Paul Grilley has said that Yin Yoga targets the area from the navel to the knees because these are the yin-areas of the body (the lower portions).[1] As we grow older, the lower back and hips tend to shrink-wrap and tighten much more than the upper body. While we can apply the philosophy of Yin Yoga to all joints of the body, including the upper body, it is natural to choose the hips and spine as the primary targeted areas for our practice. To plan a flow for a Yin Yoga class that targets these areas, we can begin by considering the various ways that these joints can move and then select postures that take the hips and spine through all their degrees of freedom. Table 1 shows these degrees of freedom for our main joints.

Table 1: Main movements of the major joints

Joint Movement
Cervical spine Flexion, extension, rotation, side flexion, protraction, retraction
Thoracic spine Mainly rotation with limited, but still important lateral flexion, forward flexion and extension
Lumbar spine Mainly flexion and extension, with a bit of side flexion and minimal rotation
Hips Flexion, extension, abduction, adduction, external rotation, internal rotation
Knees Flexion and extension, however when the knee is bent, some rotation is possible
Shoulders – Scapula Abduction (protraction), adduction (retraction), elevation and upward rotation*, depression and downward rotation*, tilting backward, tilting forward
Shoulders – Upper arm Flexion, extension, abduction, adduction, external rotation, internal rotation
Elbow Flexion and extension between the humerus and ulna; pronation and supination between the ulna and radius

 * While these two movements often occur together, they can occur separately

Yin Yoga for the hips

To develop a Yin Yoga flow that targets the hips we can start with table 1 where we see that the 6 main movements of the femur in the hip socket are

  1. Flexion (the front of the pelvis and the front of the thigh come closer together),
  2. Extension (the back of the pelvis and the back of the thigh come closer together),
  3. Abduction (the top of the femur, called the greater trochanter) comes closer to the top, side of the pelvis, called the ilium),
  4. Adduction (the top of the femur moves further away from the ilium),
  5. External rotation (the inner thighs roll open outward and to the front),
  6. Internal rotation (the inner thighs roll inward and toward the back).

Simply sitting on the floor will flex the hips 90°, but deeper flexion may occur by folding further forward. There are 25 Yin Yoga postures described in the list of asana offered at www.YinYoga.com. The ones that cause movement at the hips are shown in table 2.

Table 2: Yin Yoga postures that cause movement at the hip joint

Movement at the hips Yin Yoga posture that causes such movement
Flexion to 90° Reclining Twist, Shoelace, Square, Straddle (Dragonfly), Toe Squat
Flexion past 90° Butterfly, Half Butterfly, Caterpillar, Child’s Pose, Dangling, Dragon (front leg), Happy Baby, Reclining Twist with knees drawn to chest, Shoelace with forward folding, Square with forward folding, Squat, Straddle (Dragonfly) with forward folding, Swan (front leg)
Extension Camel, Cat pulling its tail, Dragon (back leg), Saddle, Seal, Swan (back leg)
Abduction Bananasana (inside leg), Butterfly, Half Butterfly, Deer, Dragon (Winged—front leg), Frog, Happy Baby, Straddle (Dragonfly), Swan (front leg)
Adduction Bananasana (outside leg), Reclining Twist (top leg of one-knee twist and Twisted Roots), Shoelace
External rotation Butterfly, Half Butterfly, Deer (front leg), Dragon (Winged—front leg), Frog, Happy Baby, Shoelace, Square, Squat, Straddle (when folded forward), Swan (front leg)
Internal rotation Deer (back leg), Reclining Twist (Twisted roots), Saddle (with feet apart)*

* There is also a version of Half Butterfly, sometimes referred to as Half Frog, where the back leg is in internal rotation

Often more than one movement occurs in the hip joints at once. For example, Butterfly will create flexion, abduction and external rotation in the hip joints. Similarly, Shoelace places the hips into external rotation, flexion and adduction (see figure 1). This is handy because it means we do not need six different postures to move the hips in all six possible directions. And, this means that we can choose fewer postures and linger longer in them while still getting the stress in the joint we desire.

Figure 1: Shoelace pose creates external rotation at each hip joint along with flexion and adduction. If the student folds forward, flexion also occurs along the spine.

Figure 1: Shoelace pose creates external rotation at each hip joint along with flexion and adduction. If the student folds forward, flexion also occurs along the spine.

Yin Yoga for the spine

The movements of the lumbar and thoracic spine as shown in table 1 are flexion, extension, lateral flexion (also called side bending) and rotation. The lumbar spine has five vertebrae (in most people) while the thoracic spine has 12 vertebrae connecting to 12 ribs (in most people). The upper vertebrae articulate over the lower ones via bony joints called the facet joints.[2] The orientation of the thoracic facets is back to front, making rotation the easiest motion. Flexion and extension is much less in each thoracic vertebral joint than in the lumbar spine but, because there are 12 thoracic vertebrae, the total amount of these movements along the full thoracic spine is similar to that found in the full lumbar spine.[3] The lumbar spine’s facets are orientated to the side, enhancing flexion and extension movements but greatly restricting rotation.

