How To: Yin Yoga

This is part of Nourish’s Yoga Practise Guide Library. We were inspired to make these guides to support your own yoga practise and as a resource for teachers who want to make their classes more accessible. We were also pretty tired of all the generic teaching instructions and guides floating around the internet that aren’t inclusive, accessible or adaptable in any way. 

If you would like more guidance on making this practice accessible, we have missed something, or you have any questions drop us a comment –– we love hearing from you and really do mean it when we say yoga is for everybody!

The introductory section to this guide is a little longer than some of our others, so if you are looking for the practical sections on teaching and practising then now is a good time to skip ahead!

What is Yin Yoga?

Yin yoga is a slow and meditative style of yoga, characterised by soft, often supported, poses held for long periods of time. As Yin yoga is a whole school of yoga, this guide covers just a few of the foundations of the practice. If you are a yoga teacher looking to learn more about teaching Yin yoga or a yoga practitioner looking to deepen your knowledge about the practice, then we recommend our upcoming 30-hour Yin Yoga Teacher Training. If you would like to know more about this training or any of our other offerings please get in touch!   

Yin Yoga Characteristics

Yin yoga gets its name from the dualistic principle of ancient Chinese philosophy embodied by the Yin-Yang symbol. Yin and Yang represent opposite forces present in everything in the universe. Although opposites, they are not meant to be thought of as solely in a conflicted tension but as interdependent, existing in a complementary relationship to one another. Yin and Yang are often spoken about in terms of their qualities, which is a helpful stepping stone into what is characterised as a yin or yang style of yoga. Some yin qualities are receptivity, coolness, darkness, slowness, and introversion, in opposition to the yang qualities of activity, heat, light, dynamism, and extroversion. 

A yin style yoga practice is slower, softer, and less structured than the dynamic yang styles, such as vinyasa flow, power yoga, and even Hatha yoga. You can practice a yin style of yoga without practising Yin yoga. For example, practising asana in a slower, more fluid and free-form (and perhaps more embodied) approach resonates with yin qualities. 

However, Yin yoga is a specific style with some defining characteristics: 

  • Poses are held for between 2-7 minutes but can be held anywhere up to 20 minutes. Most poses are floor-based, and often props are used to support the body in poses. 
  • Yin yoga emphasises passive stretches, where there is limited muscle engagement, as opposed to the active stretch which characterises yang styles of yoga.
  • There are relatively few yin yoga poses (around 25), and many of these have similar yang counterparts (although how the poses are approached is very different). For example, pigeon pose is called swan pose, gomukhasana is called shoelace. Some practitioners like these names as it allows them to distinguish between the yin and yang approach to the poses; other practitioners prefer using the traditional yoga names. Whichever you prefer is fine — what defines a yin or yang pose is not its name but how you approach them.
  • Yin yoga tissues are characterised as the denser connective tissues, joints, and bones of the body. The main tissue Yin yoga attempts to target is fascia, the white collagenous weblike tissue that encases and runs through all muscles. 
  • One of the main contentions for Yin yoga is that — with a few caveats — ligaments, tendons, and joints aren’t intended to stretch. Yin yoga is often described as creating ‘a healthy stress’ on these tissues. Bernie Clark, one of the leading Yin Yoga teachers, and who has written extensively on anatomy and principles of movement in the context of yoga, breaks down the concepts of stretching and stressing yin tissues.  
  • The meditative qualities of Yin yoga are an essential part of the practice, which are in part due to the extended periods spent in poses. The intention is to stay present with the sensations of the body and breath and observe their changes (and the quality of our thoughts) in the poses.

Yin and restorative yoga are different practices, even if they share a lot of principles. Yin yoga has a stronger emphasis on tapas (the yoga principle of discipline), and the poses are more physically intense. You can take a gentler restorative approach to Yin yoga, but it’s important to note that these are different practices, and if you plan to teach one or the other, you are aware of the differences.

A Critical Perspective: Yin Yoga and Traditional Chinese Medicine

Yin yoga, as it is commonly taught today, was pioneered in the 1990s by Paul Grilley, and has been popularised by himself, his wife Suzee Grilley, and early students Sarah Powers and Bernie Clarke. As Grilley’s background spanned beyond south Asian yoga lineages to East Asian practices, elements of Daoist philosophy and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) have been woven into the practice.

