Yin yoga is a slow paced practice based on the Taoist concept of Yin and Yang, opposing forces in nature which are complementary. It is about finding balance in our practice, being able to step back, let go and go slow.
Incorporating principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the yoga poses are held passively for extended periods of time using minimal muscular effort. The postures could be held from 1 to 5 minutes or even longer. The sequences of long-held poses work on applying moderate stress to the deeper connective tissues – ligaments, joints, tendons, bones and fascia – to lubricate the joints and increase joint mobility as well as to stimulate Qi flow along energy channels known as meridians in TCM or nadis, its equivalent in Hatha Yoga. Yin Yoga also helps in cultivating stillness and improving flexibility particularly in the lower body – hips and pelvis – to prepare one for sitting long hours in meditation. It is not a complete practice on its own but useful in complementing the Yang or more active yoga styles to balance the body.
Long-held poses are not new. These practices have been around for thousands of years and were practised in Hatha Yoga in India. In China, Qigong which also involved long-held poses and breath work were also practised in Taoist temples in China to cultivate internal strength of martial arts practitioners. In his book, Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar had also recommended holding various poses for longer periods of time eg. Supta Virasana (reclining Hero Pose) for 10 to 15 minutes which is Yin-like in nature. The original form of Hatha Yoga emphasised both the strong muscular Yang type of yoga as well as the softer practices of working on the deeper tissues like the joints and ligaments. However, with the modernisation of Hatha Yoga, the softer side had been de-emphasized or relegated to Restorative Yoga which catered to people who were unwell.
In the 1970s, martial arts champion Paulie Zink introduced Toaist Yoga to North America. He taught a combination of Hatha Yoga and Taoist Yoga to improve the flexibility of his martial arts students. Then in the 1980s, Paul Grilley started studying with Paulie Zink. He was a yoga teacher and ran his own school. Grilley had earlier studied anatomy with a medical doctor, Dr Gary Parker. In 1989, he met Dr Hiroshi Motoyama, a Japanese scholar and yoga practitioner. Dr Motoyama had researched the physiology of TCM and compared the Chinese meridian theory to the Indian yoga concept of energy channels, nadis. Grilley synthesised these ideas of Taoist Yoga, anatomy and meridian theory and started teaching entire Yin Yoga classes. In deference to his teacher, he called it Taoist Yoga. It resonated with many people because of its physical, mental and emotional benefits.
One of Grilley’s students, Sarah Powers, who is also a yoga teacher coined the term ‘Yin Yoga’. She suggested it to Grilley. Powers developed her own style of Yin Yoga incorporating Buddhist philosophy and concepts. She added dharma talks on mindfulness and meditation to her courses. In her book Insight Yoga, she introduced Yin Yoga sequences with breath work to enhance flow of Qi along the meridians. Her style of yoga also integrates a flow or Yang practice influenced by her Ashtanga background. By 2009, Yin Yoga classes were available throughout North America and Europe.
In Singapore, Paul Grilley’s disciple, Jo Phee, is a pioneer of Yin Yoga here. She had been teaching Ashtanga and flow classes but later she switched entirely to teaching Yin Yoga and has been conducting Yin Yoga teacher training courses since 2013. In those days when we attended her Yin Yoga classes, they were 90 minutes long and it was a welcoming respite from her challenging 90-minute flow classes. Not many studios offered Yin Yoga classes then. While we held the poses on the mat, she would sometimes talk to us and explain the meridian system, the benefits of stilling an active mind and play music that sometimes made us want to cry. We aspired to be more flexible so we endured the long holds. It is gratifying to know that now many practitioners are aware of its many benefits and enjoy the Yin practice.