A profound Yin Yoga practice starts with the poses, although it’s more than just a compelling sequence of postures. It’s the story told throughout the progression, a narrative that can be enhanced by the in-between moments. This is, in part, what the practice of Yin Yoga teaches us — that all the moments we fill with presence can connect us back to ourselves.
These moments are not insignificant. They create space for a different sort of practice. These spaces in Yin Yoga can bring up questions for students, as well as teachers. Do we need to rest between each side? Should we insert a counterpose? What about movement? How do we link everything together?
The energetic story of a Yin Yoga class
If you could draw the energetic curve of a Yin Yoga practice as a line across paper, it might look like low, gentle waves that steadily slope downward to a deep and tranquil endpoint. Everything about the class — from the lighting in the room to the teacher’s speech — will influence this curve. Shorter holds, any form of movement, and sitting or standing stimulate energy. Longer holds, more stillness, and reclining postures bring the opposite.
Graceful transitions can bring a sense of continuity and balance to a string of poses, as well as amplify the energetic journey. The trajectory of the energetic curve will vary from class to class, but ideally a Yin Yoga sequence progresses smoothly and ultimately facilitates the profound hush and deep release that are the intended endpoint of the practice.
As such, your transitions can reflect where you are in the story energetically. Is it the perfect time to linger in stillness, or would movement be just the thing to help students assimilate what’s to come?
Different approaches to transitioning during Yin Yoga
The art of sequencing Yin Yoga isn’t bound by black and white rules. There’s no rule that you must counterpose after everything. In fact, one could argue there’s some value in choosing to simply pause in a neutral position and allow the sensations to pass, just as in meditation we cultivate a nonreactive state of mind.
In Yin Yoga, we purposefully stress the joint sites, which temporarily creates some vulnerability in the tissues. In the long term, this stress supports joint health and optimal range of motion, but in the moments immediately following a long-held posture, we can feel exactly the opposite, as if we’ve never been stiffer. For this reason, we move slowly when exiting a pose.
But when the intensity of sensation builds up after a particularly deep hold or several postures in a row that hold the spine in the same direction, we often intuitively seek to move our body in opposition. After a long stretch, it’s perfectly fine to contract the muscles in the target area for a moment, or to add a mild counterpose or movement to help return to a feeling of equilibrium.
Movement may also offer an energetic benefit. Melting through layers of tension in our tissues during long Yin Yoga postures opens up the meridian channels that run through the fluid-rich portion of the fascia, explains Yin Yoga founder and teacher Paul Grilley, giving rise to greater circulation of both fluids and who (typically translated from Chinese as “life force,” similar to what the yoga tradition refers to as “prana”). Gentle movement can help flush energy through the channels, balancing and harmonizing as it flows.
Whether we move or remain still, we want to do so with intention and consciousness.
Rest in the rebound
“Rebound” is a term coined by Grilley to signify a similar pause in practice that offers the possibility to settle into stillness and connect to this deeper wellspring of being. After releasing a pose, a rebound is often taken reclining on your back like a mini Savasana, but you can also rebound on the belly, in fetal position, or even sitting upright. Whatever the shape, it’s a time to become physically still and notice what arises, whether that’s unfolding physical sensations, the movement of subtle energy within, the effervescent nature of thoughts passing through. It’s a time to pause and lean into the underlying nature that holds it all.
A Yin practice should include rebounds, certainly at least one long rebound at the end in the form of Savasana. But how often and for how long do you take these meditative pauses? It depends. How long is the class? What time of day is it? Where are you in the energetic curve of your story? The reclining rebound is a potent tool in Yin Yoga, but there is no rule that says you must rest for several minutes on your back after every pose or side. If you include long reclining rebounds after everything, it can be challenging to motivate the class to move as the practice progresses. On the other hand, not enough rebounding can feel like a missed opportunity to go deeper.
… Or take the direct route
Consider the pose that you are currently in and the “route” to the next. Are you reclining, seated, or moving to hands and knees? Decluttering your sequence and minimizing unnecessary repositioning can help create a feeling of “flow” even in a relatively still Yin Yoga practice. For example, if you’re transitioning between two seated poses, you might stay seated, either pausing upright or adding a seated movement. You can also experiment with simply making your way slowly from one pose right to the next.
