What Is Yin Yoga?

When I work out, I like to work. If I’m practicing yoga instead of hitting the gym or running, I favor the fast pace of Rocket Yoga and the intensity of Ashtanga. But putting my body regularly through this type of yoga means that unless I also prioritize well-being, rest, and taking care of my body I risk everything from burnout to injury (yes, I have learned the hard way).

Recently, I have been embracing Yin yoga sequences to help me restore not just my body but my mind. One thing I really love about Yin yoga is that it’s easy to blend it with my meditation and pranayama practices. Another benefit of Yin yoga is that it’s helped improve my more dynamic yoga practices by increasing my mobility by stretching ​​deep connective tissues and of course my mindfulness! So what is Yin Yoga?

what is yin yoga?

In the past, I have found getting the balance between rest and intensity — aka yin and yang — in yoga hard. Well, tbh I find striking a balance in life in general a real challenge. But recently, I have been finding a lot of zen by putting on my favorite online Yin Yoga classes and embracing the holistic benefits of yin poses.

So what is Yin Yoga? Here’s my guide to everything you need to get started with Yin Yoga!

What Are Yin and Yang?

You can’t really talk about Yin yoga without understanding the principles and philosophy underpinning the practice. (And you know I love me some Ancient Eastern philosophy).

yin yang

No doubt you’ve seen the yin-yang symbol before, but what does it mean? Yin and yang are a tenet of Chinese Philosophy, representing all the opposing forces in the universe, embodied by the black-and-white segments.

Yin is represented by the black half, and its qualities include darkness, cold, introversion, softness, what is concealed, and femininity. Yang is represented by the white half, and its qualities include lightness, heat, extroversion, hardness, openness, and masculinity. (You could go on forever categorizing things into in or yang, but you get the idea…)

Although it can be argued that yin and yang are dualistic and opposites, the symbol shows that they are fluid. As contemporary Chinese scholars say:

The yin–yang model captures the idea that there are no opposites—there is no absolute borderline between black (yin) and white (yang); a dot of yin exists in yang, and a dot of yang also exists in yin. Displaying the dynamic interaction between two opposite sides, the yin–yang model embraces the coexistence of opposite elements in the same environment.

Essentially, yang cannot exist without yin, and vice versa. But also, yin and yang are always a spectrum, the qualities and energies of which can shift and adjust. When it comes to health and wellbeing, the aim is to keep them in balance—too yin and everything stagnates, too yang and we burn out.

What Are Yin and Yang Yoga Styles?

Most contemporary yoga styles lean into the body’s Yang energy — dynamic movements with active muscles where poses are held for a relatively short time. Ashtanga and Vinyasa are very much a yang practice.

Yin yoga, however, is all about slowing down, stillness, and relaxing the body. It consciously endeavors to counterbalance not just the yang energy of other yoga styles but the intensity of contemporary life.

Although Yin yoga is a specific style, Restorative yoga is a very yin-esque practice. And of course, Savasana at the end of all practices is pure yin energy!

What is Yin Yoga?

Yin yoga is a style of yoga characterized by passive stretches held for long periods of time in order to target the deeper connective tissues in the body, promote holistic well-being, and achieve a better range of motion.

It was founded in the 1980s by Paulie Zink, an American martial arts practitioner. Although some people like to claim that it’s much older because of its connection to Ancient Chinese philosophy, Yin yoga has clear principles and ideas developed by Grilley and his contemporaries. I also believe it’s important to acknowledge its contemporary Western origins—this keeps us more in the realm of cultural appreciation, not cultural appropriation. Sarah Powers and Paul Grilley have also contributed great things to what is now Yin Yoga.

9 Key Principles of Yin Yoga and a Yin Practice

1. Long Holds

Yin yoga poses are typically held for three to five minutes… although they can be held for up to 15 minutes!

2. Passive Stretches and Relaxed Muscles

Passive stretching is when you stay in a stretch for a long period, and instead of actively trying to deepen the stretch yourself, you let other forces — time, gravity, props, or a person — deepen the stretch for you. In Yin yoga, holding the poses for a long time allows the body to open up more. You also often use props in Yin Yoga to help facilitate or support the stretch.

Although the words ‘passive’ and ‘relaxed’ imply it will be a pretty chill, easygoing practice… I’m afraid it’s not! The stretches can get intense as the muscles and deep tissues start to open more and more. And then there’s the mental challenge of staying still, present, and non-judgemental with discomfort for several minutes! But in the end, a Yin yoga practice will calm the sympathetic nervous system and engage the parasympathetic nervous system — an ideal outcome for our busy stressed-out lives.

