The Meridian System & Yin Yoga | An Introduction

Yin Yoga is a practice that places a significant emphasis on theories from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). It incorporates long, held asanas with an understanding of something called the meridian system.

In this article, we will be covering:

  • What Yin Yoga Is
  • What The Meridian System Is
  • How The Meridian System Is Related To Yin Yoga
  • The 5 Yin Organs & Accompanying Asanas
a woman doing a childs pose on a yoga mat, a yin yoga pose which uses the meridian system

What is Yin Yoga?

Yin Yoga is a slow-paced practice that focuses on gently stressing the deep connective tissues in the body to strengthen them, rather than stretch them, which is a common misconception.

As you may have deduced from the name ‘Yin’ Yoga, it is derived from the Daoist concept of Yin and Yang. Daoism (or Taoism as you may have heard it called) is a non-dual Chinese philosophy and religion, and so Yin Yoga is sometimes referred to as Daoist Yoga.

The Yin/Yang is similar to the concept of feminine/masculine in Tantra, and the same as the consciousness/action or nurture/power idea in many other areas of yoga and Hindu teachings.

It essentially conceptualizes the idea that opposites necessarily exist in relation to one another in order for there to be harmony.

TCM, much like Ayurveda, is one of the most ancient medicine systems in the world, both taking a holistic view of how we should treat diseases, or imbalances, within the body. The meridian system is a concept in TCM that explains how the body has channels that form a network through which Qi (similar to Prana) flows.

Yin Yoga or Meridian Yoga, therefore, embodies two ancient yet living Eastern traditions from both India and China, making it an extremely powerful practice.

a woman holding her hands up in prayer in front of a yin yang symbol

What is the meridian system?

We often hear the meridian system referred to as an ‘energetic highway’.

This is because they are essentially a network of channels that circulate our life force energy (Qi) around the body, similar to the concept of nadis in Indian medicine. They are all connected and if they were to be unraveled would form one continuous loop (if they weren’t connected, Qi couldn’t flow).

The meridian system is not an anatomical structure and it is not the same as the circulatory system, which people can tend to confuse it with.

It is a structure in the subtle body through which energy is transported.

They are mapped throughout the entire body and use the dual system of Yin and Yang, meaning they come in corresponding pairs. Each of the Yin meridians are paired with a Yang, the former ascending the body and the latter flowing downward.

We have two centreline meridians, which are the conception and the governing vessels, and twelve principle meridians. These are the stomach and spleen, small intestine and heart, bladder and kidney, pericardium and triple warmer, gall bladder and liver, and the lung and large intestine meridians.

Much like Prana, when this Qi flows freely throughout the body we are healthy and free from disease. When this Qi gets blocked or there is an excess in certain areas, we have issues with our health.

a diagram of the Chinese meridian system on the body

How are meridians related to yoga?

Our Yin Yoga practice uses direct knowledge of the meridians in order to target these areas and allow Qi to move freely.

Physically, the practice of long holds is designed to gently stress the tissues in order to develop strength and resilience.

Energetically, we are creating harmony between the Yin and Yang meridians and cultivating an awareness of the present moment, accepting imbalances, and honoring the body’s natural healing abilities.

The difference between the TCM approach (using the meridians) and Western medicine, is that we do not need to seek a ‘cure’ as we are not necessarily ‘unwell’. We maintain the view that we are whole and perfect as we are, not missing anything. The disparity comes from the disproportionate dominance of a Yin/Yang energy.

Although the reality is often more complicated, for the sake of discussion, we could be 75% Yang and 25% Yin, but we are still 100% whole. We are not missing any Yin or Yang energy and we do not need an external cure, we need to bring these energies back into balance.

Using Meridian Yoga, or applying the understanding of meridians to our Yin Yoga practice, is a vehicle to develop an awareness of how Yin/Yang is functioning within our own bodies and how we can harness and stabilize these energies.

the sky, half blue, half pink over the sea

The 5 Yin Organs

You can use the 5 yin organs, their associated yang organs, and the meridian system in your Yin Yoga practice to target specific areas.

1. Heart

The associated yang organ for the heart is the small intestine, and they both share the element of fire. Having an imbalance of Qi in the heart/small intestine may present itself as anxiety, agitation, poor sleeping or general restlessness.

In TCM, the heart is often referred to as ‘The Emperor’ as it is the home for our shen, which can roughly be interpreted as spirit or consciousness. The heart’s intelligence means that it is considered the ‘second brain’.

The heart meridian originates in the heart, spreads throughout the heart system and moves down into the diaphragm to connect with its yang counterpart. It also travels down the inner seam of the arm and ends at the tip of the little finger.

Because of the location of these meridians, it is likely that when we target them with Yin Yoga we will also be benefiting the lungs and large intestine.

