practice Swan Pose for all Levels of Mobility

Yin Yoga Main Poses - Archetypes

2. Archetype Saddle

Target areas: Quads, hip flexors, rectus abdominis, obliques, thoracolumbar fascia

Physical Benefits:

  • A deep opening in the sacral-lumbar arch.
  • Stretches hips flexors and quadriceps.
  • Stimulates the thyroid gland.

Contraindications:

  • It can be uncomfortable for people with tight back or tight sacroiliac (SI) joints.
  • People with tights quads or knee problems will need to modify the pose to avoid injury.

Instructions:

Start with sitting on the knees, in Diamond Pose. Bring the heels out, next to your buttocks. Lean back on your hands and then on your elbows. Slowly move further to place your head on the ground and hold your elbows above your head.  To come our shift your weight on your elbows and then straighten your legs one by one.

Modifications:

  • You can place a bolster under the lower back.
  • You can place a bolster under the shoulders.
  • You can place a blanket under the ankles if required.
  • You can also straighten one leg for Half Saddle.
  • You can sit on a block and lean back on your hands (do not try to lie all the way down!)

Counter poses:

  • Air Release Pose, Angle Pose, Corpse Pose

Recommended hold time (beginners): 3 – 5 minutes

3. Archetype Caterpillar

Target areas: Hamstrings, glutes, thoracolumbar facia

Physical benefits:

  • This pose stretches the spinal ligaments and hamstrings.
  • It improves the digestions by compressing & stimulating the abdominal organs.
  • It stimulates the kidneys and adrenals and improves their functioning.

Contraindications:

  • For people with tight hamstrings, this pose needs to be modified to avoid strain in the back.

Instructions:

Sit with both legs straight out in front of you, feet together, or hip-width apart. Breathe in and raise your arms toward the ceiling.  As you breathe out, reach out forward with your hands toward your ankles.  Aim your nose to your knees so the back is round. To come out slowly roll-up.

Modifications: If you have a tight lower back, open your feet apart, or sit on a cushion. If hamstrings are tight, bend the knees and place a bolster under the knees. You can support your head with your hands.

Counter poses: Diamond Pose, Crocodile Pose, or Table Pose

Recommended hold time (beginners): 5 – 7 minutes

4. Archetype Dragonfly (Straddle)

Target areas: Groin, hamstrings

Physical benefits:

  • Opens the hips, groin and stretches the hamstrings.
  • Stretches the adductor muscles.

Contraindications:

  • People with sciatica or lower back issues will find this pose uncomfortable.
  • People with tight hamstrings will need to modify.

Instructions: Come into a sitting position. Open your legs wide, keeping the knees and feet pointing upwards. Walk forward with your hands as far as possible. To come out of the pose, simply walk back with your hands and bring the legs together.

Alignment Cues:

• Feet are slightly active.• Try to keep the back as straight as possible.

Modifications:

  • In case of sciatica issues, you can place a blanket under your hips.
  • In case of a lower back issue keep the back as straight as possible.
  • In the case of tight hamstrings, you can place bolsters or cushions under your knees.
  • If you are flexible you can place your forehead on the ground and stretch the hands to the sides.
  • You can use a bolster under the chest if you can’t fold all the way down.
  • If the head is too heavy for the neck, support the head in the hands.

Counter poses: Corpse pose, Crocodile Pose, Sphinx.

Recommended hold time (beginners): 5 – 7 minutes

Target areas: Glutes, groin, hip flexors, obliques, thoracolumbar fascia

Physical Benefits:

  • This pose compresses the lateral lower back.
  • It stretches the glutes, quadriceps, and upper thighs.

Contraindications: People with lower back pain should enter this pose gently. They may not be able to bend the knee and pull the foot too far back.

Instructions: Lie down on your right side. Extend your left leg in front of you and bend your right leg behind you. Hold your right foot with your left hand while resting on the right elbow. Gently push the right knee away from you. To come out release the bottom foot and roll onto your stomach. Straighten the bottom leg and roll onto your back.

Modifications: You can lie down on the ground and raise your supporting hand above the head.

Counter poses: Child’s Pose, Corpse Pose, Air Release Pose

Recommended hold time (beginners): 3 – 5 minutes each side

Yin Yoga poses are very similar to Hatha Yoga poses. In Yin, we target the denser and deeper tissues like ligaments, joint capsules, cartilage, bones, and fascia. Generally, Yin poses focus on the area from the belly to the knees, so the poses are focused on the lower body. But as Yin Tissues are also found in the upper body, we can apply the principles of Yin to all parts of the body. We can practice Hatha Yoga postures in a yin way too.

Use of Props in Yin Yoga

In Yin, it is common to use props to hold the pose in the proper manner. The props can be used to increase or decrease the stress and to take some of the body weight, so we can become more comfortable in the pose. Sometimes props are necessary to put stress on the target area in an efficient manner. Some of the common props are:

  • Cushions
  • Blocks
  • Bolsters
  • Belts / Straps
  • Blankets

Tips for using props

  • When practicing Yin Yoga, follow the principle of
    • red zone (very uncomfortable, even painful),
    • orange zone (uncomfortable but fine), and
    • green zone (feeling nothing) zone.

The goal is to find and stay in the orange zone.

  • Use props only when required, otherwise, you can become dependent on them. The general rule is that if you need more than 2 cushions, you need to do a variation of this pose.
  • Use wall variations when required.

Common Misconceptions about Yin Yoga

  • Yin Yoga is an ancient form of yoga from China.

Yin is not an ancient form of yoga. It began in the late 1980s in the United States.

