I tend to think of the yin yoga poses I teach and practice in loose groupings based on their purpose within a practice and which areas of the body they primarily affect. These groupings are not absolute and students all feel postures in different ways. A pose that one person feels very intensely in one area, someone else might not feel there at all.
There are many ways to modify these postures to increase or lessen their intensity and, of course, many other possible postures to use in a yin yoga practice; these are just a sampling.
Most yin yoga poses have equivalents in other forms of yoga, but the yin versions are intended to be static, allow the muscles to relax, and exercise the joints to their full range of motion.
The neat stick figure drawings come from Yoga with Amey.
These are helpful to counteract all of the forward bending most people do throughout the day – hunching over a desk or a steering wheel. The target areas are generally the spine (anywhere from the sacrum up to the neck) and chest.
Typical backward bending poses are sphinx (shown at right) and seal.
Back bends can also be wonderful chest openers. I like using a supported fish or bridge (shown at left) to stretch the chest muscles, open the shoulders, and bring some compression into the back. I’ve previously posted detailed information on supported fish if you’d like to know more about that pose.
These are great for stretching the spine and releasing tension along the spinal column and through the shoulders. Standing forward fold (or dangling as I usually call it), pictured at right, is one of my favourite ways to release tension across the upper back and shoulders and stretch the hamstring muscles at the back of the thighs.
Caterpillar, pictured at left, is a seated forward fold that targets similar areas as dangling, although it can also be good for stretching the muscles of the buttocks (or glutes) depending on the tilt of the pelvis.
If you want to get a gentle stretch through the back of your legs, but are worried about the impact of dangling or caterpillar on your back, legs up the wall, pictured at right, is a great option. This is one of my go-to poses (as I detailed in a previous post) and is fabulous for people with lower back issues.
Other forward folds like butterfly and half butterfly (shown at left) are good for stretching into the hamstrings as well and can also target the glutes (muscles in the buttocks), inner thighs, and spine.
The inner thigh or groin area can be difficult to stretch; thankfully, there are a couple of yin yoga poses that are good for targeting this area. Dragonfly, pictured at right, and frog are the two postures I use most often. Both poses are easy to modify depending on the tilt of the pelvis and width of the legs and it’s also easy to use props to make them comfortable.
Holding a squatting pose (shown at left) for a minute or more and gently pressing the knees apart can also be an effective groin stretch, although some people feel the stretch more through their thighs or buttock muscles.
In addition to accessing the backs of the thighs by holding forward bending postures, happy baby (shown at right) is another good way to stretch the hamstring muscles. I sometimes jokingly call the pose ‘angry baby’ as the compression in my hips brings out all kinds of rage and frustration!
Most people I know complain of having tight hips. Generally they mean that their hip flexors (the group of muscles used to pull the knee upwards) feel stiff, stuck, or inflexible.
The single greatest yoga pose I know to target the hip flexors is a modified lunge (pictured at right) known as dragon. Dropping the back knee to the ground in dragon, as opposed to holding it up in a lunge, means that students can stay in the pose for a few minutes. Dragons can also target other areas and make people angry as I outlined in a previous post.
Swan, shown below in the section on outer-thigh stretches, can be another wonderful opener for the hip flexors.
In between more intense yin yoga holds, there are many wonderful postures to come into for a rest. Simply standing in mountain, shown at right, or lying flat on the mat, allows students to feel the impact of the previous hold.
In order to get blood and energy moving through the body again after poses that compress the knees or ankles, I frequently have students move their knees in windshield wipers or drum their feet and legs against the ground.
And then there’s savasana or corpse pose, the ultimate posture of relaxation!
Outer-thigh and butt stretches
Runners in particular often struggle with tightness in their outer-thighs, specifically the IT tract, which is the band of fascia that extends from the hip to the knee. Tightness in the outer-thighs generally goes hand-in-hand with unhappily tight butt muscles (also known as the glutes), which are some of the most powerful muscles in the body.
Square, shoelace, and sleeping swan (a yin version of the pigeon pose pictured at right) are all effective at targeting the muscles and fascia in the IT tract and buttocks. Lowering the chest towards the mat in these postures elongates the glutes and outer-thighs.
Threading the needle is another posture that can have profound impact on the IT tract and butt muscles. It’s one of my favourite poses and is particularly great to do against a wall.
Gentle spinal twists like cat stretch, shown at right, and two knee twist really illustrate the idea of a yin practice. Reclining twists are quite simple and it’s easy to think they’re not doing anything, but the deep stretch can be incredibly profound after a long hold.
All twists can also help open the chest and stretch throughout the hips and legs.
There are lots of other possible yin yoga poses and many more postures I regularly draw on in my classes. These are a few of the basics that give a sense of what kind of poses to expect in a yin yoga class. I’ve also done a post on what to expect more generally in a yin yoga class and what my idea of yin yoga is.