Although it is fair to say that TCM informed Yin yoga, it’s important to tread carefully and consider how it is possible to slip into cultural appropriation or confusion when using TCM principles in your class or practice. When it comes to Yin yoga, TCM, and murky appropriative approaches, here are some considerations:  

Yin yoga sequences are sometimes organised around the qualities of the TCM organ system and meridian lines. The vital energetic force Qi is also often cited as being influenced in Yin yoga, as it is a similar idea to Prana but originates from traditional Chinese culture. However, whereas TCM is considered a medical system whose practitioners study for years in tertiary education institutions to become legally certified, this is not the case for Yin yoga (it’s important to note that in many countries, including the UK, TCM is a regulated field where licenses are needed to practice, unlike yoga). Acupuncture, one of the most well-known disciplines of TCM, is an interesting example. There are evidence-based studies to support acupuncture’s efficacy for the treatment of certain conditions, such as migraines and infertility, yet it has not been possible to definitively explain why this is the case from a western scientific perspective. It’s a good example of the tensions in western scientific investigation, and how when it comes to different cultural practices it’s important not to invalidate them as they don’t accord with western medical perspectives, and yet, it’s essential not to make false promises and claims about what they can do. 

In this light, when it comes to Yin yoga, there is an important dynamic at play. Yin yoga is not part of the TCM tradition — it is a practice that has adopted TCM principles. As there is no evidence that Yin yoga works in any way similar to TCM treatments, it’s a safe bet to say that TCM principles are used in Yin yoga from a broadly thematic standpoint. Therefore, although a Yin yoga practice may be organised around a specific TCM principle, such as an organ, meridian, or element, it is not a TCM treatment. It’s important not to say that a particular Yin yoga practice or pose will ‘treat’ or ‘help with’ any physical, psychological, spiritual, or emotional condition. It’s unlikely that Grilley, or any other early advocates of Yin yoga, meant for it to be approached in such a way, but it is impossible to ignore that with its increased popularity yoga practitioners often conflate TCM healing mechanisms into a Yin yoga practice — this is where the trouble occurs.    

So, is it okay to talk about Chinese philosophy or TCM in your Yin yoga class? It’s tricky, but I would say yes. Chinese culture and philosophy have certainly influenced Yin yoga (after all, it’s called YIN yoga), and for many practitioners, these principles are a core part of connecting to the practice. As TCM offers a holistic perspective on being, encompassing physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual states, you may find that working with a specific organ or meridian helps to establish a nurturing quality to your practice. The tinglings and shifting feelings you may experience during a Yin class are often spoken about in terms of Qi. As Qi is a general energetic principle, this is a valid point (although make sure you can culturally qualify what Qi is). 

It is important not to justify your classes (to yourself or students) as a TCM treatment, and to understand the origins of Yin yoga. Unlike yoga that originated several thousand years ago in contemporary India, Yin yoga’s roots are only a few decades old. You may hear or read that Yin yoga is an ancient practice — because TCM is thousands of years old — but it really isn’t, and claiming that it is at best an ignorant misunderstanding and at worse an attempt to exoticize and market the practice.    

The best way to avoid accidental appropriation and misinformation is to either do your research and be confident in your knowledge before sharing it with students, or avoiding talking about it altogether. There are so many elements to Yin yoga that make it a wonderful and beneficial practice across so many of the body’s systems that it’s a shame to get caught up in the false promises and trappings of one element.

Yin Yoga Suggestions and Variations

Setting Up

Your base: set up a comfortable surface, as you will be primarily floor-based for your practice.

A yoga mat works well, but if you are sensitive to hard surfaces, you may want to use two mats or lay some blankets down on your mat. Alternatively, you can forgo the mat altogether and use blankets, a rug or carpeted surface, or even your bed. 

Props: It’s useful to have quite a few props on hand. Blocks, bolsters, cushions, blankets, anything else that works for you! You don’t need yoga specific props, we have a good list of alternatives under the Restorative Yoga section here. In time, you may find you like practising with less (or more!) props, but if you are newer to Yin yoga or looking for a more restorative style of practice, prioritise the props! 