3. Targeting Deep Tissue

Your deep tissues and connective tissues like ligaments, and tendons, but particularly for Yin yoga, fascia is what Yin yoga really focuses on. Fascia is the thin, collagen-rich, web-like tissue that encases and runs through all the muscles, as well as surrounding the organs, nerves, joints, ligaments, tendons, and bones.

When you have a tender point or can feel a knot in your muscle, this is actually inflamed fascia—and because fascia is essentially a continuous sheath, inflamed fascia in your hip can cause problems in your shoulders, neck, or even hamstrings.

What holding ​passive stretching for an extended period of time enables — i,e. taking your muscles out of the equation—is a chance for the fascia and the physical body to open and unwind, improving not just your flexibility but overall mobility and body health.

4. Mindfulness

Yin yoga is as much about the mind as the body, and this is one of its biggest challenges. Staying still, especially in poses that are getting increasingly intense as the stretch deepens, is HARD. But it’s also an amazing opportunity to develop your meditation practice — the intention is to stay present with the body, witnessing the physical sensations. You can also connect to the breath and even breathe into the strong sensation or specific areas of the body that need extra nourishment. One of the best benefits of yin yoga!

5. Quality not Quantity

In a studio or online Yin yoga class, don’t be surprised if you only get through five or six poses in an hour! Also, there aren’t many Yin yoga poses—only about 26, give or take a few.

6. Lower Body Opening

The lower part of the body is considered more yin, so it’s not surprising that Yin yoga poses target the hips, hamstrings, inner thighs, and lower back. Although there are a few chest and shoulder opening poses, most emphasize the lower body.

7. Floor-Based Poses

Unlike yang styles of yoga, where you do lots of standing poses, almost all Yin yoga poses are floor based, where you will start from a lying, sitting, or kneeling position.

8. Energetic Health: TCM, Meridian Lines, and Qi

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the body’s vital energy is called qi, similar to prana in yoga. For a healthy body and mind, the qi must be flowing freely through the body’s meridians, energetic pathways similar to nadis. There are twelve main meridians associated with the 12 main organs, split into six pairs each with a yin and yang counterpart. Imbalances in organ health and qi flow cause mental and emotional disturbances, for example, the lungs are associated with grief and the stomach with excess anxiety.

A Yin class focuses on enabling the smooth flow of qi throughout the body and certain Yin yoga sequences are centered on nourishing a specific organ by doing poses that follow that organ’s meridian line.

If you want to learn more about alternative ways of viewing the body and health, check out my posts on Ayurveda and Chakras.

9. A Yin Spin on Familiar Poses

All the poses in Yin have Yang yoga counterparts. For example, Gomukhasana becomes Shoelace pose in Yin yoga, and Paschimottanasana (seated forward fold) is called Caterpillar pose.

The different names help emphasize that they are practiced in a different way — relaxed muscles instead of engaged ones, passive instead of active stretches, slow heart rate instead of a cardio spike.

So you can see where Yin yoga gets its name—the practice embodies many yin qualities like slowness, a cool body (as you won’t be building heat in the body through dynamic movement), introversion, and targeting the deep yin tissues and parts of the body.

Tips for Practicing Yin Yoga

Whether you are doing an online-yin yoga class or just a self-guided yin yoga practice, here’s how to get started!

Setting Up

In short, get comfy. Grab all the props you have, and if you don’t have a bolster, I recommend collecting every blanket, pillow, and cushion you have available to you!

Another great tip is to lay a blanket over your yoga mat for an even softer nesting pad.

If you are practicing at home without the guidance of an online yin yoga class, it’s helpful to have a timer on hand.

Getting into the pose

Once you have decided how long you want to be in a pose, set your timer.

Then, get into a comfortable, supported variation of the pose. It can be tempting to go into your deepest variation straight away, but trust me when I say you will regret that after 30 seconds… especially when you still have a longer period of time to go.

For example, take Swan pose (the Yin name for Pigeon pose). Start by propping up your hips on a cushion or folded blanket. Maybe you stay upright or go down onto your elbows. Take some time here and notice the subtle sensations. If you already feel a deep opening in your outer hip, add another cushion. As the minutes pass and you observe how the sensations shift in the body, you might become aware of the hips opening up more. If it feels okay, you can deepen the pose and remove your props or adjust the body.

