For twelves months now, I’ve been attending Hatha and Hatha flow classes once or twice a week. I’ve found yoga to be a great counterpoint to strength training and teaching group fitness. Not to mention providing me with an escape from the high energy and constant motion of my children!
Several months ago, a friend suggested that I try a Yin yoga class. ‘What is Yin yoga?’, I asked. She described the practice as ‘slow, restful, meditative and painful’. ‘Painful?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘but in a good way.’
Despite her description, I decided to give it a try (a tad masochistic, perhaps?). Turned out that the pain she was referring to was the challenge of holding the poses for 3 to 5 minutes. Muscular pain? A bit. But more challenging was the mental pain of remaining engaged and aware while holding your body still for such an extended period of time.
What is Yin yoga? Rather than try and explain it myself, I sat down with Chris Dunphy, owner and yoga instructor at my local studio, Kushala Yoga.
Chris was kind enough to answer my questions about Yin yoga (and provide me with lots of quote-worthy statements!). Below are excerpts from our conversation.
Fitknitchick: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me about Yin, Chris. Why don’t we start with a brief description of Yin yoga. What is Yin yoga and historically, where does it come from?
CD: Yin yoga is a posture practice, much like Hatha yoga. It’s really a North American invention or manifestation of yoga. Yin was developed in the 1970‘s by a fellow named Paulie Zink, a martial artist, who used to hold poses for up to 20 or 30 minutes. As a result of years of lengthy posture holding, he became incredibly flexible.
A couple who witnessed him demonstrating his practice ‘discovered’ him, coined the name ‘Yin yoga’ and brought it into the yoga mainstream.
FKC: How does Yin yoga differ from the more familiar Hatha and Hatha flow practices?
CD: Hatha and Hatha flow are Yang practices. They engage a lot more of your muscular energy and use alignment principles to get the body in to positions that primarily strengthen the body via their use of muscle. During a Yin practice, you disengage muscle and get more into the bones, joints and connective tissue. Yin yoga really promotes flexibility more than strength.
In the Yin practice, you want to release the muscles so that you can feel the compression of joints and bones. That’s the physical, skeletal benefit of Yin. Other benefits from compression of the bones and subsequent release of that compression? Osteopenia, osteoporosis are really prevalent now. Bones grow stronger along the lines of stress. So with that increased compression, bones get healthier, stronger. And similar to the Yang practices, much of the Yin practice is internal. The compression of internal organs is quite beneficial to their health.
I also find, that the Yin practice, because of the longer holds, brings a more conscientious attention to the breath and the sensations in the body. Yin brings me a little bit closer to feeling the benefits of yoga. I feel more energetic, my body opens up more. With the flow practices, you’re moving in and out of the postures a lot more quickly, and the meditative aspect of the practice doesn’t hit me as hard as it does during the Yin practice. You really have to sit there with your own mind and whatever’s going on in it. [When I'm holding pigeon pose for 5 minutes, my brain is usually cursing Chris]
FKC: I find Yin to be less cerebral, if you will, than Hatha. I don’t have to constantly think about where my body is and what position it’s taking like I do when I practice Hatha or Hatha flow.
CD: Yin doesn’t follow the universal alignment principals that other yoga practices do. We focus more on taking the general shape of the pose, rather than worry about the exact placement of the foot, for example.It’s more about what’s happening in your body and letting your body tell you what it needs. And allowing the body to take any shape that it wants to take at that particular time.
FKC: So Yin would actually be a good practice for a beginner, because they wouldn’t have to worry so much about alignment and getting the poses right.
CD: Yes, a beginner would likely feel a lot less stressed in a Yin practice, not asking themselves ‘am I doing this properly’, ‘what am I supposed to be doing’. For a beginner, it’s a very accessible practice. And very beneficial. Many people think that they’ll get more flexible from the Yang practice, but actually, the range of motion of your joints, which we stress in Yin practice, will ultimately give you greater flexibility than a Yang practice. I didn’t realize that before I started practicing Yin myself, but over time, I noticed myself becoming more open, in places I wasn’t before from just the Yang practice, even though I’d been doing it for many years.
FKC: What types of poses are most typical of a Yin practice? I notice that we don’t typically do inversions; it would be hard to hold headstand for 3 to 5 minutes!
CD: No inversions, although legs up the wall would be considered a very gentle inversion. Inversions, in general, really have to be supported by muscular energy which almost defeats the purpose of Yin yoga. You’re not going to get into the bones and connective tissue as much because the muscles are engaged and contracting to support the pose. Inversions tend to have more muscular energy than your would have in a Yin posture.