A timer: You will be holding poses for several minutes, so a timer is helpful — particularly in poses where you work with one side of the body and then the other. However, in a self-practice, you may decide not to use a timer, and go by feel or number of breaths. 

Setting an intention or theme: planning out which poses you will practice beforehand is helpful. You may want to focus on a certain area of the body or a TCM organ meridian. Or, you may set an intention for a grounding, compassionate, or mindful practice. As Yin yoga is a particularly introspective and meditative style, spending some time contemplating an intention to keep you present in your practice is helpful.

The Practice

    1. Take a few moments at the start of your practice to tune in. This may be a few mindful breaths in a comfortable reclined or seated pose, a body scan, or coming back to your intention. 
    2. Take each pose sllllowwwwwwly. Set your timer if you are using one and enter your first pose in its most comfortable variation, adding any props you need. This should be comfortable enough that you could, in theory, hold it for an hour if you had to. Take all the time you need to adjust, wiggle around, and get comfortable — then, as much as is possible for you, find stillness. Take several breaths here, becoming aware of the sensations and dynamics of the pose — where do you feel it physically, is there an emotional reaction, what are the quality of your thoughts
    3. Soften in. Are you unconsciously clenching or engaging any muscles? Can you soften them? Are you butting up against mental resistance, is there anything you do to soften the quality of your thoughts
    4. Deepening the pose. You may choose to physically deepen the pose by letting the body move into more space, and perhaps take away or rearrange your props. Notice how this shifts the sensations in the body. If you tense up anywhere or your mind becomes very chatty, it’s often an indication you have gone a little too deep. You may deepen the meditative qualities by becoming aware of the breath. Perhaps breathing into a particular area of the body where there is space or a strong sensation. Perhaps you rest the mind in the body, coming back to sensation each time the mind wanders.
    5. Coming out of the pose. Exit the pose very slowly, seeing if you can keep your awareness grounded in the body as you make your way to a neutral position. This may be a seated position, lying down, a child’s pose, or anything else. This neutral rest position is sometimes referred to as ‘rebound’, a space to let the body settle.
    6. Acknowledge the pose. This is optional, but perhaps you take a few moments of stillness in your neutral position to notice any residual sensations from the pose. This may be tingling, heat, or spaciousness in the area of the body affected by the pose. It may be mental relief and spaciousness, or something else. From a TCM perspective, this is the movement of Qi. 
    7. Move. This is also optional, but taking some to move the body intuitively can feel really good. Perhaps your legs need a shake, maybe you get the urge to do some cat-cow or a downward dog, or some free form movements — whatever the body and mind need before you find stillness again.
    8. Repeat! Set up for your next pose, and start the process again. 
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Closing the Practice

Round out your practice with a long juicy savasana, perhaps tied in with a meditation. Try not to jump up and resume your daily activities too quickly, as you may feel a little spacey. 

Generally, if you practice earlier in the day, you may feel a little sleepy after your Yin practice, but often, this settles within an hour. However, if you already came into the practice with residual fatigue, you may feel tired for the rest of the day — but hopefully, you will benefit in the long run from having carved out some rest for yourself.  

Even though you won’t be sweating, hydrating after a Yin practice may help with minimising any muscle soreness in the following days. 

If you are looking for a Yin yoga class, you can sign up for a free one with Venetia here!

Three Yin Yoga Poses to Try

Butterfly

This is a gentle hip opener and forward fold. 

From a seated position, bring the soles of the feet together into a loose diamond shape. You may want to sit on a folded blanket and place blocks, cushions or blankets underneath your knees and thighs as extra support for your hips. A bolster placed lengthways under both knees can feel really good. 

Let the knees and hips be as heavy as possible, dropping into any of the supports you are using (if this feels intense, add in more props — you can always remove them as you go). 

Hinge at the hips, making your way into a forward fold. Let the arms rest by your sides, your hands soft. Let the spine round, and the head be heavy. You may want to use props to support your torso, such as a bolster or rest your forehead on blocks. 

As time passes, you may find your hips start to open more and there is more space in the back of the body, bringing you deeper into the pose. Adjust and rearrange props as you need.

Stay as long as is right for you.

Sphinx

This is a backbend. 

