by Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac.
You may have already heard my story about how practicing Yoga changed my life as a stressed out overachiever at Cal (if you haven't read the story, you can find it here). But you may not know that beginning the practice of Yin Yoga awakened my interest in Chinese Medicine, and led me toward the path that I'm on now.
As I prepare to teach the second (and probably last) live round of my one-of-a-kind Yin Yoga Integration Teacher Training this Fall, I hope to demystify the practice of Yin Yoga so you can better understand how it can transform the way you feel in your body and move through your life—regardless of your practice level or age.
Yin Yoga isn’t the same as gentle Yoga, nor is it necessarily restorative. Rather, Yin Yoga is a deep and sometimes uncomfortable practice.
Understood through the lens of Chinese Medicine, this practice can access the deeper connective tissue of your body to help you release trapped emotions and free you physically to allow for greater freedom of movement.
What is Yin Yoga?
Yin Yoga is a passive practice primarily comprised of seated and supine postures typically held for 3 to 5 minutes. Practicing in this way allows the stretch to go beyond the muscles to the deeper layers of fascia.
Over the years, Yin Yoga has become a practice I come home to when things are difficult, when I’m exhausted and even when I feel great. It’s a comfort for me to sit in the long-held postures, breathe, take in the moment, and let go of the chatter in my mind.
And because your body sits passively to experience the deeper stretch, your mind naturally settles with time, supporting you to let go of the distractions of the day without forcing anything.
Yin Yoga is the passive balance to a daily active, or Yang, lifestyle that’s typical for so many of us.
And since this practice releases the connective tissue and most importantly the illiopsoas (the muscle group in the pelvic region that’s comprised of the illiacus and psoas muscles) where emotional stress and trauma are stored, as your body releases, your mind becomes more free and you can move through your life with far greater ease.
5 Ways Yin Yoga Can Improve Your Health & Life
Here are five important health benefits that can be cultivated through regular Yin Yoga practice:
Reduced Stress, Anxiety and Depression
In a randomized controlled trial, researchers examined whether participating in a five-week yoga intervention reduces biomarker Adrenomedullin (ADM) and increases psychological health in middle-aged adults who self-report as moderately to highly stressed. ADM is a blood pressure-lowering peptide expressed in cardiovascular tissues including the vascular wall and heart. Plasma levels of ADM are elevated in patients with hypertension, heart failure or arteriosclerosis, as compared with control subjects.
Compared to the control group, the researchers observed significantly greater pre-post reductions in plasma ADM levels, anxiety, depression, and sleep problems.
The study concluded that five-week Yin yoga-based interventions appeared to reduce both the physiological and psychological risk factors known to be associated with non communicable diseases such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes.
The study also suggested incorporating Yin yoga as an easy and low-cost method to limit the negative health effects associated with high stress.
Improved Digestion & Sleep
The very experience of Yin Yoga is calming and can reduce your stress levels since the poses are held for extended periods, averaging 3-8 minutes each. This calming effect regulates your nervous system and helps to relax your ‘fight or flight’ response.
Whereas most styles of movement practice emphasize muscular strengthening and stretching, Yin Yoga focuses on stretching the connective tissue that’s more closely associated with the parasympathetic nervous system.
As a result, you walk away from a Yin Yoga practice feeling calmer, stronger and can often notice improvements in your sleep and digestion—the aspects ruled by your parasympathetic nervous system—right away. (For more on the connection between digestion and sleep, you can read this article ).
And when you sleep and digest better, you move with greater clarity and focus throughout your life.
Greater Freedom of Movement
Yin Yoga postures focus primarily on releasing and lengthening the hips, pelvis and lower spine. These areas hold a lot of latency—unresolved physical and emotional trauma that can over time inhibit your range of motion.
Most books describe the practice of Yin Yoga in relation to the Primary Meridians, which are the main channels that are addressed and treated in Traditional Chinese Medicine. However, from the point of view of Classical Chinese Medicine, movement practice would be insufficient to access or treat the Primary Meridians.
The classics of Chinese Medicine describe complement channels, which include the Sinew, Luo, Divergent and Eight Extraordinary Channels. Of these, the Sinew Channels control the movement of the Wei, or defensive Qi, and our movement.
The sinews conduct Wei Qi and are the first to respond to exogenous pathogenic factors, or EPFs, that enter the body from the external environment. As these pathogenic factors internalize, they inhibit movement and therefore the Sinew Channels must be addressed in order to liberate your movement.
Emotions can also be addressed through the Sinew Channels but the primary benefit of freeing the Sinew Channels is to develop freedom of movement and therefore greater flexibility in both the body and mind.
So the emphasis in learning about the Sinew Channels in relationship to Yin Yoga practice is to be able to free these channels so you can find greater freedom of movement in all aspects of your life.
Distraction (often called traction) is one of the focuses in Yin Yoga and is the application of a long-held stress that tends to pull bones apart. A study published in Isfahan, Iran found that distraction stimulates both the growth of bones and their associated ligaments.
Greater Mental Clarity & Focus
Practicing Yin Yoga can be challenging because the poses are held for minutes, releasing layers of tension and latent emotions that are held deep within the body’s fascia.
The primary tool that helps ease the challenge is breath awareness, which anchors you into the present moment.
Through breath awareness, you’re guided to ‘play your edge’, or to move to a point that challenges you physically while still taking deep, conscious breaths.
Consistent practice in this way builds mental focus and clarity and will help you move through each day with both a stronger body and calmer mind.
1. Daiva Daukantaitė, Una Tellhed, Rachel E. Maddux, Thomas Svensson, and Olle Melander. Five-week yin yoga-based interventions decreased plasma adrenomedullin and increased psychological health in stressed adults: A randomized controlled trial. PLoS One. 2018; 13(7): e0200518. Published online 2018 Jul 18. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0200518
2. Subodh Shankar Natu, Iqbal Ali, Sarwar Alam, Kolli Yada Giri, Anshita Agarwal, and Vrishali Ajit Kulkarni. The biology of distraction osteogenesis for correction of mandibular and craniomaxillofacial defects: A review. Dent Res J (Isfahan). 2014 Jan-Feb; 11(1): 16–26.
Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac. is Co-Owner and Director of A Center for Natural Healing in Santa Clara, California, a health and wellness clinic that specializes in Classical Chinese Medicine and Traditional Japanese Acupuncture. Setareh offers clinical services and transformational workshops that blend the ancient practices of Classical Chinese Medicine and Yoga. More information at www.setarehmoafi.com and www.acenterfornaturalhealing.com.