Postures that round the upper body forward will cause lumbar and thoracic flexion while those that move the upper body backwards will cause extension. Given the 25 postures shown in list of asana shown in www.YinYoga.com, we can select the asanas that create each possible movement of the spine. These are shown in table 3.

Table 3: Yin Yoga postures that cause thoracic and lumbar spinal movements

Spinal movements Yin Yoga posture that causes such movement
Flexion (mostly in the lumbar) Butterfly, Half Butterfly, Caterpillar, Child’s Pose, Dangling, Happy Baby*, Shoelace, Snail, Square, Squat*, Straddle**
Extension (mostly in the lumbar) Anahatasana, Camel, Cat pulling its tail, Dragon—high flying, Frog*, Saddle**, Seal, Sphinx, Swan
Side flexion (mostly in the thoracic) Bananasana, Half Butterfly with side bend, Shoelace with side bend, Straddle with side bend
Rotation (mostly in the thoracic) Half Butterfly with side bend, Cat pulling its tail, Deer with twist, Dragon with twist, Reclining Twist, Shoelace with twist, Square with twist

* These will probably be mild movements for most people

** For very flexible students, these will be very mild movements

While we can achieve movements in multiple directions at the same time at the hips, it is much more rare to move the spine in multiple directions at the same time.[4] This fact means that if we want to move the spine through all six degrees of freedom, we will need six postures to do so. However, we can add movements at the hips while we target the spine, as shown in Figure 2 which shows a student in Saddle pose: she is internally rotating her hips while extending the spine. (If she were lying flat on the floor she would have very little, if any, extension occurring in her lower back.)

Figure 2: Saddle Pose creates an extension of the spine if the student is not lying completely flat on the floor, with a bonus of internal rotation at the hips.

Figure 2: Saddle Pose creates an extension of the spine if the student is not lying completely flat on the floor, with a bonus of internal rotation at the hips.

Counterposes

Holding a yin posture for a long period of time tends to create creep in the tissues, which is a natural elongation of tissues over time. While this may increase range of motion and has several health benefits, it also temporarily reduces the stiffness and strength of the affected tissues. We feel this as a sense of fragility. Time is needed to allow the tissues to regain their normal stability, but the amount of time required can be reduced through appropriate counterposes.[5] A counterpose moves the body in the opposite direction of the previous stresses. After flexing the spine for several minutes, do a short extension. After external rotation, do internal rotation. Notice that counterposes are not held as long, nor move the body as deep as the original pose, because then the counterpose would require another counterpose and we enter an infinite loop of counterposes needing counterposes.

In a Yin Yoga class, we may choose to delay counterposes until after all the primary movements have been done. We can do all of our flexions together, and then do all our extensions after that. (Or we can start with extensions, and when we have done all those, then do flexions.) We do not need to follow each flexion with an extension, which is common in some, more active Hatha yoga classes. It is not wrong to offer short counterposes, but it is not necessary in Yin Yoga. Indeed, in the classes taught by Paul Grilley, mini-Shavasanas are offered after each posture, rather than a movement in the opposite direction.

From tables 2 and 3, the selection of counterposes are easy to determine. If you have held an external rotation for 5 minute, select a short internal rotation from the postures listed. After flexions, choose some extension. Twists generally are their own counterposes through doing the opposite side.

And, there you have it! Creating Yin Yoga flows can be very easy. Decide upon your targeted area, select a few postures that move the targeted joints through all their degrees of freedom, and remember to add some counterposes at some point. Add a short meditation at the beginning and a nice shavasana at the end and you now have a full flow to try out.

Let the yin begin!

Footnotes:

  1. — Paul Grilley was one of the first to develop the concept of “targeted areas” as an important part of a functional yoga practice. These are areas that we target for deliberate, appropriate and adequate stress through our physical practice. In other words, each posture should have an intention and part of that intention is to create a stress in the targeted area.
  2. — The proper, anatomical name for these flat, bony bits at the top and bottom of each vertebra is “zygapophyseal facets”. That is an awkward name to spell, let alone pronounce, so let’s just call them facet joints.
  3. — An average thoracic spine can flex between 30~40° while it can extend 15~20°. By contrast, the average lumbar spine can flex 52 ° and extend 16°. These figures and their ranges, due to simply human variation, are explained in detail in my upcoming book Your Spine, Your Yoga.
  4. — This does not imply that we shouldn’t move the spine in multiple directions at once, just that it rarely happens in most postures. Indeed, if we could add a flexion or extension to the spine while it is twisting, often the twist is deeper than when no flexion or extension occurs.
  5. — See the article Creep and Counterposes.

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