Asana for the heart & small intestine meridians:

  • Bananasana
  • Parivrtta prasarita balasana (revolved child’s pose)
  • an annotated image of a woman wearing black yoga clothes doing sphinx pose
  • an annotated image of a woman wearing black yoga clothes doing puppy Pose
  • an annotated image of a woman wearing black yoga clothes doing reclined twist Pose

2. Spleen

The spleen meridian runs from the big toes, up the inner legs, to the knees, and to the right side of the abdomen. Responsible for major aspects of digestion and transportation of fluids, an imbalance may look like a poor appetite, nausea, bloating, or a cold body and limbs.

The spleen is also our body’s largest lymphatic organ! Its yang counterpart is the stomach and their associated elements in TCM are earth.

Asana for the spleen and stomach meridians:

  • Utthan pristhasana (dragon)
  • an annotated image of a woman wearing black yoga clothes doing reclined bound angle Pose
  • an annotated image of a woman wearing black yoga clothes doing wide angle seated forward bend pose

3. Liver

The liver belongs to the wood element alongside the yang gallbladder.

The liver supports us by nourishing our blood but also directing the flow of Qi through each of our meridians.

It’s very sensitive to emotions such as frustration, worry, anxiety, and overwhelm, so it’s likely to be knocked out of balance if we feel these emotions arising more than usual.

Asana for the liver and gallbladder meridians:

  • Salamba bhujangasana (sphinx)
  • Padukabandhini or reclined padukabandhini (shoe lace pose, a Yin variation of gomukhasana)
  • Mandukasana (frog pose)
  • an annotated image of a woman wearing black yoga clothes doing a cow face pose
  • an annotated image of a woman wearing black yoga clothes doing fire log Pose

4. Kidneys

Although the kidneys are a yin organ and belong to the water element, they contain a great source of fire for the body.

This is because the Mingmen sits in between the kidneys; the Mingmen contains our jing, which is our original life essence. It is roughly translated to the ‘Gate of Life’ and as a key area for our vitality, it plays an important role in TCM.

We inherit our jing when we are born and it supports all cellular functions from birth through to death. According to TCM, having a reduced jing can make us susceptible to injuries and illnesses, as well as more vulnerable to the general aging process.

It can be useful to think of our jing as a rechargeable battery – we can use the battery wisely and be mindful about recharging it, thus keeping the battery in good condition and giving it a long life.

However, if we keep using the battery without care and forgetting to charge it, the condition will wear down and it may even go flat.

This is exactly the same as our jing essence which determines our potential for a long, healthy life. We must replenish it by taking good care of our bodies and doing practices such as Qigong or Yin Yoga. If we don’t do this, we can drain our jing which works hard to protect us from all kinds of environmental factors that deplete our longevity.

The kidney is paired with the yang of the bladder and their associated emotions are those of fear and fright. These emotions can cause an imbalance in these organs which weakens their Qi.

Asana for kidneys and bladder meridians:

  • Supported baddha konasana (butterfly)
  • Supported half saddle pose
  • an annotated image of a woman wearing black yoga clothes doing reclined twist Pose
  • an annotated image of a woman wearing black yoga clothes doing half splits pose
  • a woman doing a half happy baby with text annotations

5. Lungs

The element for these organs are metal and their imbalanced emotions are grief or sadness. This is a particular type of sadness that is accompanied by a sense of loss or detachment, whether explainable or not.

When their Qi is balanced, it shows up as an ability for good communication and clear thinking.

This yin organ is paired with the yang large intestine which is responsible for helping us to let go of things. If we find it difficult to release or let go of things, our large intestine can become ‘stuck’. Similarly, if we hold onto a sense of grief or loss, whether it is over a death, the loss of a friendship, or a breakup, our lung Qi will weaken.

Asana for lungs and large intestine meridians:

  • Bananasana
  • Broken wing pose
  • Gomukhasana arms
  • an annotated image of a woman wearing black yoga clothes doing fish Pose
  • an annotated image of a woman wearing black yoga clothes doing puppy Pose

Using The Meridian System In Your Yin Yoga Practice

Knowledge of the meridian system is another great concept that can be used in your private practice or to plan your lessons.

The blending of two systems with such profound, ancient wisdom can contribute hugely to our well-being, the balancing of our Qi, and a deeper connection with our vast body-mind system.

More about yin

If you would like to find out more about Yin Yoga beyond the meridian system, you can read our articles on the benefits of Yin and 8 asanas to get started.

Photo of author
Liz is a Qigong and Yoga teacher based in Gloucestershire with a love for all things movement, nature & community. She strives to create a trauma-informed space in which everyone is empowered to be their authentic selves.

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