I first became aware of yin yoga only 5 years ago, when I lived in Vancouver, BC, Canada, and had the excellent fortune to study and practice with Bernie Clark, an essential figure in the yin yoga world and author of some essential reading on the topic of yin. Over the last half decade, yin yoga has completely transformed not just my asana practice, but my life off the mat as well. I was eager to deepen my studies of this discipline, and Sebastian and Murielle were amazing teachers. Incredibly knowledgeable, engaging, inspiring and fun, my time with them went by quickly and I'm eager to reunite with them to learn more in the future. We studied everything from the physical poses and correlated anatomical structure, to energy meridians, pranayama, meditation, and philosophy. I was thirsty for knowledge and these two fantastic teachers were even better than I could have hoped for.
As part of our immersion, we were asked to write an essay on what yin yoga is, and I wanted to share it with you!
What is Yin Yoga?
Yin Yoga is the process by which we learn acceptance of the things we cannot change. As Sri B.K.S. Iyengar said, “yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured, and to endure what cannot be cured”. The first part of this statement refers to the yang aspects of the yoga practice: deliberately changing the conditions over which we can exert our control or influence. The balance to this is the second part of the statement, and is the yin component of the practice: through yin yoga, we learn to surrender to the forces that we cannot control.
Most of us have been taught, from a very young age, that discomfort is a negative thing, and that it should be avoided. We are taught that pleasure is good, and dis-pleasure is bad, and to therefore only accept the things that we like. However, it is inevitable that we will come across many situations in our lives that are dis-pleasurable. When this happens, whether it is a physical discomfort, or an emotional trauma, or any other type of challenge, we can easily become stressed out, upset, and attached to these feelings of displeasure. Some people may turn to drugs, drinking, gambling, or another destructive coping mechanism to avoid dealing with the source of discomfort. But, as the Buddha teaches us “pain is inevitable, but suffering is a choice”. This means that although it is guaranteed that things will happen in our lives that we may not like, we ultimately choose to be attached to this feeling, and this turns the temporary discomfort into long-term suffering. Therefore, the reason why we suffer is not due to the source of the discomfort, but rather due to our attachment to it (i.e. our desire for things to be different than the reality of the situation).
Through the practice of yin yoga we intentionally take our bodies to the edge of discomfort, and then by remaining focused on relaxation, and the smooth, steady flow of the breath, we allow ourselves to surrender to this discomfort. The mind may try to react, with judgment, stress, or panic, or by taking us out of the present moment and inviting thoughts that the mind may identify as being more pleasurable. So, the work of yin yoga is to stay present in times of discomfort, and to let go of feelings of judgement and attachment. Instead we practice contentment (santosha) and surrender to the universe (isvara pranidhana).
Although yin yoga can greatly enhance range of motion through its focus on releasing tension in the connective tissues (which are responsible for the majority of a person’s flexibility, or lack thereof), the physical benefits of the practice are more of a side effect, or by-product. The true benefits of yin yoga happen off the yoga mat. With a consistent and dedicated practice, yogis will find themselves to be less reactive to challenges that take place in everyday life. By using the breath as a tool for mental relaxation, and learning to choose which emotions to nurture and which to release, when everyday life brings its inevitable challenges and discomforts, the yogi can use the tools of yin yoga (relaxation combined with awareness of the breath, and presence in the moment) to “endure what cannot be cured”. This, regardless of any physical flexibility, is the true indicator of a successful yin yoga practice.