Find balance in your practice and slow down with yin yoga
When busy doctor Lauren Macdonald was diagnosed with cancer, she had to slow down. She found a way to quieten both body and mind with yin yoga
Yoga has emerged as the perfect antidote to our fast-paced, modern world. Originating thousands of years ago in India, yoga is now practised by people of all ages, all across the globe.
As a result, it is easier than ever to find a style of yoga to suit your needs, whether you want to focus on calming the mind, increasing your fitness, or improving flexibility.
While many people are initially drawn to the more fiery practices (such as vinyasa, ashtanga and Bikram), the slower styles (like my personal favourite, yin yoga) are becoming increasingly popular.
I think that recent surge in demand for this style of yoga reflects our growing understanding that optimum health and wellbeing requires an approach that incorporates both ‘yin’ and ‘yang’.
What are yin and yang and what do they mean?
The ancient concept of yin and yang can be traced back to the Taoists. They claimed that all things, both animate and inanimate, can be broken down into these two fundamental characteristics.
The opposing forces, famously illustrated by the black and white symbol, still offer a framework in which the notion of ‘balance’ can be understood. For example, certain styles of exercise can be classified as either yin or yang according to their inherent qualities.
Yang-style workouts, like running, cycling or dynamic, flowing yoga, reflect the qualities of heat, movement, and ‘doing’.
In contrast, yin represents the qualities of stillness, coolness, passivity and ‘being’. Exercises that are based on stretching and relaxation are, therefore, said to be yin in nature.
If we don't include these yin-type activities in our busy lives, we put ourselves at increased risk of fatigue, burnout and stress-related diseases.
How to slow your yoga practice down
Rather than dynamic movements involving warrior poses and standing balances, most poses in the practice of yin yoga are performed seated on the floor.
In a typical yin yoga class you can expect to attempt simple forward folds, hip-openers and gentle backbends. Each pose is held for around five minutes, enabling a much deeper release within the body, while also calming the mind.
The poses work predominantly on the connective tissue (tendons, ligaments and fascia) of the hips, legs and back.
Staying in the poseIn yin yoga, poses are held for a longer period of time than a regular yoga class, challenging both your mind and your body. "The pose begins when you want to leave it," wrote B.K.S. Iyengar.
As you settle into a pose, the teacher will guide you to observe your breath and use it to release deeper. They will encourage you to allow any thoughts and feelings to arise, but then gently let them go.
The poses can sometimes feel intense, but the resulting release in the connective tissue helps to improve flexibility and creates a feeling of lightness within the body. You might also be pleased to learn that yin yoga favours descriptive English terms for poses (such as ‘butterfly’, ‘pigeon’ or ‘swan’), rather than unfamiliar Sanskrit names often used within other yoga lineages.
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Yin also involves props to support you as you relax into the poses – you are likely to use blocks, bolsters and blankets to create your version of the pose.
Using yoga to find calm amongst the chaos
My own journey to finding yin has evolved slowly over the past five years. While working as a busy junior doctor in my mid-20s, I rarely ever made it to a yoga class.
But that all changed when, aged just 29, I was diagnosed with cancer. My diagnosis acted as the catalyst for me to commit to a regular yoga and meditation practice. I left my job while I was undergoing treatment and I started attending vinyasa classes whenever I wasn’t feeling too exhausted.
I loved how strong and healthy I felt while flowing through each pose, completely at odds with the cancer that was rapidly growing inside my body. I continued to practice yoga throughout my surgical and medical treatments over the next few years.
No matter how stressed or anxious I was feeling, stepping onto my mat provided me with some much-needed calm amongst the chaos.
Without slower, yin-type activities in our busy lives, we put ourselves at risk of fatigue, burnout and stress
Thankfully, in August 2016, a CT scan revealed that the tumours had finally disappeared. I made the decision to visit India, the birthplace of yoga, to learn more about the practice that had been such a lifeline for me over the previous few years.
It was during this course that I was first introduced to the practice of yin yoga. There were several yin workshops scattered throughout our timetable and I found that they perfectly complemented our demanding vinyasa and ashtanga classes.
How to focus on the present moment
I think the main reason why I fell in love with yin is that it enables me to explore my body and mind in such a different way to a typical yang-style vinyasa flow.
Yin slows me right down and provides an opportunity for me to tune in to how my body is feeling on any given day. It also helps to bring my focus into the present moment and, in this way, acts like a gatekeeper to my meditation practice.
Due to the extended amount of time that poses are held, the flexibility and the range of motion in my joints has slowly improved too. However, I still find this type of yoga challenging, both physically and mentally. Some days I can let go of any mental chatter and remain in the present moment, yet other times I catch my mind wandering.
In this situation it’s a case of gently bringing myself back into the room and holding deeper into the pose to quieten my mind.
Although yin is more than suitable for experienced yogis keen to complement their more dynamic yoga practice, the slower pace of yin also means that it offers a gentle introduction for individuals just starting out on their yoga journey.
Whereas yang-type yoga classes can occasionally leave beginners struggling to keep up with the pace, during a yin class you have the time to slowly fold into a pose, soften, and find stillness.
Do you want to deepen and improve your yoga practice? Check out our pick of the best yoga books.
Reap the benefits of yin yoga
With regular practice, the benefits of yin yoga are numerous. On a physical level, it enhances the natural range of mobility in the joints, and helps develop greater strength and flexibility within the body.
When we find stillness and direct our attention to our breath, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system, lowering our heart rate, improving our blood pressure and reducing our ‘fight or flight’ stress hormones. In this state the body has a chance to heal and repair.
On a mental level, yin yoga helps us to cultivate mindfulness and meditation by providing a space for us to turn within and simply ‘be’. The process of slowing our minds and connecting with our bodies helps us to feel calm and peaceful.
Training yourself to be comfortable with discomfort (also known as your 'edge' in yin) by staying quiet and still in poses also increases stamina and mental resilience. These unique benefits are why yin yoga is often used in programs that deal with addictions, eating disorders, anxiety and trauma.
Through introducing a regular yin practice into our lives, we can develop key mindfulness tools that are transferable off the mat, enabling us to better handle the stresses of everyday life.
Practise yin yoga at home
Because yin yoga requires groups of muscles to be relaxed around the connective tissue, there are only a limited number of poses which can be done safely. If you are attempting yin poses at home, proceed cautiously, gradually extending the depth and duration in each pose. Here are some poses that can be done
at home to target different areas of the body, but do not attempt them if you suffer from any knee, ankle or back injuries.
Sleeping Swan (aka Half-pigeon pose)
This pose works on opening up the hips, stretching the outer thighs, groin and the gluteal muscles. Work towards placing the front shin parallel with the front of the mat. Keep the front foot flexed to protect the knee. Modify the pose by placing a block or blanket underneath the outer hip. Fold forward, then work towards holding the pose for five minutes.
All forward bends stretch the ligaments along the spine. Butterfly also stretches the groin and the fascia that crosses the iliosacral region. Modify the pose by placing a block or pillow under your chest to reduce stress along the neck and mid-back. Work towards holding the pose for five minutes.
This pose works on extending the spine and allows a stretch down the front side of the body, including the hip flexors. Modify the pose by propping the front of the body on a pillow or bolster. Try to remain in the pose for five minutes and just ‘be’ with the intensity.
Saddle pose (aka Hero pose)
Saddle is a challenging yin pose. The main target area is the quadriceps but some will feel a compression in the lumbar spine. This can be helped by resting the upper body on a bolster.
Photography by Emma Croman and Triangle Monday.
This article was first published in In The Moment Magazine issue 7.