What Is Different About Yin Yoga?
There are two principles that differentiate yin practice from more yang approaches to yoga: holding poses for at least several minutes and stretching the connective tissue around a joint. To do the latter, the overlying muscles must be relaxed. If the muscles are tense, the connective tissue won’t receive the proper stress. You can demonstrate this by gently pulling on your right middle finger, first with your right hand tensed and then with the hand relaxed. When the hand is relaxed, you will feel a stretch in the joint where the finger joins the palm; the connective tissue that knits the bones together is stretching. When the hand is tensed, there will be little or no movement across this joint, but you will feel the muscles straining against the pull.
Because Yin Yoga requires that the muscles be relaxed around the connective tissue you want to stretch, not all yoga poses can be done effectively—or safely—as yin poses.
It’s not necessary—or even possible—for all the muscles to be relaxed when you’re doing some Yin Yoga postures. In a seated forward bend, for example, you can gently pull with your arms to increase the stretch on the connective tissues of your spine. But in order for these connective tissues to be affected, you must relax the muscles around the spine itself. Because Yin Yoga requires that the muscles be relaxed around the connective tissue you want to stretch, not all yoga poses can be done effectively—or safely—as yin poses.
Standing poses, arm balances, and inversions—poses that require muscular action to protect the structural integrity of the body—can’t be done as yin poses. Also, although many yin poses are based on classic yoga asanas, the emphasis on releasing muscles rather than on contracting them means that the shape of poses and the techniques employed in them may be slightly different than you’re accustomed to. To help my students keep these distinctions in mind, I usually refer to yin poses by different names than their more familiar yang cousins.