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  • Writer's pictureHelen

How yin yoga can help mental health

When I first told my clients I was training in Yin many of them asked what exactly it was. Unable to give an educated answer at the time I generally said some variation of ‘it’s basically an excuse to lay down for an hour and rest’. Now that I have undergone yin training I don’t think I would change my explanation all that much. Yin is an opportunity to lay down, to slow down, to pause. How often in life do we allow ourselves the time to pause? For most of us the answer is never.

The modern world is a hamster wheel that many of us struggle to get off. We rush from here to there, working crazy long hours, and occupying every spare minute with ‘jobs’. For many people being busy is a badge of honour; non-working hours jam packed with socialising and hobbies. However the reality is that, whether we admit it or not, our body and mind cannot sustain a permanent state of busy. Sooner or later they will loudly say ‘no’.

There are one of two states our nervous system can be in: either rest and digest, or fight or flight. These states are opposite, but of equal importance, and ideally our bodies can move freely and evenly between the two. As the name suggests rest and digest is where our bodies can restore, where we can digest food, conserve energy, and our immune system can work on keeping us healthy. In contrast fight and flight is highly reactive, concerned mainly with keeping us safe and away from harm. Fight or flight consumes huge amounts of energy and has little concern for the longer term needs of the organism such as digestion, sleep, or immune function. Too much time spent in fight or flight leads to exhaustion and burnout.

Almost all mental health conditions – from depression, to anxiety, to trauma - are associated with some sort of dysregulation of this nervous system; commonly an overactivation of the fight or flight response. There is usually a corresponding pattern of activity in the brain, usually seen as overactivation of the amygdala (fear response centre) and under activation and even a physical shrinking of the brain regions for reason and logic. When living in this state people tend to be hypervigilant, see threat everywhere, and live their life in a state of tension. Anxiety is high, stress is high.

Busy lives lived in fight or flight mode also severely impact sleep, with two thirds of UK adults now reporting disrupted sleep. Sleep is necessary not only for attention, memory, and motivation, but also for mood regulation. Even one night of poor sleep leaves people feeling emotional unstable, reactive, and less in control.

Bodies living in fight or flight mode hold tension. The body continuously braces in response to perceived or real threat, eventually leading to habitual patterns of ‘holding’ or ‘gripping’ that can lead to dysfunctional movement patterns and significant aches and pains. Tense muscles send messages to the brain that we are under threat and need to stay alert, and so starts a vicious cycle.

Yoga is an effective antidote to much of the noise of our modern world and study after study show yoga practices to be incredibly beneficial for mental health - often as effective if not more so than many mainline treatments such as medication. However, yoga is not without its pitfalls. For the busy minded yoga can still be a breeding ground for competition; worrying about what the person is doing on the next mat, or fretting about why we don’t have the strength or flexibility to do a certain pose. It is entirely possible to blitz through a yoga practice, barely pausing, barely paying attention. It’s possible to push too hard, to breathe too intensely, to injure ourselves in the name of achieving a certain pose. Does this kind of practice always help the mind? Probably not.

Yin is the antithesis of all of this. In yin yoga there are no funky shapes to achieve, there is no push, pull, or strain. There is no beginner, intermediate, advanced poses. There is no scope for comparison with yourself or others. Yin is not just slow, it’s still. Yin is deep deep rest, and that’s where it’s magic lays.

In that place of rest, we can watch. We can begin to notice. We can notice tensions held in the body and watch as they start to dissolve. We can notice the busyness of our mind and observe as it begins to slow down. We can notice the messages from our body - changes in breath rate, heart rate, temperature, and digestion. We can release long held emotions, creating a feeling of freedom from the things that have been weighing us down.

Yin yoga involves long holds that stretch the muscles and fascia along meridian lines. This stretching helps release blockages from our energy channels, bringing body and mind back into balance. The calm and slow nature of a yin class moves our brain from beta waves down into alpha, the brain wave needed for sleep. It shifts our nervous system from fight or flight into rest and digest, moving us from a place of exhaustion towards a place of recovery.

As wonderful as yin is, I do not think that it is easily accessible for everyone all of the time. For someone living with high anxiety or trauma it may feel incredibly hard to be still. I personally don’t think I could have sat through a class as a beginner yoga student; my body needed a strong practice. Yin may also not be the best option for someone living with severe depression as there may be more benefits to gain from an energising and uplifting practice.

These minor cautions aside, I do believe that once we have learnt to tolerate a certain level of stillness yin is possibly the most healing form of yoga there is. Yin allows our body and mind to restore. Once we can begin to be still, we can begin to heal

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