When you hear ‘yin yoga’, what are the first words or qualities that come to mind?
For Namaspa teacher, Lesley Barr, they are: “soft and quiet, yet powerful and strong” and “through the stillness, hearing the whisper of the heart.”
Also, for Lesley, yin is foundational to and for all of the other yoga, healing, and mindfulness-based practices she engages in in her life. “Practicing yin,” Lesley shares, “has made me a more compassionate human — not only toward others, but also toward myself — a better, more present mom, and someone with a more open, curious mind and heart.” If you’re interested in learning more about Lesley’s upcoming workshop, Yin II: An Energetic and Sound Journey (Saturday, 4/29, 11:30-6:30pm) click here (no prior experience practicing or teaching yin required).
Yin yoga, as it has come to and developed in the Western world, is a vast, wide river fed by several streams. It weaves together ancient principles, practices, and teachings from yoga, ayurveda, Daoism, and Chinese medicine, with more modern principles of exercise science. In yin classes at Namaspa, instructors often weave additional traditions and practices into classes and workshops, as well, such as mindfulness practices, sound healing, reiki, or other energy healing modalities. The multi-faceted origins of yin yoga, combined with these additional modalities, create deep and rich experiences not only in and for the body, but also for the mind, heart, and Spirit.
In addition to the traditions that inform and make up yin yoga, another way to learn about the practice is through exploring the pillars of a yin yoga practice:
(1) Postures (or asana)
(2) Breath (or pranayama)
(3) Mindfulness (or pratyahara)
“In our busy lives, most people don’t make or take enough time for slowing down, which is why I always say yin is harder, in its own way, than a power flow class.” - Lesley
When it comes to postures, there are three key principles that, when combined, are what make yin yoga different from other kinds of yoga: holding the postures for an extended period of time (usually, at least 5 minutes), while relaxing the muscles and tissues of the body, and while finding and landing in more and more stillness while in each posture. And it’s the combination of these three elements that makes yin both a difficult practice, as well as such a fruitful one! Yin yoga postures are typically restorative postures, and props are often used as a way to support deepening relaxation and growing stillness in the postures. Physical benefits of yin yoga include:
Increased flexibility and resilience in diverse tissues of the body — including muscles, tendons, joints, and connective tissue;
Deactivation of the sympathetic nervous system (stress responses like fight/flight/freeze) and activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest);
Regulation of heart rate, blood pressure, and hormones;
Increased immune system functionality.
In her personal practice at the moment, Lesley’s favorite yin posture is supported/elevated supta baddha konasana (or supported/elevated bound angle posture) with a bolster under her back and block under each thigh. “It opens my shoulders, chest, and heart, while allowing me to ground and connect to the Earth in a restorative way,” shares Lesley.
“As we bring awareness to the breath, it changes the shape of the physical body, and in our inner awareness, the breath itself changes in shape, depth, duration, and expansion. Take a moment and feel how your breath is changing your shape, right now.” - Lesley
One simple way of thinking about breath practices in the context of yoga or meditation is to consider to what degree a particular breathing technique alters the natural breath. For example, on one end of a breathing spectrum, there would be your natural breath pace, rhythm, and depth. This is how you breathe ‘normally’ inside of your own body, in your daily activities, and in a state of balance or non-stress. On the other, far end of the spectrum, would be very intense breath practices that alter the natural pace, rhythm, and depth of the natural breath to a high degree. Examples of these practices are kapalabhati pranayama (“breath of fire” or “skull-shining breath”) and intense breath retention practices where you hold the breath at the top of the inhale (full retention) and/or at the bottom of the exhale (empty retention) for increasing amounts of time, as you grow and develop in your practices.
Although there is not one specific or formal breath practice that yin yoga utilizes all the time, and although yin yoga instructors often weave phases of different types of mindful breathing techniques throughout a class, the most energetically aligned breath practices to incorporate during yin yoga are those that don’t alter the pace, rhythm, and depth of the natural breath in extreme ways. You can imagine, for example, how hard it might be to stay relaxed in a pose for 5 or more minutes, if you had to breathe particularly quickly, or retain your breath for many seconds each time you inhaled or exhaled!
Mindful or conscious breathing is a simple and common breath practice used during yin, because it does not require alteration of the natural breath in any way! It is simply an observation and feeling practice — watching and feeling the sensations of inhale as it comes into the nose and/or the mouth and down into the lungs, and watching and feeling the sensations of the exhale as it moves out of the body, nose, and/or mouth.
Long, deep breathing is another simple and common breath practice used during yin, and
instructors will often cue practitioners to engage in long, deep breathing in a way that does not create tension, stress, and constriction in the breath or body. In a yin practice, long, deep breathing isn’t about taking the longest, deepest breaths you possibly can, and rather, is about lengthening the inhales and exhales just a bit beyond the natural breath.
“I love that yin supports the body, but the mental benefits are even more astounding to me. Yin has taught me to sit and be with myself. To observe where my thoughts go when I slow down and get still. To build resilience in these body-shapes, while in a safe environment. The time and space of yin has become so full of curiosity for me.” - Lesley
Of course, there are elements of mindfulness that cannot be separated from the practice of the postures and breath already mentioned, and at the same time, it is worth naming and exploring mindfulness as its own important pillar within yin yoga.
Sometimes, the word ‘mindfulness’ gets equated with ‘mindfulness techniques’, and although they are related, they are not exactly the same. Mindfulness techniques — such as counting the breath, doing a body scan, resting your awareness in a particular sensation in the body, or using the senses to orient to your surroundings — can be used to reach states of more mindfulness. And in the end, it’s the state-change that is the goal, and the technique that is the pathway.
Because of the foundations of yin yoga — spending time in restorative postures in relaxed stillness, for extended periods of time, while doing gentle forms of mindful or conscious breathing — a rich environment for changing one’s state of mind, or one’s consciousness, is created. And it is in this state-change that the ‘yin’ in ‘yin yoga’ gains even more meaning and depth. In other words, ‘yin yoga’ refers to engaging in physical postures and breath practices in a particular way — in a yin way, a slow way, a relaxed way, and a way with little-to-no-effort — and it also refers to the shift in the state of mind or consciousness that occurs through the practice of the yin-way of doing postures and breath. One's mind moves from a more yang state (active, doing, focused or concentrated on particular activities/tasks/etc.) to a more yin state (less doing, more being; more receptivity; more stillness, not just in the physical body, but also inside; more peripheral awareness/less focused).
One name for this state change is coherence – when all of the systems of the body, including and especially the body, heart, and mind – come into a state of harmony, synchronization, and working together. The state of coherence is a state of deep wellness or wellbeing, and thus, is a healing state.
Upcoming Yin Workshop
So, do we have you interested and excited about trying yin for the first time? Or continuing to deepen your already-existing practice? Namaspa offers multiple yin and vin/yin classes each week at both the Bend and Redmond locations. Check out our weekly schedule here.
And if you’re interested in doing a yin deep-dive, or if you are a yoga teacher looking to enrich your perspectives and skills in teaching yin, we hope you’ll join us for Lesley’s upcoming workshop, Yin II: An Energetic and Sound Journey (Saturday, 4/29, 11:30-6:30pm). Lesley will weave teachings and practices from Chinese medicine, acupressure, energy healing, energy medicine, and sound healing into the workshop, and will offer ways for integrating these into a personal yin practice, as well as tips for yoga teachers on how to integrate these and other modalities into yin classes and workshops.
In Lesley’s words, “Cultivating a yin yoga practice also cultivates qualities of loving kindness, compassion, gratitude, and grace in and across one’s whole life.”
She and we hope you’ll join us in-studio very soon!