What You Need To Know About The Stress-Busting Practice Wellness Experts Love

What You Need To Know About The Stress-Busting Practice Wellness Experts Love Hero Image
Photo: Christine Hewitt

I knew almost nothing about yin yoga when I first took a workshop years ago in Chicago. But once I did, everything changed. Yin yoga slowed me down as it opened me up. It asked me to think in pictures and feel in space—level your hips, soften your groins—and that led to a deeper insight that I hope to embody every time I returned to the mat: You don’t use your body to find the pose; you use the pose to find your body.

When you link to your body, slowly, through your breath, you can go deeper into your pose and your energy flow. Float your kidneys. Open your heart. Lengthen your tailbone. Is that even possible, you might ask. Is my tailbone really getting longer? I promise you, it doesn’t matter.

What does matter is how remarkably effective yin yoga is for releasing stress in your body. We all have it. The tight shoulders, the sore knee, the nagging ache that slips down your spine to your lower back and locks you in pain. We’ve all been there.

Once you understand the principles behind yin yoga, you won’t feel as helpless next time your body starts to act up or shut down. You learn to listen to your body, tune in, and engage in a mind-body-breath conversation that promotes healing, prevents injuries, and leaves you refreshed and reinvigorated.

What makes yin yoga different?

In all of yoga, you start where you are, but with yin yoga that's especially true. It's a class in deep release and relaxation, conscious breathing, and visualization—what some teachers call restorative yoga. But yin yoga has its own special twist.

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For one thing, it moves very slowly. In an hour or so, you might only get to five or six different postures. Be grateful for these long holds. It's a wonderful way, perhaps the only way, to release and refresh the bands of connective tissue that only gets tighter and more restrictive as we age, as we sit, and as we move too quickly through our lives.

Most exercise we do—running, biking, dynamic forms of yoga like ashtanga—is considered yang. In simplest Taoist terms, yang is the expansion force; yin is the contracting force. Yang exercise works on muscle through rhythm and repetition but does nothing for your deeper, connective tissue. And that's what we humans want to access to have a more fluid and healthy body. The word is juicy. We want to be juicy to the end.

In a yin yoga class, you're given instruction, and permission, to mindfully explore and expand the tight connective tissue. Your breath is clearing the way—mentally and physically—for a healing flow of energy into and surrounding your hips, your knees, your spine. Use the long holds to play with your breath. It's not a religious belief. It's a way of connecting your body to your mind, and the moment you try it you can feel the effect: Your breath helps unblock and release, opening what is known in yoga as the subtle body.

The trick to loving your yin yoga class is learning what to do with yourself once you've eased into your posture. Five minutes in one pose can be boring, or you can use the time to explore and be curious about the limits and geometry of your own anatomy—gently pumping, actively emptying, again and again.

Yin yoga stills, and then restarts, the flow of energy.

Yin yoga instructor Paul Grilley teaches you that your connective tissue isn't just some inert gristle that keeps your knees in place and your back from going out—your connective tissue is a river of life-giving energy that flows through your entire body. It follows the meridian pathways described in the ancient texts on acupuncture, a flow of energy (chi) that can reach and nourish every cell and organ in your body.

Accept what is.

Grilley began a workshop I took with him by pulling (fake) thigh bones and pelvises out of a canvas bag and laying them on the floor. Talk about an attention-getter. Structural limitation is real, Grilley explained, pointing to all the shapes and sizes laid before us.

An anatomy expert, Grilley wants you to understand that the unique angle and shape of your bones determines what you can do in yoga, no matter how many hours you spend willing your head to touch your toes. "Your anatomy is yours! Your femur is different from the person next to you! All your good intentions and instruction—relax and let it open!—can't push you past your compression point."

Translation? You may never do the splits, or sit in full lotus, no matter how hard you push. But that's OK. Instead, focus your attention within the pose, not on how it looks but how it feels.

Once you get to that place in your own yoga practice—blending in some yin yoga from time to time—you’re in a whole different universe.

Intrigued by yin yoga? Check out this metabolism-boosting sequence.

This is based on an excerpt from All Is Well: The Art {and Science} of Personal Well-Being, Creators Publishing, 2017.


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