Here’s What Happened When I Went to an Intensive Yoga Retreat

I am a doer, your stereotypical Type A personality: driven, hardworking, competitive and, at times, impatient and aggressive. I am also a yoga teacher. Not the first personality type that comes to mind when you think of yoga teachers, but an increasing number of ex-corporate, Type A personalities are teaching people to find their zen. You can usually find us teaching the most physically demanding styles of yoga like Vinyasa and Ashtanga, which it so happens is my speciality. So what is someone like me doing at an intensive 10-day, 100-hour, yin yoga teacher training retreat? Trying to find my yinside, a soft, yielding quality to balance out all my yang. 

What is yin yoga?

A newer style of yoga, yin is distinct from other types of yoga in two ways. First, it specifically targets the body’s joints and connective tissue, the network of fibres that connect our muscles to each other, the bones and the joints. While all yoga will affect these areas, yin specifically targets them through long, passive holds. Usually a posture is held for 3-7 minutes and the muscles around the target area are kept relaxed so the connective tissue and joints take the ‘stretch,’ although they are actually being stressed in a healthy manner. Secondly, yin utilises the meridian channels from traditional Chinese medicine; sequences may be designed to stimulate certain organ meridians, which you will not find in the hatha yoga tradition. It’s like acupuncture without any needles.

How I spent the 100 hours 

Each day started at 7:30 am with 20-30 minutes of a silent group meditation. Most days were themed around a meridian pair. Some organs are yang, some are yin, and the major meridians are paired yin and yang, such as the kidney (yin) and urinary bladder (yang) meridians. After meditation we took a short break to have a play with essential oils which match the pair’s traditional Chinese element and season. For example, kidney and urinary bladder represent the element water and the season of winter. Our teacher trainer Mel then took us through a two-and-a-half-hour yin yoga masterclass. Brunch came around 10:45 a.m., which was very challenging for someone who struggles with hunger and usually has lunch by 11 a.m. After brunch came several hours of lecture with a short lunch break, and around 3:30 we would have our second practice of the day, usually about an hour, which is the typical length of a yin yoga class. Then we wandered off home at about 4:45 p.m. to do our homework and self-reflective journaling. We were politely asked to refrain from yang yoga practice (basically all other yoga) during the retreat, which was scary for me.

It got emotional 

Yin is a slow, meditative practice working with connective tissue. Yogis have always believed that the body holds our memories, and modern science is starting to agree. There is an emerging view that our connective tissue is where our consciousness lies. So when you spend hours and hours a day practicing yin, things come up. Practices soon featured tears and during group sessions we would explore hidden memories that came up for the participants. We were tuning into our ‘chi,’ or our subtle energy.

Shortly before the retreat my mother suddenly passed. In my grief, my Type A drive disappeared and I found myself unable to keep up with my usual demanding physical practice. I tried to power through but the drive was just gone. I was a bit lost about what to do with myself.

The retreat started on a Friday night and by the Tuesday my chi was starting to scream, I want to use my muscles! Why am I resting in the middle of the day?! I don’t need to rest, all I’ve done is rest. All the yin was starting to bring back my yang. I had a quickie cheat practice, where I was grateful to be balancing weight on my hands again—how I missed a good plank! Much to my surprise, my flexibility had already increased bucketloads (more on that below) and I managed to stay yang-free for the rest of my time. Balance was starting to arise! Ironically, my quest to soften was bringing my strength back.

I am glad I had the cheat yang practice, as it made me realise that I was still unconsciously engaging some muscles while practicing yin. When you are conditioned to use your muscles for strength, it can be really hard to keep them truly soft, which I managed in the end. All yoga is meant to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of our mind which tells us to rest and digest, or chillax. When you can truly soften, it is easier to find this state, and while I love the zen after a long, strong practice, I must admit yin can bring up the rest and digest response much more effectively.

While yin is passive, it is also bloody hard. Some very strong sensations arise when you hold shapes that squish the most solid parts of your body and you stay in those shapes for a long, long time. In order to stay, you must learn to yield. The first few minutes are usually a battle: Oh no, this isn’t fun, I can’t do this, are we done yet, just breathe, just breathe… But when you stay with those sensations, and just breathe, a deep calm (the parasympathetic nervous system) arises. And that calm lasts beyond the shapes. Sometimes, you can remember to use those skills in real life and stay calm when things get bloody hard. This is the yinside.

The results

From a physical perspective, my range of motion increased more in 10 days than I could have ever imagined possible. We are talking the equivalent of practicing yang yoga six days a week for six months, in just 10 days. My splits got an inch lower. I finally flipped the grip in an advanced backbend I’ve been working on for years. My body opened, and I felt bizarrely light. For the first time ever, I felt a sensation from my joints other than pain: suppleness. As someone with a few damaged joints, I had always believed that the damage was done and nothing other than surgery could bring me back to how I had been before. Not true. I gained ranges of motion in damaged joints greater than what I had before the damage was done! I seriously cannot recommend this practice enough. While I’m still working on feeling the ‘chi’ flowing through my meridian lines, I am a results-orientated girl and the physical results blew my expectations out of the water.

On a an energetic level, I was pleasantly surprised as well. I left calmer and more grounded. The last day of our training involved two long round-robin style classes, where each participant would lead 10 minutes of practice. Afterwards lots of people told me how surprised they were at how well I did (I was definitely the most yang in the bunch), and I was like, ‘Well, yeah, this is my job.’ Type A people strive to do their job well even if it involves being Type B! I often struggle with teaching my own peers so having a bunch of super-chill Type Bs give me the tick of approval was a really nice feeling.

I left the training totally yinned out and pining for a good old dose of yang. Much to my own surprise, I cancelled my planned ClassPass blast of of Megaformer muscle-strengthening Pilates the next day and chose a quiet home practice instead. I now find myself sneaking in some yin during my day, in part out of fear of losing my newfound range of motion and in part because, well, I like it! I really like it! Best of all, I don’t even plan what I’m going to do, I just do what feels right for me then. I am a planner, so letting go of the plan is a biggie. I found my yinside, and the yinside helped me find my yang again, too. I’m back to a strong practice most of the time but have learned to balance it out much better. I write this with a cold, and *gasp*, I have chosen to rest! I would not have before the retreat. So maybe I can tune into my chi after all!

Some first-timer tips 

All major yoga studios and increasingly many gyms offer yin yoga so you are spoilt for choice, particularly on ClassPass. It is worthwhile to ask your teacher whether they have any yin training, as many yin teachers do not. In Australia, any 200-hour trained yoga teacher can teach yin; there is no requirement for another certification. The yin practice seems simple—you only hold a few poses—but the practice works on vulnerable areas (joints) and understanding the TCM meridian channels is really, really hard. I would not have had a real clue without 100 hours of training. Personally, I did start teaching yin before the retreat, however I am a heaps better yin teacher for having taken a training.

Nicole is a yoga teacher and mum based in Sydney. Originally from Detroit, Nicole travelled the world for many years before settling in Australia and working as a commercial litigator at a corporate law firm. After having her beautiful daughter she decided to trade in her suits for leggings and can be found teaching, practicing and playing across the most beautiful city in the world.