The large majority of Yin postures are seated or reclined postures. You don’t see a whole lot of standing postures. Perhaps dangling, knees are bent, head hangs in a forward fold. There’s not a lot of muscular energy required to hold that pose. You won’t see any of the Warrior series, as those need to be accompanied by alignment and muscular energy to support the alignment. And downward dog is used primarily as a release posture.
It’s funny, if you look at the Yin-Yang symbol, there’s that swirl of white and that swirl of black but inside the black there’s a white dot, inside the white there’s a black dot, which says that nothing is absolute. Even in Yin practice you’ll find some Yang qualities. And in a Yang practice you’ll find some Yin qualities. For example, we adopt savasana, corpse pose at the end of a Hatha practice, a pose which is really the quintessential Yin pose! [It's also the pose I'm the best at!]
In the Yin practice we really focus on the spine and the hips. The spine is the axis of all movement in your body so the health of your spine is really important (I love this quote; “you’re only as young as your spine”). You’ll see a lot of back bends, forward bends for sure, and then the hips, being the hub of the body, are an important focal point. This is particularly important in Western society. Because we sit a lot, out hips tend to be really tight. Range of motion tends to be limited to the forward plane. We walk, run, cycle, all using linear motion, always forward and back. The hips are ball and socket joints so they have a huge amount of movement that’s available to them. But like anything, if you don’t use it, you lose it. So that’s why a lot of the Yin postures have your hips opening up and knees moving laterally, trying to work more planes of motion than we would normally.
FKC: I’ve noticed that you seem to use props more in Yin class than in a Hatha practice.
CD: Yes, because you are relaxing in postures and holding them for 3 to 5 minutes the use of props helps people get more comfortable in the shape that their body is taking. It’s just a way to support the natural form of the body without becoming so uncomfortable that posture becomes unsettling or requires shifting around to hold it. The props really enable muscular release and relaxation.
FKC: In a Hatha or Hatha flow class, instructors typically come around and ‘adjust’ participants, helping them to improve the quality of their pose. You don’t do much of this in the Yin classes you teach. Why?
CD: In the Yang practice, I do a lot of adjustments because alignment principles are needed. In the Yin practice, unless I see somebody who’s face is contorted and there’s clearly something wrong, I’ll only ‘adjust’ by asking ‘how does it feel in your body’. If they say ‘painful’, then I’ll suggest a use of props or offer an alternative pose or a different variation of that pose. But if they feel fine and their breath comfortable then they’re pretty much in the right pose [for them] regardless of where they feel it or what they look like. I wouldn’t put someone in the ‘proper alignment’ because that is so particular to them and what their body needs at that particular time.
FKC: How would you recommend a regular Yang practitioner incorporate Yin into their practice?
CD: I would suggest starting with once a week. It will evolve into what it needs to evolve to. Generally, the older you are the more Yin you want to bring into your body because your bones are starting to become a little bit weaker, a bit more brittle. That’ s just the nature of aging. The Yin practice is focused on joint and bone health, which makes it more appropriate as people get older. When you’re younger, a lot of Yang, a lot of dynamic movements, because your bones are young and healthy and strong. It’s almost like re-balancing your portfolio.Equity investments when you’re in your 20’s, fixed income when you’re 60 and you’ll need the money soon [Chris left a successful career as a financial advisor to pursue his love of yoga!].
Bottom line, do what fits in your schedule. Start with one, but be open to adding more as you find the need and desire. I always like to tell people to look at yoga as an enabler. If you like to run, hike, cycle use yoga to allow you to keep doing those activities.All Yang or all Yin isn’t going to result in the complete wellness that your body needs. There has to be a balance, and everybody needs to decide what that balance is for themselves.
FKC: Why do YOU enjoy Yin?
CD: I love the Yin practice because it’s about developing a relationship with your whole being, not just your physical body, or your emotional or mental or spiritual body, it’s everything. Most people will find yoga for the physical well-being to begin with, but if you’re diligent with your practice, you’ll find other reasons to stay. Come to yoga for a particular reason, but be willing and be open to that reason changing as your practice evolves.
FKC: Thanks so much for sharing your time and knowledge with me and my readers, Chris! I’m looking forward to today’s Yin class!
Chris Dunphy began yoga six years ago when he started to notice his body wasn’t recovering fast enough from some minor injuries, muscle strains, and stiffness he commonly suffered while playing hockey and football. Shortly after joining his first yoga class, Chris was hooked. Not only did his body feel better after the first class, it felt better than it had in years, even though he was an avid weight trainer, hockey and football player in that time.
The opportunity to open Kushala Yoga (originally Newport Yoga) came along in mid-2006 and Chris jumped at the chance. He quit his job after 7 years at the Royal Bank, where he was a financial advisor, took a leap into health and wellness field and hasn’t looked back.