Yin Yoga: Finding Stillness Within
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People observing a Yin yoga class might think, “How curious. Why are those people all taking a nap in the same position?” This slow yoga style is perfect for helping you slide into slumber at the day’s end, but there’s much more to the practice than that.
Yin yoga has a dual origin in peaceful Taoist preachings and its early use in martial arts. It confers impressive physical and mental health benefits. It’s also a deeply spiritual practice but a highly individualized one that doesn’t require adherence to any particular faith system.
Are you ready to find your edge? Here’s what you need to know about Yin yoga and finding stillness within.
The History of Yin Yoga
Yin yoga is an ancient practice deeply rooted in Taoist beliefs. Although this belief system preaches softness and behaving in harmony with natural law, it also arose during the Warring Period, which is as it sounds. This training was once heavily utilized by kung fu practitioners to improve their fighting skills. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that many athletic coaches today implement this practice in their recovery training sessions.
Paulie Zink introduced this stretching martial arts practice to westerners in the 1970s. One student, Paul Grilley, immediately saw the practice as a way to sit more comfortably in meditation and combined ZInk’s Taoist Yin with Hatha yoga and his knowledge of the Chinese system of body meridians to create the Yin yoga practiced today.
1. What are the Three Tattvas or Principles of Yin Yoga?
The three tattvas or principles of yin yoga are edge, stillness and time. Here’s how they look in practice:
- Edge: Your body’s edge is where you feel resistance in a stretch. It’s individual to each person — your pose might not look exactly like someone else’s, and that’s okay. Your edge might also shift as you sink into stillness, allowing deep muscle and connective tissue relaxation.
- Stillness: Reminds you why finding your edge is so important. You need to be able to relax and breathe into each pose to reap the benefits of lengthening your muscles and connective tissues and stimulating hyaluronic acid production. Although you may shift slightly as you go deeper into your edge, you should never feel pain during your practice.
- Time: This is the magic ingredient that does the work on your connective tissues. Most practitioners hold Yin yoga poses for between three to five minutes. It’s also an antidote to the racing around that’s so prevalent in modern life. You might find the most uncomfortable part of a Yin class is slowing down, overcoming the need for distraction and developing patience.
Some schools of thought include a fourth principle: moving slowly in and out of poses. Yin practice emphasizes mindfulness, paying attention to how your body feels as you transition.
Yin Yoga Health Benefits
Yin yoga offers impressive physical and mental health benefits. You may gravitate toward this practice if you have chronic pain. There’s no jumping or jarring on your joints, and it may have additional benefits for specific conditions.
For example, a Johns Hopkins study on arthritis patients found that yoga improved walking speed and physical function with lasting results. Nearly all patients showed the benefits nine months from the study’s end, and many communicated that they still engage in their practice almost a decade later — that’s an impressive testimonial.
Yin yoga helps your body produce a substance called hyaluronic acid. You might recognize the name if you’ve investigated anti-aging skincare products, but it also works deep inside your body to lubricate joints. Therefore, while this practice won’t reverse joint deterioration, it can grease the wheels and make movement more comfortable.
Many people also report considerable mental health benefits from Yin yoga. Pain reduction is sure to improve anyone’s mindset. Additionally, remaining still in poses and focused on your breath or mantra is a powerful mindfulness exercise. This practice helps you build focus and concentration that can ease many daily frustrations — no more frantic searches for your car keys. Finally, a good Yin session can ease you into sleep, which is essential for keeping a positive outlook.
Yin yoga is a bit of a mixed bag for trauma survivors. Some people report incredible success with the practice, but others may find sitting in stillness and focusing on their physical sensations incredibly triggering. Your best bet is to work with a qualified therapist or find a yoga guide with specialty training. Your psychologist can help you process emotions that arise, and a trained instructor can make your mat experience more comfortable.
Tips for Getting Started With Your Yin Yoga Practice
Are you ready to find inner stillness by starting your Yin yoga practice? These eight tips will help you make the most of your experience.
