Yin or Yang? Find the Balance In Your Yoga Practice

It is understandable that even if you have heard the terms Yin and Yang Yoga, you may not know that Yin and Yang yoga refer to two different styles of yoga that target different parts of the body. Most westerners think of all yoga as “Hatha” Yoga, when in fact, Hatha Yoga, a physical practice encompassing “asana” is only one branch of the “eight limbs of yoga” and Yin and Yang are two different styles of a physical practice.

The terms Yin and Yang can be traced back thousands of years and are referenced in ancient Chinese writings. Although many think of Yin and Yang as simple terms to describe opposites (like good vs. bad or strong vs. weak) this is in fact, inaccurate. Ancient Taoists (or Daoists) believed that all forces within nature exist along a continuum and that the concepts of Yin and Yang only make sense when viewed relative to each other. Seemingly opposing forces are actually interconnected energies dependent on each other for survival. According to Taoist Philosophy, everything in the universe has Yin and Yang properties and nothing exists in a fixed state. Within this cosmic sphere of fluidity exists a natural tendency for opposing forces to seek equilibrium in order to achieve balance and bring harmony to all things. These same principles apply to all living organisms. Physiologically, the body’s ability to seek and maintain equilibrium is known as homeostasis and is critical to our survival. From a more holistic perspective, yoga helps maintain the physiological, psychological, emotional, energetic and spiritual systems within the human body thus supporting balance and harmony throughout the whole body. Yin and Yang yoga practices target different tissues within the body but both practices support bringing the body into harmonious balance.

Yin and Yang yoga generally refer to two different styles of yoga, although it is important to recognize that within each style of practice, there are yin and yang properties.

Yang yoga is the style we are more familiar with in the West. It targets muscle tissue which has more elasticity compared to the connective tissues surrounding bones and joints. Therefore, muscles respond well to the heat, flow and repetitive movements of a Yang practice which relax, stretch and strengthen the muscles. A traditional Yang practice includes the well known repetitive flow of Sun Salutations and Warrior asanas.

Yin Yoga, targets the connective tissues of the bones and joints, which are much less elastic than muscle tissue and respond better to deeper poses held for longer periods of time. The objective is to stretch and stress the connective tissues around a joint while relaxing the surrounding muscles. Connective tissues include ligaments, tendons, and fascia. Poses such as wide legged forward bend, reclining hero and pigeon are examples of poses well suited for a Yin practice. These poses help to bring greater flexibility and movement to many of the stiff places in the body that are traditionally sore and tired such as the spine, hips and pelvis.

My entire yoga practice shifted dramatically after taking a weekend Yin Seminar with Paul Grilley. I still enjoy practicing and teaching Yang yoga, but have added Yin poses to my personal daily practice and my teaching style. After a few months of a consistent Yin practice, I noticed a gradual decrease in the ache in my lower back and knees. I used to fear back bends. They hurt and I thought they were harming me. After a weekend with Paul, I began to embrace back bends and had a clear understanding of how, when done slowly and properly, they could improve my range of motion and decrease my pain. As long as I maintain a routine practice I find I am more flexible and less sore. Paul uses the analogy of brushing your teeth. It’s not a one time event. As with all yoga, a practice must be consistent. Just as our tissues can stretch and relax with use and practice, without maintenance, they can just as easily tighten up and tug on all those tender spots. Remember, everyone’s body is different and it is important you check with your health provider to ensure what practices are safe for you. It is always a good idea to seek guidance from an experienced yoga instructor when beginning or experimenting with your practice.

As a point of caution, Yin Yoga is not Restorative Yoga. Restorative Yoga is another wonderful practice intended to help restore, relax and renew the body with the artful use of props for support. Judith Lasater, Yoga instructor and physical therapist, specializes in this practice and has a wonderful book called “Relax and Renew.”

If you have not already discovered the benefits and rewards of practicing Yin poses, I encourage you to incorporate some beginning Yin asanas into your practice. Be patient and consistent. Remember all yoga has yin and yang properties. The trick is finding the harmonic balance between effort and yield. Yin and Yang are not opposites. They are balancing forces on an energetic pole. As with all yoga, stay present, move from within, stay mindful and be aware of what your are experiencing. Always adjust the pose and the breath to meet the needs of your body. It is your body, your health, your practice. Make it work for you.