The Benefits of Yin Yoga
How a Gentle Practice Can Help Restore the Mind-Body Connection
One of the benefits of yin yoga, for beginners and returning practitioners, is called interoception.
I hardly moved at all in 2020. I sat on a couch and worked on my laptop for hours on end, knowing that it was the worst thing I could do for both my body and my mind. Eventually, my saving grace was a yin yoga practice—one that had fallen by the wayside like all other physical activity. Luckily, it’s a type of yoga that truly meets you where you are, and it was waiting to be picked up when I was ready.
People all over the world were less physically active during lockdown, and it affected both our mental and physical health. Many of us lost track of our bodies completely, becoming stiff, gaining weight, developing new aches and pains, and exacerbating health problems. Luckily, it’s never too late to break a bad habit. But it turns out that you can’t just pop up off the couch and instantly regain your stamina and mobility after all that time.
Getting Back in the Yin Yoga Habit
I’d been practicing yoga for over 20 years and became an avid yin yoga practitioner over a decade ago. By the time I ungracefully got down on my mat again in 2021, my Happy Baby pose looked nothing like it once did—I could hardly pull my knees to my chest without pain. It was humbling to hang there in Butterfly pose looking down at my feet, upon which I was once able to rest my head. But that’s when I remembered why I chose yin yoga as my dominant practice.
Yin yoga asks us to spend time tracing the path of our breath into our bodies and to bring attention to our connective tissue as we hold a pose for several minutes. “Yang” styles of yoga (such as Vinyasa) activate and elongate muscles. But in yin yoga, relaxing into a pose allows you to elongate that fiber to its maximum resting length, after which additional stretching takes place in the fascia, or connective tissues, surrounding the muscle as well as the collagen fibers within them.
The practice of yin yoga is a fusion of Indian tradition and ancient Chinese Taoist principles, the latter of which lends to yoga the idea of Qi, or energy, running through our bodies. Yin asanas are designed to open blockages in order to let Qi flow freely throughout the body. But whether you feel this or not, the important part of yin is the awareness it brings to your inner body.
The Power of “Interoception”
Another unique benefit of yin yoga (which should not be confused with restorative yoga) is that it gives us time. Being able to spend 2-5 minutes exploring a pose is psychologically important because it gives you the opportunity to feel things going on in your body. Given time to reflect as you relax into a pose can help remind you why you got up off the couch to begin with, or why you paused your day to take time for yourself.
According to Bernie Clark, an influential yin yoga teacher and the author of The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga, the practice of yin is one way to hone something called interoception, or our brain’s ability “to notice, identify, understand, and respond appropriately to internal signals.” Basically, it’s our awareness of what’s going on inside our bodies and a way to improve our “body literacy.” While this practice is not for everyone (especially for those who might have repressed trauma), I found that it was the perfect way to explain the rebuilding of my own mind-body connection.
Yin Yoga for Beginners
Yin yoga has never been the most popular practice, but it is gaining more and more recognition in part thanks to free classes on YouTube. Of course, anyone not familiar with the practice should start with the myriad beginner videos that explain how to achieve the poses and modify them to prevent injury. But whether you’re new to yin or an old pro, there’s something for everyone and a handful of online teachers that specialize in this practice.
During the lockdown, yoga classes proliferated online. The undisputed “queen” of online yin is Kassandra Reinhardt of the YouTube channel and app “Yoga with Kassandra.” She offers everything from long, challenging yin classes with minimal cues to beginner training with explanations of how to modify poses.
[Check out our video: “Nourishing Heart: Yin Yoga for Fearlessness.”]
Matthieu Dupuis, of “Yin Yoga with Matt,” started his YouTube channel during the COVID lockdown so that more people could practice at home for free. He is ex-military and a former correctional officer who manages to bring a thoughtful and calming air to his classes. A good place to start may be with his beginner class, which starts with a meditation and breathing exercise before moving into the poses, which are explained in detail.
And when it comes to either entering the practice of yin or reestablishing it after some time, he had some great advice, especially about tempering your own expectations about what yin poses should look like and concentrating instead on what they feel like for your body:
“The most important principle of Yin yoga is to listen to your body and not care so much about what the posture should look like because for you it might not even look close to what you see from the teacher or on tv due to your own limitations and tightness. So, with each position the idea is to first find your edge, which is the exact point where your body starts to resist the stretch, then find stillness at that point and reconnect with your breath, allowing your body to open up and the tightness to dissipate. The goal is to be gentle, patient, and kind with yourself.”
Yoga with Shaunneka is another hidden gem of the online yin yoga world that has popped up in the last year. If you prefer thorough explanations of your asanas up front and silence during your holds with no distracting soundtrack, her library of classes continues to grow.
Yin Yoga: Low Impact, Strong Connection
In some ways it makes sense that I’m finding my way back to fitness with a low-impact yoga routine. But what yin has to offer is something much bigger—it teaches us to remain still, to feel and respect what’s happening inside our bodies, and it sets us up for not just reestablishing daily movement but paying attention to how we use and fuel our bodies through interoception.
In a way, you could say yin yoga gave me my body back. But I don’t mean that in a “summer beach body” way at all. Instead, it allowed me to reestablish the connection between my body and mind. And while it may sound trite, that’s an easy connection to lose when you’ve trapped yourself at a desk or on a couch for months on end.
Do you suffer from chronic pain? Consider these lessons from Yin Yoga for managing it.