1. Outfit Yourself
While you can practice without props, Yin yoga encourages their use. The right blocks, straps, pillows and blankets can make holding longer poses more accessible.
However, you should know that some pillows and blankets can harbor germs, including COVID-19. Therefore, it’s best to come to the studio equipped with a personal set instead of sharing resources.
You’ll also need a comfortable mat, and thickness is key. After all, it’s the only thing standing between you and the floor, and a bit of padding keeps away the cold while making the surface softer on your joints.
2. Set the Mood
Yin yoga is all about turning your awareness inward, which is easier to do without a flood of outside stimuli. Dim the lights and perhaps use lavender or chamomile aromatherapy to help set the mood for relaxation. Soft music and candlelight are welcome, although some students prefer to practice in silence.
3. Talk to Your Guide
There’s good news for trauma survivors who don’t like to be touched. Because Yin yoga is so personal, your guide probably won’t come around to adjust you during class.
However, you should still arrive early to your first session. Talking over your unique needs with your guide alerts them to issues and puts their mind at ease. For example, it’s perfectly acceptable to leave if your practice becomes too emotionally uncomfortable — but letting your instructor know beforehand that this may occur keeps them from worrying whether you got hurt.
4. Learn the Pose Names
Many of the poses in Yin yoga look identical to those used in other styles. However, they may go by different names. Here are a few you should know, although immersing yourself in your practice will eventually teach you everything you need:
- Sleeping swan: Looks identical to pigeon pose in Hatha yoga.
- Dragon: Resembles lizard pose.
- Seal: Very similar to cobra, although you extend your arms at an angle and keep your hips flat on the floor.
5. Study the Tao Te Ching
Although you don’t have to include a spiritual angle to your practice, doing so may enhance it. If you want to dig deep into Yin yoga philosophy, study the Tao Te Ching.
You may find great comfort for everyday life. For example, western society expects people to constantly strive, achieve and aim higher, all of which goes against their essential biological nature and leads to unnecessary stress and poor health. The Tao advises you to move like water, practicing Wu-Wei, or effortless doing, completing your tasks each in their time and remaining mindful that such forces can nevertheless carve through stone.
6. Create a Focal Point
Remaining still in poses isn’t easy. Try this experiment — set a timer and sit quietly doing nothing for three minutes. Feel how eternal that brief span feels?
Most western minds seek continual stimulation, reaching for their phones in any quiet moment to distract themselves from complete awareness. To maintain focus, draw your attention back to your breath each time your mind wanders, using the slow counts of your inhales and exhales to center you.
7. Use a Mantra
Another technique to maintain your focus and overcome boredom is to use a mantra. This technique can also double as powerful brain reprogramming, helping to counteract all the negative messages bombarding you every day.
Some yoga guides will recite a mantra for you. Otherwise, create personal ones that are meaningful to you, for example, “I deserve time to heal my body and mind.”
8. Go Slow
Yin is already a sedate practice — your reaction might be, “Wait, you want me to slow it down even more?” However, this advice doesn’t refer to the speed of your movements. Rather, it’s a mental game. It takes a while to find inner stillness, and even advanced practitioners may sometimes find their minds wandering and themselves growing restless in poses.
Typical Yin classes run an hour to an hour and a half in many studios. However, you may want to cut your practice short at first until you grow comfortable with finding inner stillness. YouTube is a wonderful resource for Yin classes, some as fast as 20 minutes. You won’t do many poses, but you will cultivate the correct mindset.
Yin Yoga: Finding Stillness Within
Yin yoga is perhaps the slowest yoga style, and its gentle nature appeals to many. It also provides deep healing for your connective tissues while conferring impressive mental health benefits to many.
The tips above can help you get started on your Yin yoga journey. Once you achieve inner stillness, you’ll find yourself returning to your mat time and again for sheer bliss.
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