Trust what you feel
Part of yoga practice is learning to be in relationship with ourselves. To pay attention, feel, and respond to what’s happening at the moment. We learn to ask, what is it that I feel? What is it that I need right now? If we’re practicing on our own, we need to create space for this. If we’re teaching, this is a skill we want our students to develop as well.
Allow for individuality
Remember, not everyone will experience a pose or sequence in the same way. By allowing room for choice in transition and inviting ourselves or our students to pay attention, we can nurture the learned skill of tuning in. We don’t need to overwhelm students with a barrage of cues that offer every possibility all at once. Exploration can be encouraged through a simple choice such as, “Pause on your back and allow the sensations to pass, or, if you wish, hug your knees to your chest and massage your lower back.”
Create space and time for transitions
Above all, allow time for transitions to occur in a Yin sequence. Even if you’re moving from one pose directly to the next, there’s no rush. If you say, “Breathe here,” you can take three more breaths yourself before speaking again in a Yin class. Offer all parts of the practice — the asanas and transitions — in a way that encourages a sort of curiosity about and luxuriating in the experience.
See also: 72 Ways to Say “Relax” in Yin Yoga
Ways you can move between Yin Yoga poses
Here are some transitions and simple movements that work well in the context of transitioning between Yin Yoga poses.
A Marauding Bear moves however it wants, reveling in freedom. Come on to all fours and move organically as you search out the sweet spots. Make circles, lateral waves, undulate from crown to tail and tail to crown, circle eights, arch, and tuck. Let the movement ripple out into your hips, shoulders, and neck, experiencing all the fluid potential and connectivity in your body.
Lying on your back, hug your knees to your chest, and use your hands to steer your lower body, massaging your sacrum and lower back. You can make soft circles one way and then the other. You can also rock side to side, letting your body shift between the two sides of your pelvis.
Rolling Rag Doll
Stand comfortably, feet about hips-width distance apart. Let your head and arms hang like a rag doll and sway your upper body to the right and slowly roll down towards the outside of your right foot. Let your knees bend forward and emphasize the rounding of your spine. Next, invite your body weight to pour into your other leg. Lean into the left side with your body hanging to the right and slowly roll up, head last. Repeat in the other direction. Then roll down the center, letting the chin drop, the shoulders round and the arms hang. You can repeat the whole sequence several times, or simply roll down and stay in dangling pose pose for a minute or two.
Either recline on your back or sit upright as you lean back on your hands, bend your knees, and bring your feet to the floor, about as wide as your hips or a little wider. Tilt your pelvis from side to side, letting both knees fall one direction and then slowly let them fall to the other side like windshield wipers, lubricating your hip joints.
On all fours, keep your hands under your shoulders and walk your knees a little further back than your hips. Bring your knees together and begin to make circles with your hips, pushing your pelvis over to one side, then back towards your feet, over to the other side, and then forwards, leaning on the hands almost like an Upward-Facing Dog on your knees. Continue to circle at your own speed, pressing out to the edges. After a few rounds in the first direction, change and go the other way.
Twisting On All Fours
On hands and knees, inhale and twist open to one side, extending your arm up as you spin your chest towards the sky.
With your exhale, dive down and reach under your body, bringing your shoulder towards the mat as in Thread the Needle but without touching the mat. Repeat several times on each side. You can allow your pelvis to tip, like an extension of the twist.
Either sit seiza-style on your knees with your toes untucked or come to a seated cross-legged position. Straighten your arms out in front of you, palms up, fingers extended. With an inhale, start to curl your fingers in towards your inner forearms, stretching the backs of your hands and wrists. Keep curling in, bending your elbows as you bring the hands by your ears.
Exhale, turn your elbows out to the sides and uncurl your arms, pressing out through the palms of your hands as you straighten. On the next inhale, curl back in from the sides, then exhale and uncurl out to the front, palms pressing forwards. Continue this cycle with your breath, inhaling to curl in, exhaling to press out, to the front, to the sides. You can involve more of your body in the movement, rounding your back as you curl in, pressing your heart forwards as you open out.
About our contributor
Leta LaVigne is a Seattle native and the founder of yogaROCKS study in Finland. She draws from a variety of traditions to craft intuitive yin and yang classes, gently guiding awareness through the body to the inner landscape. As a long-time student of Paul Grilley, Leta embraces a functional approach to teaching. Find her reflections on yoga, motherhood, and life as a transplant in the country of rye bread and reindeer at @leta_lavigne.