Work with the Breath and Mind

Mindfulness is a core part of Yin yoga. I like to set an intention before I begin my Yin yoga sequence to stay present and non-judgmental throughout my practice, witnessing the sensations, my mental reaction to the sensations, and noticing when I get caught up in the story.

Another thing I do is focus on sending my breath to a particular body part that feels like it needs some extra care.

Coming out of the Pose or the Rebound

‘Rebound’ is a Yin yoga term that refers to the rest or mini savasana after each pose.

When your timer dings, slowly come out of the pose—see if you can stay present with your body as you go from stillness to moving. Then come into a comfortable rest position. This could be lying down, child’s pose, or seated or kneeling.

Give yourself a minute to observe the settling sensations of the pose. This is a great way to acknowledge how the Yin yoga practice is affecting you physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Best Yin Yoga Sequence

Here’s a quick Yin yoga practice of my favorite Yin yoga asana!

Butterfly Pose

yin yoga

Target areas: a gentle forward fold that focuses on opening through the back body and outer hips
Optional props: bolster or cushions, blocks
Yang yoga counterpart: badha konasana

This is a fairly gentle pose, so you can comfortably stay between three and 10 minutes!

  1. Starting in a seated position, bring the soles of your feet together and then slide them forward so your legs are in a loose diamond shape. If your knees are hovering several inches above the ground, slide either a bolster lengthways under both knees or a folded blanket or block under each knee. 
  2. Walk your hands forward so you are in a gentle forward fold. The more you fold forward, the stronger the sensation in the hips. Stop in a position where you feel a sensation, but it’s not overwhelming.
  3. You might want to use a bolster or cushions to support your torso. If you are sitting fairly upright, take your bolster so its short end rests against the ground in front of your feet and angle it towards you so you can lean your forehead against it.
  4. As time passes, let your torso drop forwards and observe any outer hip opening. If you are using props and need more space, adjust or remove them.
  5. When your timer dings or you have had enough, slowly come out of the pose and take a couple of minutes in your favorite rebound pose.

Sphinx Pose

benefits of yin yoga

Target areas: a heart opener that can also help with lower back health
Optional props: folded blanket
Yang yoga counterpart: Cobra pose

Start with three minutes working up to five minutes as you get more familiar with the pose.

  1. Start lying on your belly. If the pressure on your pubic bone is uncomfortable, place a folded blanket underneath your pelvis.
  2. Prop yourself up on your forearms, and make sure your shoulders and elbows are stacked to provide shoulder support. 
  3. Notice if you are tensing your buttocks, legs, or feet. Soften them. You should notice a compressive feeling across your lower back—so long as it doesn’t feel sharp, hot, painful, or concentrated in one particular area, this feeling is okay. (In fact, it can really help with lower back health. Researchers have found that our connective tissues adapt and strengthen in response to compressive forces).   
  4. Breathe into your belly and lower back, notice the feedback of the belly making contact with the ground.
  5. When your timer dings or you have had enough, slowly lower yourself down and rest here for a couple of minutes. 

Dragon Pose

yin yoga poses

Target areas: a fiery hip opener concentrating on the outer hips and hip flexors
Optional props: folded blanket, bolster/cushions
Yang yoga counterpart: low lunge/ lizard pose

Start with three minutes working up to five minutes as you get more familiar with the pose.

  1. Start in a lunge position, place a blanket under your back knee for support if needed.
  2. Place your hands on the inside of your front leg and walk the front foot out a few inches so there is space for your torso to come forward.
  3. Adjust into a variation where you can feel a sensation in the outer hip of the front leg and hip flexor (front of the thigh) in the back leg. This might mean dropping your torso right down so you are on your forearms or staying completely upright. You can also slide a bolster or cushion just in front of the knee of your back leg so your hip flexor has some more support.
  4. Drop your breath into your hips. This pose can get pretty intense quickly—so observe the sensations and try not to over-identify with them. If your mind is screaming “@#$%&!” at you, just observe and acknowledge your thoughts without getting caught up in the story—I promise it will pass!
  5. If it feels okay, come deeper into the pose by lowering your torso further to the ground. If you need more space in your outer hip, you can let the knee drop outwards and roll onto the outer blade of the foot.
  6. When your timer dings or you have had enough, slowly walk your hands up and come out of the pose. Take a couple of minutes in rebound.
  7. … And then repeat on the other side!

If you want a yin yang yoga practice, start with a few rounds of sun salutations before practicing this Yin yoga sequence!