Start by lying on your front, with your belly on your mat. You may want to place a folded blanket underneath your pelvis for comfort. Prop yourself up on your elbows. Adjust your arms, so the shoulders are stacked over the elbows, and your forearms are extended out in front of your palms face down, fingers soft.

Keep your legs extended behind you, and adjust your feet to a comfortable width. There should be a gentle compression in your lower back. Check-in on your buttocks, are you tensing them? See if you can soften them. You may need to strongly tense and release them a few times to help the muscles disengage. Check-in on your lower back again. If the compression feels painful in any way, then gently engage your glutes to bring support to your lower back. 

Let the chin drop down. If your neck is uncomfortable, grab some blocks or books and let the head drop forward and rest the forehead on the supports.

Stay as long as is right for you.

Deer pose

This is a hip opener.

Start in a seated position. Swing your left leg out in front of you, with a bend at the knee so your outer leg is resting on the ground, and swing your right leg behind you, with a bend at the knee so your inner leg is resting on the ground. 

You can adjust the legs, so they are bent at roughly at 90-degrees. However, find a position that feels right for your legs, which may be less or greater than 90-degrees in one or both legs.

Fold over the left (front) thigh. As you fold forward, you may feel the hip stretch intensify in either the outer hip of the front leg, the hip flexor and inner thigh of the back leg, or both. You may want to fold forward onto a bolster.

Stay as long as is right for you. When you are ready, repeat on the other side.

When Do I Practice Yin Yoga?

You can practice Yin yoga at any time of day! As mentioned above, if you practice in the middle of the day, you may find it makes you a little spacey for a while — this downtime may be very welcome and give you a pick me up for the rest of the day, or it may make you feel tired for the rest of the day. 

Yin yoga is a really lovely evening practice, as it can help you physically and mentally unwind from the day. From an anatomical perspective, your tissues will be warmed up from your regular daily activities, so there is more space in the body. Some people like to practice first thing in the morning, for precisely the opposite reason! After the stillness of a night’s sleep, the body tends to be cooler and stiffer — a more yin like state. If you practice Yin yoga in the morning it can be pretty intense, but some yin practitioners argue that this helps you target the fascia and connective tissues (yin tissues) more, as opposed to the muscles. It’s hard to say whether this is true, so really when you practice is a matter of preference! It will be easiest to find joy in your practice if you practice at the time of day that works best for you.  

It’s nice to integrate Yin poses with more dynamic asana. You may choose to round off a dynamic practice with one or two Yin poses. You can also practice Vin and Yin, which is half a vinyasa practice moving into half a yin practice. Or Yin-Yang starting with Yin poses and moving into dynamic asana. Similar to the nighttime/morning style of practising Yin yoga, a Vin and Yin class will warm up the body so there is more space for the Yin poses — it may also help you to feel more mentally settled in the Yin poses; whereas a yin-yang class will be pretty intense at the beginning but may help you find unexpected space or mindfulness in the later more dynamic classes.

A little but often approach works well for a Yin self-practice, where you practice a few of your favourite Yin poses at regular intervals throughout the week. 

When Shouldn’t I Practice or Teach it? 

Similar to meditation and other reflective practices, a Yin yoga practice may feel quite mentally or emotionally confrontational as there is a lot of emphasis on stillness, observing, and tuning in. If you are feeling anxious, proceed cautiously with the practice, and back off it makes you feel worse (perhaps something more vigorous and less mindful is helpful here, such as a walk, dancing, or a run). If you or your students are trauma survivors you should also proceed with caution. Not every practice is for everybody, so if Yin yoga isn’t helpful or healthy for you give the whole style a pass. 

If you have hypermobile joints, or an injured tendon or ligament, proceed gently with your Yin practice. As the emphasis is on relaxing the muscles, it can leave the body vulnerable and make injuries worse or create pain in the joints later. The best way to proceed with this is to use lots and lots of props and supports, so you are not able to move into your full range of motion or dangerously stress your injury. You can also keep a gentle muscle engagement to help keep the body safe.  

How Do I Adapt Yin Yoga To Make it Accessible? What Are Some Common Difficulties?

