I have had a few experiences lately that have brought me back in time, which have beautifully connected happy moments from my past with my current state of being, and it always feels absolutely amazing! One of those experiences has been taking yin yoga classes with my former instructor Jen Brooks at Yoga on the Rocks (if you’re in the Phoenix area I highly recommend them both!). Jen taught prenatal yoga when I was pregnant with my first baby five years ago, which in itself was truly a magical experience for me.
Over the course of a short few months, I would go to Jen’s class on Sunday afternoon and was completely transformed every time I left an hour later. What I loved most about her classes then was that Jen always offered an intriguing mix of physical practice and authentic spiritual insights. I still remember her telling the story of how Ganesha received his elephant head and the moral of it has stuck with me ever since! Needless to say, I am equally in love with her class now even though yin is different from any other yoga style I have come across before.
I would generally describe myself as a “classicist” when it comes to yoga. I practice three times a week with my incredible instructor Susan who teaches what she calls a “basic flow with a twist.” She has us hold poses for several breaths (as opposed to the “one breath to one movement” characteristic of a true vinyasa) always focusing on proper alignment. The general order of her classic sequences is always very similar but hardly ever exactly the same. Honestly, I have learned more from her in just over a year than from any other teacher in years of prior practice.
While I keep going to Susan’s classes on a regular basis, I also wanted to try something new. I was looking for something that would complement my practice and help me grow, and from what I had heard, yin yoga seemed to be the perfect fit.
What is yin yoga?
Yin was founded by and first taught in the United States in the late 1970s by martial arts expert and yoga teacher Paulie Zink. Over the years, it has become more popular across North America and Europe mainly due to the teaching activities of yin yoga teachers and developers Paul Grilley and Sarah Powers.
The origins of yin yoga date back more than 2,000 years to ancient China. “Yin yoga is based on the Taoist concept of yin and yang, opposing yet complementary forces that can characterize any phenomenon. Yin can be described as stable, immobile, feminine, passive, cold, and downward moving. Yang is depicted as changing, mobile, masculine, active, hot, and upward moving. In nature, a mountain could be described as yin; the ocean, as yang. Within the body, the relatively stiff connective tissue (tendons, ligaments, fascia) is yin, while the pliant and mobile muscles and blood are yang. Applied to yoga, a passive practice is yin, whereas most of today’s hatha yoga practices are yang: They actively engage the muscles and build heat in the body.” (Source: Yoga Journal)
Yin is a slow paced style of yoga with poses, or asanas, that are held for 3-5 minutes (or longer) each. It is a more restorative and meditative approach said to increase flexibility and mobility in the joints, especially the hips. Yin yoga focus on cultivating your inner stillness and patience. It calms the mind as it lowers your anxiety and stress level. Its overall purpose is to improve the flow of energy (qi) in the body.
Grab two blankets, two blocks, a bolster, and a sand bag.
I rarely ever use props during my practice so it was different to set myself up with everything but the kitchen sink before class started. The props aide in the passive approach to the poses, meaning the emphasis is on releasing muscles rather than on contracting. Many yin poses are based on the more traditional, well known yoga asanas, however, are referred to by different names.
The very first pose I did was sleeping swan (or pigeon) in which a sand bag was placed on my lower back. While feeling unfamiliar, it made me sink deeper into the pose without any active effort but with gravity helping to intensify the stretch. Blankets support the knees or hips, blocks and bolsters let you comfortably rest your head or arms while you sit in each pose for minutes at a time.
Props or not, even though I am pretty flexible and have somewhat mastered a few more advanced poses, many of the yin asanas felt uncomfortable at first as my body was certainly not used to this kind of movement or rather, lack thereof.
Find the sweet spot between intensity and relaxation. Most important of all, let go and allow yourself to receive.
I came to the class feeling somewhat anxious. I had just heard some unsettling news from a dear friend and was stressed and sleep deprived. Sitting in a seated, supine or prone position for an extended period of time forced me to focus on the pose and on my breath. Being present is always the most challenging part of yoga for me – to get my mind under control and not let it run wild on the mat. However, after getting over the initial fidgetiness, temporary discomfort, even short episodes of boredom, I was finally able to let go. I felt as if I was melting into the floor.
Jen always closes her sessions with the words of John Robbins:
May all be fed. May all be healed. May all be loved. Namaste.
After this meditative experience, I left the class being completely at peace with myself. My mind had become clear without any trace of anxiousness remaining. My body felt open and seemed several inches taller. Incredible!
I have been to Jen’s class twice now and I will continue to practice yin for a while longer as the benefits of it become more apparent over time, slowly with each session.
If you desire a sweaty, fast paced, physically challenging practice that leaves you with a sense of accomplishment, yin yoga is not for you. However, if you are looking to complement your yang practice and delve deeper into the mind aspect of yoga, I highly recommend you give yin a try.