As a confirmed Ashtangi, I never thought the day would come when I’d be extolling the virtues of a yoga style involving floor-based poses, held for several long, slow (sometimes very slow) minutes. But here I am, the one who ran screaming from non-dynamic forms of yoga, ready to tell you why I now embrace a little Yin in my life.
Most people who stay with yoga will be able to recall when they suddenly knew it was more than just exercise. Maybe it was after a particular class, or an encounter with a certain teacher, or a practice on their own mat at home. I remember my “there’s more to this yoga lark that meets the eye” lightbulb moment with crystal clear clarity. It happened after an early Ashtanga Vinyasa class when I slowly emerged from a very deep Shavasana and felt overwhelmed by a profound sense of calm. I felt like I was moving and even thinking in slow-motion and wondered where all this serenity had flooded in from. I remember leaving the studio and walking out onto the street, like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights. The calm didn’t last, of course. In no time, I was back to normal stressful life mode. But it was enough to make me eager to come back for more. And soon, I was hooked.
My first Yin class reminded me of that early transformative post-practice moment. After the class, I realised I’d effortlessly slipped into a very deep Shavasana and felt that profound sense of calm afterwards. These days, it’s not such an unfamiliar feeling, but it usually comes about after meditation or a long Ashtanga practice. I wasn’t expecting it to arise so quickly after my very first dabble in Yin.
The truth is, Yin demands stillness and patience from Day One. Slowing right down is non-negotiable. You sit or lie for several minutes in a pose, finding stillness, allowing the muscles to relax so that the deepest layers in the body: the connective tissues, the fascia, tendons, ligaments and joints are targeted, increasing circulation and improving flexibility.
Yin teaches you to think differently when you’re a fully committed Ashtangi. There’s no hierarchy of poses or sequences. You won’t get anywhere faster if you’re flexible. In fact, you’ll need to take even better care of yourself. Because “hanging out in your hip flexors”, as Bernie Clarke, renowned Yin teacher and author of “The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga”, puts it, can do more harm than good when you’re already super-bendy. And you take that learning back into your Ashtanga practice, where enhanced flexibility, although initially thrilling when it helps you twist yourself into a pretzel, can lead to all kinds of trouble down the road if you don’t build the strength to support it.
Yin won’t build muscle, but your Ashtanga practice is taking care of that (if you’re doing it properly). If you’re stiff rather than flexible when you come to Yin, then your body will thank you for giving it the time it needs to release slowly.
But what Yin will do most of all is teach you how to be quiet, patient, and not at all focused on whether you can bind, jump through, drop back into a backbend or push up into a handstand. You’re going nowhere, and you have to stay right there in stillness while all that “going nowhere” happens, gently drawing the wandering mind back from wherever it roams, again, and again, and again.
That’s not to say that Yin is easy. Make no mistake: you’re not just languishing in comfort on your mat as the minutes go by. Yin takes you to the edge in a pose where you feel resistance arising. You have autonomy over where that is. As you explore that place between comfort and challenge, you learn to “play your edges” in Yin-speak. You adopt the pose and take the body to where you feel resistance, then wait. You breathe softly and slowly, paying attention to see if you should stay right where you are, pull back, or if the body is inviting you, after some time, to go deeper. The resistance is initially physical, but you’ll most likely find yourself exploring emotional and psychological edges too. This paying attention and noticing where all of these edges are located is what makes the practice so powerful.
This whole process makes Yin an ideal complementary practice for any go-getting Ashtangi who might be inclined to focus only on their asana (postural) practice. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, one of the foundational texts of yoga philosophy, the path to spiritual evolution is outlined by the eight limbs, or aspects, of yoga. To reap the full rewards of yoga, time spent on more than just asana practice (the 3rd limb) is always a good idea. The 5th limb is Pratyahara, which involves withdrawing the senses and focusing inward. It’s present in all authentic yoga practices but inescapable in Yin, where we go very deep inside, dimming the senses and allowing the distractions of the outside world to dissolve.
Bernie Clarke famously talks about using the pose to get into your body rather than the other way around. It’s a lesson many an Ashtanga fan (myself included, back in the day) could do with learning. The carrot of the next pose is irresistible and a part of the genius of the Ashtanga Vinyasa method. But the zeal to get further faster can lead you down the wrong track. A little patience and acceptance are great virtues to have onboard, right from the start. Yin will undoubtedly teach you these.
Ashtanga is still my beloved primary practice, and I’m sure it always will be, but I’m happy to have it sprinkled with a little Yin these days. Give it a try, even if you’re committed to a dynamic practice. You might just surprise yourself.