The History of Yin Postures in Hatha Yoga

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The History of Yin Postures in Hatha Yoga

Post by Bernie »

I recently received this question:
  • What are the Hatha Yoga Pradipika sixteen postures: which are considered yin and if one could only do a couple per day, which would render the greatest long term benefit for preservation of vitality as one ages? Your book is EXCELLENT, I love the very straightforward Western thinking of it and the science behind it. This helps me to be a real believer. Thank you!
The History of Yin Postures in Yoga

The Daoist terms yin and yang are relative terms. Yin generally refers to things that are relatively deeper, colder, stiffer and slower: yang generally refers to things that are higher, hotter, flexible and quick. A tropical monsoon begins quickly, pours all its waters in a thunderous short time and quickly abates. A drizzly mist that lingers for days slowly soddening everything lasts for days and even weeks. The monsoon is yang to the drizzle's yin. The terms yin and yang are Daoist but these complementary qualities of nature were noticed by most high cultures. Yin and yang are not unique to China; the Indian yogis also noticed this complementary nature of reality. If we look back at a few influential books in the history of yoga, we find both a yin and yang nature being described. For example:

1) Patanjali's Yoga Sutra circa 400 C.E. (II-46) states "sthira sukham asanum" which means that "your asana should be steady and comfortable." Stable is yang, comfortable is yin. (Source: Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali - A New Translation and Commentary by Georg Feuerstein, page 90) The intention of asana was to provide a steady, comfortable seat for meditation. Meditation, of course, is done for long periods of time, which in our lingo we call "yin". Thus, one of the earliest references to asana practice describes a yin form of yoga.

2) The 14~15th century Hatha Yoga Pradipika lists 15 asanas, 8 of which are seated postures intended to be held for long periods of time in comfort (yin) while 3 more are not seated postures, they were intended to be held for a while, and the other 4 are definitely challenging yang postures (yang) that require great muscular effort. (See Swami Muktibodhananda Saraswati and Swami Satyananda Saraswati. Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Yoga Publications Trust, 2000, ISBN 978-81-85787-38-1) The asanas listed are:
  • Swastikasana *
    Gomukhasana *
    Virasana *
    Kurmasana **
    Uttana Kurmasana
    Matsyasana *
    Paschima tana ** (Today we would call this paschimottasana)
    Savasana **
    Siddhasana (also called Vajrasana) *
    Padmasana *
    Simhasana *
    Bhadrasana (also called Goraksasana) *

    * seated postures
    ** other postures intended to be held for a while
The text claims that Lord Siva taught 84 asanas, but only these 15 are listed, but of these 15, the last four are considered the "essential" ones - and notice that these are the yin postures. They are meant to be "very comfortable." There are other postures described in the text different from those listed above, which are used for various pranayama and mudras practices, but they are not specifically referred to as asanas, so they are not included in this list. Examples of these postures would include janu sirsasana (in the maha mudra) and viparita karani.

3) Light on Yoga, first published in 1966 by B.K.S. Iyengar, list several postures which he advises to be held for long periods of time. For example,
  • Maha mudra -- hold this pose "one to three minutes." (page 147)
    Paschimottanasa -- try to stay "from one to five minutes" (page 169)
    Supta Virasana -- "[hold] this pose 10 to 15 minutes." (page 125)

    For several other postures, the student was advised by Iyengar to "Stay in this pose as long as you can." These were yin postures, although that Chinese term was obviously not used.
So, we see that the use of yin postures in yoga is not new! It has been around since the beginning of the physical practice. However, as time went on, the practice became more and more yang like. It was through the teachings of Paulie Zink, Paul Grilley and Sarah Powers that yin postures were re-emphasized. No one invented this style of practice, but it was Paul and Sarah who really developed the art of sequencing Yin postures into a full yoga practice and they are the ones responsible for its current widespread adoption today.

Which of the postures listed in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika would render the greatest benefit? According to the text, the last four. But, the text states, and all modern yoga teachers would agree, that asana practice by itself is only part of the yoga journey: don't forget about the other practices like breath and mindfulness.

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Post by dave »

Hi Bernie, thanks for your post. It was interesting.

With the list of poses, how important is it that a person practice the exact pose? I can search google, then try to find a reputable source. I prefer to go to the Asana Guide

But even with that sometimes there is a large variation. Or sometimes it is a completely different pose. Some of the poses look very similar, scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page to see.

The same website shows 8 Warrior (Virabhasana) poses, I thought there was 3. Warrior poses weren't in your post but another example of the confusion.

Is there a way to get this correct? Or is close enough good enough?
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Doing the pose "correctly"

Post by Bernie »

Hi Dave - unfortunately, what you have come across is that there is no one yoga that is taught everywhere. There are many yogas and many teachers with diametrically opposite ideas on how to teach yoga. There is no one right way to do postures, but there are many wrong ways to do them! That can make the whole process frustrating. This is why the Internet is not a substitute for a well trained teacher.

A good teacher will start with what you need from the postures, not with what the postures need from you. There will be an intention for each pose and a target area(s) that it is aiming to touch. There are many variations on how to achieve the goal, and many other postures if one in particular doesn't work out.

It would be nice, wouldn't it, if there was just one standardized way to practice yoga that could work for every body, but like in medicine or life, it is not so simple. You have to search for what works for you, and hopefully find a teacher who can work with you as well.

Good luck
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