CONVERSATIONS AT THE SANCTUARY: Finding Harmony In Your Practice With Yin Yoga
Feeling off tangent because of a fast paced lifestyle? Yin yoga offers an opportunity to slow down and come back into balance. Learn how to calm your mind and bring your body into a deeper stretch with Yin yoga teacher, Catherine Tan
If you’re looking for a yoga practice that’s focused on bringing balance – energetically, physically, and mentally, Yin yoga is highly recommended for the harmony of the body and mind in tandem with other, more yang styles of practice.
Eco activist and wildlife advocate, Nadya Hutagalung, is a fan of Yin yoga. The multi-tasking mum-of-three, who’s also an ambassador of The Yoga School, jet sets often for her wildlife advocacy work.
She shares, “Before a long flight or after extended travel, I’ll always be doing Yin yoga, especially for my upper back. The motivation to get on the mat really comes from how much better I feel after I do it,” she reveals,” adding, “Actually, my husband and I do Yin yoga together during the weekends or in the evenings, so it’s always a nice practice to do that.”
Yin yoga counterbalances our fast-paced lifestyles, and is particularly good for managing stress, improving sleep, and overall strengthening of the immune system. Yin yoga teacher, Catherine Tan, sheds light on how this meditative practice harnesses the Yin-yang theory from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), to help us understand a more holistic approach to health.
Q: Yin yoga seems to get confused a lot with Restorative yoga – what is Yin yoga really, and what makes it so unique?
CATHERINE: People tend to assume that Restorative and Yin are the same, but they’re not. They may look similar on the surface, but the internal experience is quite different. There’re subtle but deep differences.
Predominantly, yoga styles taught in many yoga studios are yang in nature, they’re more dynamic, and more muscular. Yin is the opposite of all that. There aren’t a lot of poses because you spend anytime from two to five minutes holding each asana. It looks similar to Restorative in that there is less movement and you stay in poses for longer durations, but the focus of both styles are slightly different. Both offer great benefits to the practitioner on a physical, mental, and emotional level.
In Yin, we want to place a healthy level of stress on the joints to help them get stronger and improve in mobility over time. The word “stress” often carries a negative connotation – but it doesn’t have to be. Our bodies need a certain level of stress to get stronger. Just like in Restorative yoga, props are used in Yin yoga. Props are used to support any part of the body that requires support, this lets us relax and apply a healthy degree of stress to our tissues, allowing them to benefit from the practice.
Q: There’re those who worry about joint damage caused by stress, but not all forms of stress is bad. How does Yin yoga encourage “positive stress”?
CATHERINE: Take osteoporosis for instance, you should actually exercise and put some weight on your joints to strengthen them – not so much that it causes injury, but a moderate amount that’s just enough for strengthening.
In Yin yoga, the intention is to safely and moderately stress our joints to promote the health of the tissues in and around them. Yin yoga should not be approached with the mindset of “more is better”. Awareness is key and great care is given to observing the kinds of sensations you feel. It’s not about going into the maximum range of motions, I typically ask my students to go for 50 to 70 percent of their maximum and then hold their asanas. We’re going to be there for a long time. And as we stay there, we also want to promote the flow of energy, or what’s referred to in TCM as qi.
Q: What are Yin yoga poses like?
CATHERINE: Yin yoga generally involves variations of seated and supine poses. As its name suggests, Yin focuses more on the lower body, though there are poses for the upper body as well. Generally speaking, yang styles of yoga (like Hatha and Vinyasa) place emphasis on moving the body through dynamic flows that stimulate, stretch, and strengthen the muscles and their fascia (connective tissues).
Yin yoga emphasises passive, static postures, held for long periods of time, with muscles in a relaxed state. This way, the dense connective tissues in and around the muscles and joints are stimulated, gently stretched, and ultimately strengthened.
Q: Could you tell us more about Yin yoga’s meditative approach?
CATHERINE: If you want to practice mindfulness or meditation, Yin yoga is a great place to start. For a lot of people, trying to stay still in a pose for a few minutes, feels much harder than trying to do a pose.
When we allow our bodies to sit at the edge of moderate stress, many different sensations may arise. Some may feel physically uncomfortable. Thoughts and emotions we neglect in daily life, may also surface. This is when the meditative magic of Yin yoga happens. Rather than reacting to these sensations, it is in these moments that we have the opportunity to learn to cultivate internal awareness and engage our inner worlds from a place of greater understanding.
Yin Yoga is a practice within which we can explore a new relationship toward our restless selves. Through the gentle act of intending to be present, intending to be mindful, and intending to be compassionate, we can start softening our fidgety habits and gradually cultivate habits of calm.
You’re already in that space and in the pose, so many things can happen. The first thought could be that of, ‘Oh I’m so uncomfortable!’ And you might spend the next five minutes thinking about the discomfort and wondering, ‘Why is the teacher putting me in this pose? When can I come out of if?’ That is your monkey mind coming into play.
Or you could be so tired that you just fall asleep – I actually have students who do that. They come to class to sleep because they can’t find rest at home. Some of them have anxiety, or insomnia, or feel too stressed out in their home environments. I usually let them be, and hold space for them to rest.
There are also people who come in with the intention to just switch off and relax. And that’s okay too. It’s a space where people can take a step out of the hustle and bustle of everyday like, and take the time to reconnect with themselves.
Q: Is it really “meditation” if you’re moving – or asleep?
CATHERINE: When people think of meditation, they conjure up this image of sitting in a lotus pose, in a cave, with water flowing in the background, with no distractions, and their mind going blank – well that’s not really how it works.
Let me share an analogy that my teacher once told me, “It’s not that the Dalai Lama doesn’t think of chocolate – it’s that he takes 20 seconds to forget about it, while it takes us 20 minutes.”
In the Buddhist tradition, there are things like walking meditation and sleeping meditation. So in that sense, Yin yoga is like a precursor to meditation, and is also a form of meditation. Consider this: if you’re not aware of where your big toe is, how are you going to be aware of more subtle things?
Asana is the physical practice of yoga, and is but one of its eight limbs. In a way, it’s considered the most simple, not because asanas are easy to accomplish, but because it is easier to assess something tangible that you can see and touch.
Buddhist monks practice different sorts of meditation, including walking meditation and sleeping meditation. Asana practice could also be considered as a form of “meditation in motion”.
So if you’re one of those who find it hard to sit still and meditate, try Yin yoga. When you’re put in a pose for a period of time with nowhere to go, and nothing to do, your thoughts will start to come, and that’s when the meditative process begins.
For some, those quiet moments bring inspiration and creative ideas – something that escapes them when they’re caught up with busyness of daily life.
Of course, you can choose not to want to think about anything but chances are, once you’re placed in that position, everything will come!
About Catherine Tan:
Catherine’s belief in lifelong learning, and her keen interest in the study of anatomy and fascia, traditional Chinese medicine, qigong healing, and yoga philosophy, have motivated her to pursue such knowledge rigorously through self-study and workshops with many teachers, including Carlos Pomeda, Charat Singh, Martin Kirk, Michael Watson, Tiffany Cruikshank and Thomas Myers. She is currently pursuing her certification at the College of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Find out more about her weekly Yin Yoga classes here.