Yin Yoga Can Help You Recover From Hard Workouts, Stress, and Just About Everything Else
When you think of workout recovery tools, what do you think of? My mind used to go to prickly foam rollers and loud massage guns, cold plunges, and cupping. Now, I think of bolsters, blankets, and yoga blocks.
Over the past four months, Yin yoga — a type of yoga you may not have even heard of — has become my main form of recovery and has opened up my mind (and muscles) in new ways.
"Yin yoga is a type of yoga that involves holding supported postures for an extended period of time," explains Lindsay Monal who hosts a Yin yoga and sound bath class twice a week at Yoga Renew in Hoboken, NJ. "Rather than actively stretching, or forcing the body into a position, the practice invites practitioners to hold a few static postures in a passive way, allowing time and gravity to do the heavy lifting."
That is to say, Yin yoga is quite different from your typical flow-y Vinyasa. And if you're seeking a gentler way to add mobility and relaxation to your life, it could be just what you're looking for. Read on to discover more about Yin yoga, the benefits of the practice, and why both massage therapists and physical therapists give it their stamp of approval.
What Is Yin Yoga, Exactly?
"Yin yoga draws on principles of traditional Chinese medicine and creates a space for students to find physical and mental stillness," explains Claire Carter, Yin instructor and CrossFit Level 1 trainer.
You may have heard Yin and Yang used to describe opposites, but there's more to it. "Yin refers to dark, passive, feminine, left-sided energy. Yang is the opposite: light, active, masculine, and right-sided energy. Yin yoga is a slower, more passive practice that serves to balance out the Yang energy of our active and busy lifestyles," Carter explains.
Instead of flowing through poses as you would in a traditional Hatha practice, "the practice of Yin yoga incorporates supported poses that are held for 3-5 minutes (or longer for more advanced practitioners) in order to target the fascial chain while encouraging the practitioner to also tap into a meditative state," notes licensed massage therapist Erin Clyne, MS. This mind-body connection of holding an assisted pose for minutes at a time can both help relieve chronic tension and improve range of motion over time, she says.
In-studio Yin practices are typically 60-90 minutes with various poses done on a yoga mat either seated or lying down. Because each pose is held for so long, Carter says to expect to do fewer total poses in a Yin yoga class compared to other yoga classes. Another aspect that's unique to Yin is the "rebound" time in between poses to help allow the body to reset after a long pose. During this time instructors may offer a counter stretch, suggest the yogis to move intuitively, or simply recommend for practitioners to focus on their breath.
The Physical Benefits of Yin Yoga
If you peek in a Yin yoga class you'll often find practitioners, with eyes closed, spaced out on mats hugging bolsters and resting their bodies into different shapes — it feels almost like an adult version of nap time. How is this a benefit to your body?
For one, those long-held poses in Yin yoga result in a really deep stretch — one that actually leads to muscle lengthening. This is beneficial because it can improve mobility as well as ease tension on the joints. "Increased muscle length in 'tight' muscles can reduce pain, improve range of motion, and lead to better results in strengthening, exercise, and long-term physical health," says board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist Jay Rosania, DPT, OCS. Additionally, with these long-duration stretches, you're able to take your joints through the full range of motion, all the way to the end ranges, he says. It's rare in our day-to-day activities that we take our joints through their full range, Dr. Rosania says — and "if you don't use it you lose it," meaning your muscles will adapt
or shorten into only the range of motion you put them through. Therefore, the more you can
move your joints through their full ranges of motion, the more flexible and extensible and less painful your muscles will be.
In fact, when you stretch for shorter bouts (under 30 seconds), you don't really get muscle-lengthening benefits. That's due to a principle called "creep," Dr. Rosania explains. "The creep principle states that fascia and connective tissue (which includes muscle) will lengthen or stretch only when it sustains a constant tension or load." Meaning, muscle and connective tissue won't actually lengthen when stretched for a short duration. Studies show a minimum of 30-90 seconds is sufficient to achieve a meaningful stretch
in the muscle, he says.
This is not to say shorter stretches (like when you're cooling down post-workout or in other types of yoga) are worthless. For example, after an intense workout, short-term stretches will help regulate fluid dispersion and lactic acid buildup in the body, which can help reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), Dr. Rosania explains. At the end of the day, it all depends on what your specific goals are with a stretch. If you want to attain long-term flexibility, reduce tension, and improve range of motion, Yin yoga is a great choice. But if your goal is to reduce soreness and cool down after a tough workout, then short stretches are still worthwhile.
For the above reasons, Rosania also argues that Yin yoga's long-held passive poses provide more benefits than other recovery techniques, such as foam rolling, in the long term for increasing flexibility, mobility, and general athleticism. A foam roller might provide some temporary relief, but it's not actually making a difference in muscle length. Whereas in Yin yoga, because you're holding the postures for longer amounts of time, you're required to confront those "tight, sticky, hard-to-reach, crevices in the body you've been ignoring," says Monal.
Now, just because you're there for a few minutes doesn't mean you can't wiggle or move while in the position — you don't want to be in pain or cause an injury. Think of it as a "gentle challenge" Clyne says; it should push your limits, but never be painful, and you should always listen to your body.