  • Yin Yoga is based on meridians

I think this is the biggest misconception about Yin Yoga. According to Paul, Yin Yoga’s aim is to stretch the connective tissue in the body. It is not aimed to work on meridians. If you want to work on your meridians you should try acupuncture.

  • Chakras are irrelevant in Yin Yoga

Chakras are considered important by Paul Grilley. If you read his book Yin Yoga The Silent Practice, you will see that out of 100 pages, 10 pages are dedicated to the seven chakras.

  • Yin Yoga is a form of restorative yoga

Yin Yoga is not restorative yoga, it is mindfully stretching the connective tissue. In yin, you are in a natural active state and in restorative yoga you are in a rest state.

Read more: The difference between Yin Yoga and Restorative Yoga

  • Yin Yoga is an easy style of yoga, it is a style for old or unfit people

In my classes which consist of professional yoga teachers from age 25-60 years, students don’t find Yin Yoga easy! It can be very challenging when done correctly.

Differences & Similarities – Yin Yoga vs Hatha Yoga

Difference between Yin Yoga & Hatha Yoga

  1. Yin Yoga is a modern yoga style from 1980, Hatha Yoga is 6000 years old ancient yoga style.
  2. Yin Yoga focuses on the connective tissue of the body and improving the range of motion, Hatha Yoga focuses on internal organs, endocrine glands, and energy body.
  3. Yin Yoga is a passive yoga style with only resting poses, Hatha Yoga is a more varied yoga style that comprises active and passive yoga poses.
  4. Yin Yoga only offers yoga poses, Hatha Yoga offers poses, breathing exercises, locks, mantras, and cleansing kriyas.
  5. Yin Yoga only focuses on the lower body, while Hatha Yoga focuses on the complete body.
  6. Yin Yoga aims to only stretch & lengthen the body, Hatha Yoga stretches, strengthens, stimulates, and cleanses the body.

Similarities between Yin Yoga & Hatha Yoga

  1. Hatha Yoga is the foundation of all yoga poses, so all the poses in Yin Yoga are from Hatha Yoga with new names.
  2. In both yoga styles, the poses are held for a longer duration of 1-5 minutes.
  3. In both yoga styles, the poses are held for a duration.
  4. Both yoga styles use the principle of minimal action.
  5. Both yoga styles can be done by people recovering from injuries.

How is Yin Yoga Different from Other Yoga Styles?

  1. Most of the yoga styles are practiced for strength, balance, and flexibility. Yin yoga is done only for stretching, myofascial release, and increasing range of motion.
  2. The body temperature increases in most yoga styles, but in Yin Yoga, the body temperature does not change much.
  3. In other yoga styles, the oxygen consumption increases while in Yin it decreases as there is no stress on muscles and no need for extra energy.
  4. In other styles, the body may create lactic acid but in Yin Yoga, this never happens.
  5. The chance of injury in other dynamic styles is much higher than in Yin Yoga.

Frequently Asked Questions About Yin Yoga

How often should you practice Yin Yoga?

Yin Yoga can be practiced every day as there is no muscular exhaustion so there no rest period required. Personally, I recommend practicing three days a week, 90 minutes each time. Practicing early morning is sometimes not ideal because the body is cold, and the joints are stiff. I suggest practicing in the afternoon or evening when the body is warm, and the joints have been moved in a natural way.

Who should avoid Yin Yoga?

In general, pregnant women in their third trimester should avoid practicing yin yoga. In this period body releases hormones to increase the flexibility in the joints, so there is a big chance of over-stretching and causing injury. Also, women recovering from delivery should avoid it.

Who are the top teachers of Yin Yoga in the World?

Some of the best-known teachers of Yin Yoga are:

  • Paul Grilley
  • Sarah Powers
  • Paulie Zink
  • Bernie Clark
  • Biff Mithoefer
  • Ram Jain

Which are the top books on Yin Yoga?

There are many books available on Yin Yoga in the market. Some of the best books on Yin Yoga are:

  • Yin Yoga – Principles & Practice by Paul Grilley, ISBN-10 : 1935952706
  • The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga by Bernie Clark, ISBN-10: 0968766587
  • The Yin Yoga Kit by Biff Mithoefer, ISBN-10 : 1594771162

Yin Yoga Sequences

Yin Yoga for the whole body

Asana / Exercise Duration
Melting Heart 5 min.
Child’s Pose 1 min.
Caterpillar 5 min.
Dragon 5 min. each side
Crocodile Pose 1 min.
Sphinx 5 min.
Crocodile Pose 1 min.
Seal 3 min.
Child’s Pose 1 min.
Frog 5 min.
Cat Pulling-its-Tail 5 min. each side
Sleeping Swan 5 min. each side
Dragonfly 5 min.
Shoelace 3 min. each side
Banana 3 min. each side
Final Relaxation 10 min.

Yin Yoga for a healthy spine

Asana / Exercise Duration
Half Butterfly 5 min each side
Angel Pose 1 min.
Bridge Pose 5 min.
Air Release Pose 2 min.
Fish Pose 5 min.
Corpse Pose 2 min.
Caterpillar 5 min.
Melting Heart 5 min.
Sphinx / Seal 5 min.
Crocodile 2 min.
Dangling 5 min.
Squat 5 min.
Reclining twist 5 min. each side
Final Relaxation 10 min.

About the Author

Yogi-RamRam is the Founding Director of the Arhanta Yoga Ashrams India and The Netherlands. Within the last 10 years, the Arhanta Yoga Ashrams have become renowned internationally for their professional yoga teacher training courses in India and Europe, and have up to present trained over 4000 yoga teachers from all over the world. Ram is also the lead teacher of the 50 hour Yin Yoga teacher training course that takes place twice a year in the Netherlands, as well as the Online Yin Yoga training.

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