  • There is a misguided belief that Yin yoga is an innately accessible practice and safe for everyone, as the poses don’t depend on complex ranges of movement and props are encouraged. This shows a lack of understanding around what is actually a pretty challenging practice. The stillness and long periods spent in the poses are both physically and mentally demanding.
  • To address the challenges, start slow and gentle. Explore staying just a couple of minutes (or less) in poses, and make sure to use lots of props. Don’t be afraid to adjust yourself and move as much as you need to, or come out of poses early. It’s a journey towards stillness in the poses, which may take place over many months. 
  • I can’t stress it enough, people tend to overdo it at the beginning. They stay too long, go too deep, or don’t let themselves move as much as is needed. All of these can be physically or mentally problematic in the short or long term.   
  • The mindful quality of Yin yoga presents its own challenge. The mind inevitably will wander — or go into a dialogue around your tight hips/hamstrings/shoulders — the trick is to notice the mental chatter colouring your practice and return to sensations and your breath.  
  • Keeping the muscles soft and disregarding aestheticised alignment can be challenging for some students. Emphasise that Yin yoga is a practice of feeling and noticing. 
  • If you are not an experienced Yin practitioner or are a Yoga teacher who hasn’t done a specific Yin yoga training, then practice or teach with a restorative flavour. Emphasise more accessible poses (i.e. not camel pose or fire logs for five minutes each side) and use lots of props. 
  • Self-compassion is integral to a Yin practice. Treat your body and mind kindly, particularly if challenges and discomfort arise. It also helps bring in the mental softness that is so helpful for all yoga practices. 
  • More often than not, people hate their first Yin class. Whether you stick with Yin yoga or not (or come back to it much further in the future) is a personal choice. For some people, it may never be appropriate, others may learn to love it! 

How Do I Teach Yin Yoga To A Mixed Ability Class?

  • Length of Holds. Be mindful of how long you stay in poses; whilst some students may comfortably stay for 10+ minutes, many will struggle with 3 minutes. A general rule of thumb is to keep the holds for softer poses (such as butterfly or child’s pose) to a maximum of 5 minutes, and for more challenging poses (such as hip openers and deep forward bends) to around 2-3 minutes. You can always give your students the option of staying longer and catching up with the class later for those who prefer longer holds in certain poses. 
  • Explain the Practice. Yin yoga is different from many other styles, covering the basics of longer holds, relaxed muscles, and mindfulness at the beginning of the class is helpful for new and less experienced students, as well as acting as a helpful reminder for students familiar with the practice. 
  • Know variations. Have a range of variations you can offer your students, so there is something for everyone. For example, shoelace pose can be practiced seated or, more accessibly for many, lying down. Dragonfly pose (a wide-legged straddle) can be done seated, at the wall, one leg at a time, with knees bent, or with bolsters under the knees. 
  • Demonstrate set up. Show students how to set-up each pose (using different variations), and then let them ease into their variation in their own time.
  • Take your time. Not only is there the time spent in poses, but also the set-up of the pose and the time to come out and let the body digest the pose through stillness or movement. The luxury of Yin yoga is its slow and exploratory pace, so don’t rush to get through an entire sequence if there isn’t time.
  • How much are you speaking? Generally speaking more in the first few poses is welcome to introduce the practice, any themes or intentions, and to guide students through the mindfulness of the breath or physical feelings. After that, apart from occasional prompts, move towards silence once students are in poses. As the teacher, it can feel awkward to sit quietly but be mindful that constantly talking may be interrupting your students’ experience, and Yin yoga is an introspective practice.
  • Acknowledge challenges. Acknowledge the general difficulties of the practice, and particularly challenges that arise through the mindfulness elements. The practice or certain poses may induce anxiety or be triggering in other ways for some students. Encourage your students to adapt as needed, which may mean taking a different pose, asking for your assistance, or leaving the studio. 
  • How to offer assistance: walking around the space may be disturbing for some students. A good way to make sure students can access your assistance if needed is to say ‘wave me over at any time if you need help with this pose’. If you notice a student clearly struggling to get into a pose, then go over and offer help. In general though, read the room and wait to be invited into your students’ practice.
  • Empower your students to take what works and leave what doesn’t. As an inherently mindful practice, there is perhaps no better practice in which to guide your students in tuning in and adapting their practice as needed. Each unique student and unique practice will have different needs, Yin yoga can be a great way to get to know those needs and gives ample time to explore variations as needed.

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