The Mental Benefits of Yin Yoga
Yin yoga teaches us to go inward and confront our discomfort. "The poses aren't always a walk in the park, and sitting with our discomfort physically helps the mind learn how to regulate and control our thoughts in times of stress," Monal explains. A Yin practice on the mat may help you become less reactive off the mat. "This knowledge and bodily awareness helps you learn to take deeper breaths and control your urges, so instead of lashing out or saying something you might regret, you can respond from a calm and level-headed place," she says.
There's not much research on Yin yoga, but one study found that Yin yoga can indeed help with anxiety, sleep problems, and coping with stress. Yin yoga can shift the nervous system from "fight or flight" to "rest and digest," Monal says, activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows down breathing and heart rate and relaxes the body.
Have you ever heard a yoga teacher say that we carry a lot of emotion in our hips? Well, our current understanding of the brain-body connection suggests that emotions can manifest physically in the body. Monal believes that Yin yoga can help you uncover where those stuck emotions are trapped: "By using the physical body as a gateway to access these deeper stored feelings and emotions, we can start to address them, and eventually heal." (If you want to read more about this, Monal highly recommends Bessel VanDer Kolk's "The Body Keeps The Score.")
A Sample Yin Yoga Sequence
Ready to start relaxing? Monal recommends starting out with the Butterfly Pose. It's slightly different from the gym class stretch you fluttered with all those years ago. "Butterfly Pose is a great posture to do at home since most people are already familiar with it and it doesn't require a ton of props," she says.
1. Butterfly Pose
- Start sitting on the ground. Bend your knees out to the sides and bring the soles of your feet together. Let your knees gently fall open to either side. Rest your hands around your feet or ankles.
- Sit up tall, keep your spine long, and slowly begin to fold forward from your hips.
- Try to let everything relax, so that you're not forcing anything and there are no active muscles holding you in the posture. Let yourself surrender to the gentle pull of gravity.
- If it's more comfortable, you can also rest your knees or elbows on yoga blocks, or sit on a blanket, so your hips are elevated.
- Hold for 3-5 minutes, then come out slowly and let your body move intuitively to release.
2. Child's Pose
- Start on your hands and knees in a Tabletop pose with hands under shoulders and knees under hips.
- Bring a pillow or bolster underneath your chest for extra support. Let your knees go wide as your toes come to touch. Send your hips toward your heels and crawl your hands forward until your chest is resting on the pillow support or the floor.
- Once you arrive, let everything relax. Even the elbows can bend; everything should be passive.
- Breathe easily as you remain still for 3-5 minutes.
- Come out slowly and move in a way that feels good to counter stretch the long hold.
- Start in Downward-Facing Dog.
- Step your left foot outside of your left hand. Tap your right knee down and untuck your right toes.
- Allow your hips to sink forward slightly until you feel a stretch in the front of your right hip.
- If hands on the floor feel too intense, bring your hands onto blocks or rest them on your left thigh for support. A blanket can also be used to pad the knees and ankles if the ground is uncomfortable.
- Try to relax the lower half of your body and surrender to the pull of gravity forward. Notice if there is any muscular gripping or clenching and use your exhales to soften all your muscles. Breathe into the discomfort. If anything is painful, listen to your body and ease back.
- Hold for 2-4 minutes, depending on the intensity of the stretch for you.
- To exit the shape, send your hips toward the back of your mat and slowly make your way back to a Downward-Facing Dog or Child's Pose before repeating on the other side.
Do You Need Props For Yin Yoga?
As a newcomer to this practice, my favorite part is incorporating props such as blankets, bolsters, and yoga blocks. These props help support you through the poses, so you can really sink into the posture and release, mentally and physically. While there are poses you can do without props (like the butterfly example mentioned above), I find that they help me hold postures for longer and feel more comfortable in the process.
I would also argue that's the point of Yin yoga: to take up space, move intuitively, and surrender. If you don't want to go all-in on gear and have to pick one product to invest in, Monal recommends choosing a set of yoga blocks: "I find yoga blocks to be the most versatile props for all forms of yoga, and in Yin, they can be used to release over in backbends or support the arms in forward folds."
"Yoga blankets and bolsters are also very helpful when practicing Yin for providing the body with more cushioning, warmth, and support," she says, but you can use household items, such as a sturdy couch pillow and plush blankets, as substitutes.
How to Try Yin Yoga Classes
Finding a Yin yoga class can be as simple as searching "Yin yoga near me" on Google. Some national yoga chains, such as CorePower Yoga, also offer the practice. CorePower currently offers a CoreRestore class, which incorporates aspects of Yin, both in studio and on-demand, says CorePower Yoga Instructor Sabrina Washington.
Prefer to practice in your pajamas — er, at home? You can stream tons of Yin classes on workout apps such as Peloton, Glo, or Alo Moves. Or If you want to try a full routine for free before signing up for anything, turn to YouTube. Try this 20-Minute Guided Yin Yoga practice from Simona G Yoga, which breaks down how to do five supported poses.
For those of you on the fence, Carter says this might be exactly what you need to balance out your energy: "The people who need Yin the most are often the least likely to try it! For example, someone who works out a lot and is very Type A is more likely interested in a Hot Yoga power flow class that will add to their already heavy Yang energy. By seeking out a Yin yoga class and other Yin energy activities, they can find more balance in their body and energy."