It was a few years ago, when I started a near-daily hot (Yang) yoga practice – then, a combination of Ashtanga, Bikram, and power yoga – that I noticed my energy levels fluctuating. Some days I’d feel overly energized; on others, tired and drained. I sought balance.
Through research, I came across a style of yoga termed ‘Yin Yoga’ that spoke to my needs – less sweat, more calm. I bought a well-reviewed DVD, Yin Yoga: The Foundations of a Quiet Practice and started a tri-weekly home practice in conjunction with my regular Yang classes. I had difficulty with the postures in the beginning; it was tough to hold them for minutes at a time, yet I knew I needed these deep tissue stretches as those ‘invisible’ parts of my body responded when I otherwise wouldn’t have known they existed (hello, IT band!). From a mental and physical perspective, every one of my Yin practices continues to have its challenges, but I feel a sense of accomplishment as I progress further into the postures; my ability to hold, and fold into them calmly for longer periods, has improved.
I have been recommending this DVD to my fellow hot room yogis ever since (it is a 2 CD set that covers theory, 3 guided Yin Yoga practices, and more). Now, years later, I had the pleasure of asking the man behind the TV screen – Paul Grilley – some specific questions, to help further explain the advantages of cultivating a Yin Yang practice.
Paul Grilley has been teaching yoga for over 30 years. His interest in yoga was sparked by reading the Autobiography of a Yogi in the summer of 1979. Paul has years of study behind him; these days, he and his wife, Suzee, travel the world teaching the Yin Yoga Teacher's Training program. It is Paul’s interest in anatomy, fascia, and its relevance to the practice of Hatha yoga that has helped conceptualize Yin Yoga. He practices yoga postures in the style of Paulie Zink – his former teacher, and patterns his philosophy on the writings and researches of Dr. Hiroshi Motoyama —a yogi and scientist from Tokyo, Japan. This philosophy integrates the Taoist meridian and acupuncture theories of China with the yogic and tantric theories of India.
Our Q&A was tailored to those hot yoga practitioners who might be seeking balance to their practices, as well as anyone interested in learning more about Yin Yoga.
MC: In basic terms for readers who are heavily vested in a hot yoga practice, describe what makes their practice a ‘Yang’ one.
PG: Yang can be defined in many ways. Two ways in which hot yoga is Yang is: the emphasis on effort, and muscular contraction.
What are the objectives of a Yin style of yoga?
Yin style of yoga is focused on recovery and healing. We need both Yin and Yang: we need to exercise, and we need to rest; we need to contract muscles to make them stronger, and we need to traction muscles to heal them from the strains of use.
Is Yin Yoga a trademarked series?
Yin is not a trademarked system; there are many forms of yin. Just as hot yoga is only one form of Yang yoga, and Ashtanga yoga is another; Yin Yoga is one form of yin, and restorative yoga is another.
How many Yin poses are there? Where might one access a visual of the poses?
There are fewer Yin poses - none of the standing or inverted poses are typically included in a Yin class which limits the number of poses. We teach that there are about twenty basic poses and several variations of each pose. I would suggest looking at The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga, Insight Yoga, or The Yin Yoga Kit for a fairly complete list of poses.
Does Yin Yoga follow a sequential style – like Bikram Yoga – or can poses be done interchangeably depending on needs?
Poses can be done in any sequence desired.
I understand that Camel and Saddle are practiced in Yin Yoga, and they also exist in Yang practices like Bikram yoga. What is the difference?
There is very little difference between Camel poses in the two practices. In Yin Yoga, the Saddle Pose is held in a relaxed position for several minutes, typically with knees apart.
Bikram Yoga, for example, is a series of Hatha postures that work on standing balance and strengthening. As Yin Yoga is floor based, how will it further a practitioner’s progress in Yang physical asanas and in-class meditation?
Yin yoga can safely increase range of motion but I believe its greater benefit isn't range of motion but rather creating a calm and contented state of mind.
In the long term people become more interested in introspection and meditative practice. People who were terrified to even consider sitting still for 15 minutes eventually become accustomed to staying in poses 5 minutes at a time; they actually start to enjoy it. In the long run, the idea of sitting quietly is no longer terrifying or boring. Rather, it is a natural extension of creating peace in their lives.
Given the time vested into a frequent hot yoga practice (time to get to, and complete a class), is Yin Yoga safe to practice at home at one’s leisure, without supervision? Can you recommend some sources – online, DVD, books?
I do believe Yin is safe to practice at home if you are truly gentle and not competitive when you practice. It might not be safe if you approach your Yin practice like a hot yoga class. Don't approach Yin like a sport, approach it like a massage. Books and DVDs are recommended on my website, paulgrilley.com.
What are the optimal conditions for Yin Yoga? (e.g. temperature, are supportive blocks allowed?)
There are no necessary requirements for a Yin practice other than the common ones of wearing comfortable clothing, and not to eat immediately prior. Room temperature practice is fine but practicing in a warm or hot room could be beneficial for beginners, as long as they are not aggressive. I cannot emphasize enough that Yin should not be practiced with a competitive Yang attitude. Bolsters and blocks are encouraged; a student must be comfortable to truly relax and not drop too far into a pose they are not ready for.
For readers interested in trying Yin Yoga, would you be able to describe how to progress in a Yin pose? (Personally I love Shoelace pose – that used to be so hard to get into for me, yet it was the pose I noticed most progression in.)
The most important advice I can offer is to alert yogis to the difference in attitude and effort between Yin and Yang yoga, this is especially true when practicing poses that are familiar to a Yang yogi. For example, Saddle Pose is familiar to hot yoga practitioners but when practiced in a Yin way it is important not to try and sink as deeply into the pose as you do in your hot yoga class. You will not be as warmed up for it and it is very different to hold a pose for five minutes rather than one minute.
Is it best to practice Yin Yoga on a day when one is sitting out their Yang practice, or can both practices be done on the same day, if one desires this based on energy levels?
It is a pragmatic suggestion to practice Yin Yoga on your off days; it will assist your recovery. But it is certainly fine to do a few Yin poses after a Yang session, or at the end of the day.
Thank you Paul!
Disclaimer: Consult your physician before entering into any exercise program.