Balancing Yin and Yang

Considerations for sequencing in life and practice

One of the most refreshing things about studying with Yin Yoga’s founder, Paul Grilley, is his unwavering and unabashed embrace of the “no rules” approach to practicing yoga. When it comes to Yin Yoga specifically, he’s very clear that as long as you respect your own body’s boundaries, there are no set guidelines for how to practice. What you do depends on your intentions. This perspective is reflected in his objection to aesthetic alignment cues as well as his philosophy on how to balance a yin and yang practice. My primary teacher Sarah Powers takes this last point even further saying that it’s possible to practice vinyasa in a yin way.

Nevertheless, I’m always surprised when I hear from teachers who say they learned specific rules governing yin-yang sequencing. Most of the explanations fall into the category of “safety,” which I will get into a bit further below. But mainly I wonder if this emphasis on the physicality of practice misses an opportunity to reflect on Yin Yoga’s roots in Taoist cosmology, particularly the relationship between the forces of yin and yang.

Chasing Equilibrium

The piebald taijitu (yin-yang symbol) represents the harmonizing nature of opposites. The dark half represents yin, and the light half represents yang. Rather than divided straight in half, an S-shape line separates the yin and yang halves, which evokes the rhythm and flow of yin and yang co-creating each other.

The classical example of this phenomenon is the rising and setting sun over a high mountain. The sunny side of the mountain is the yang side. As the sun travels across the sky, what was previously the shady side, the yin side, becomes the yang side. This cycle will continue for as long as the sun shines upon the Earth. You can’t have one without the other. There is no day without night.

The dots on the taijitu are reminders that nothing is ever pure yin or pure yang. Yin and yang are, therefore, relative terms. Depending on your anchor points, what seems like yin in one context is yang in another. Concerning anatomy, we talk about the skin and muscles as being yang because they are located towards the outer edges of our body. Our deep connective tissues are said to be yin because they are closer to the center. But the connective tissues are yang compared to bones, which are set even deeper in the body.

We can think of the different styles of yoga as a continuum of yin and yang. At one extreme, you have hot, vigorous, power vinyasa yoga. This would be a very yang practice. But, compared to a 24hr adventure race, it would be relatively yin. At the other end of the spectrum would be a restorative posture held for 15 minutes. You are still breathing, so not quite pure yin.

At every level of life, in the whole of the universe, yin and yang forces calibrate towards equilibrium.

What does balance look like for a human life?

We can ponder this question in terms of one’s overall lifestyle and movement nutrition, or we can zoom in and look at the sequence of a single yoga practice. Between these two contexts, there are physical, energetic and psycho-emotional considerations, making the answer, inevitably, “we need both yin and yang.”

If we are overworked and under a lot of pressure, stress can break us down in more ways than one. If we add physically taxing exercise to a depleted system, we risk further damage. In this situation, a quiet yin practice to cool the system is a smart and beneficial counter measure.

On the other hand, if you travel from your bed to your dining chair, to your car, to your desk, to your couch, and back to your bed day in and day out, your doctor will soon tell you to get more exercise. Our body needs activity as much as it needs rest.

Most of us should be finding opportunities to move and rest, fine tuning our routines on a day-to-day basis with a sharp eye on our calendar, to-do list, overall health, etc. Around the holidays or the end of the school year, I try to prioritize down time, so my whole life doesn’t become overwhelming. During the summer, I need to be a little more proactive about getting more exercise because all I want to do is lay around at the pool. When I’m sick, I rest.

Our tissues like different things.

When we consider our particular movement practices, we see again that we need both yin and yang exercises to maintain homeostasis. If you are a marathon runner or spend a lot of time at a cross fit gym, your myofascia would appreciate the variety of a Yin Yoga practice because it uniquely targets different tissues.

Where most fitness modalities focus on the high effort and contractions beneficial to muscle fibers, Yin Yoga focuses on the dense, less pliable connective tissues that surround the muscles and muscle fibers. Yin Yoga’s passive stretches with light, but steady loads, can help to organize fascia into an arrangement that is robust and flexible, therefore supporting myofascial health and performance.

The tension and compression of Yin Yoga postures also stimulate the production of the various components of fascia especially the liquid ground substance. Insufficient ground substance contributes to feelings of stiffness and immobility especially as we age. When abundant, ground substance facilitates the graceful variety of movements that humans are so good at because it helps our tissues glide.

If you are the kind of person that prefers a more passive practice, then you should consider adding more yang exercises to your routine. Motion is lotion for our body and is essential for all our tissues. We must move regularly and frequently. We need to vary loads, speed, and even the vectors that we move along. Obviously, precisely what we are capable of doing will depend on many factors, but we should maximize what we can do.

When it comes to my day-to-day yoga practice, I try to take all of this into account. On days that I swim, I will practice a few Yin poses if I do any asana at all. There are other days when my physical body craves a bit of vinyasa, and other days my energy level dictates restorative yoga or just meditation. Regardless of which style I practice, I try to keep the posture choices and sequences fresh each time. Doing the same thing over and over, week to week, month to month can cause repetitive stress on some tissues. Meanwhile, neglected areas of the body (no modality offers a complete practice) will eventually complain from lack of attention.

Sequencing a Yin and Yang Practice

When we zoom down to the level of a single practice, there is much to consider in how you balance the yin and yang elements. As I mentioned above, this is a point of confusion for some and contention for others. I’ve heard from teachers that it’s not beneficial and perhaps even harmful to practice Yin postures after a vigorous practice. I’ve also heard others say the exact opposite, that it’s dangerous to do yang yoga after Yin Yoga. Still, others believe you should never mix the two.

In the earlier days of Yin Yoga, the recommendation was that to target the fascia, it was best to practice Yin poses before any yang exercise, so the muscles were “cold” and less likely to absorb the stretch. Sarah has since said that only very flexible people would notice a difference and that it doesn’t matter if your interest is in energy work or mindfulness. In fact, in recent years her sequences intermingle yin and yang poses.

The concerns about practicing Yin postures before yang movements likely come from recent studies that show that static stretching before vigorous activities may reduce performance. But the research is mixed. Even in the studies that show a reduction in performance, the percentages are small enough only to affect elite athletes that need a lot of strength or explosive power in their sports, which even a vigorous yoga practice doesn’t typically demand. After practicing several Yin poses in a row, I wonder if anyone would be in a mood for explosive movement anyway? Yin Yoga tends to cultivate a quiet inner atmosphere that usually carries over to whatever happens next.

There are no studies of Yin Yoga, but we do know that holding a tensile load (aka stretch) for a while causes the tissues to creep, or deform. The reformation of tissue after removing the load is referred to as recovery. We know that the longer you creep tissues, the longer it takes to recover. One study found that it took around an hour for they myofascia to recover after a 20-minute stretch. It is during this recovery time that the overall performance of our tissues declines by those few percentage points. It’s probably wise not to lift kettle bells after a 5 minute forward bend, but some cat-cows should be okay.

Energetic and Atmospheric Indicators

Chinese Woodcut depictuing acupuncture of the head, circa 1591. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Wellcome Images

Since physiological considerations are not a defining factor in how to sequence a yin-yang practice, what can we draw from? This is when I find the philosophy of yin and yang to be most helpful, particularly if I want my yoga practice to help me achieve equilibrium.

For me, the primary factor determining what and how I practice is energy, whether it’s my energy level or the energy around me. I usually practice in the morning, so it makes more sense for me to start quietly and work my way up to yang movements that get me going. If I practiced yin after yang in the morning, there is a good chance I’d head right back to bed.

The opposite happens at night. I discovered many years ago that my cut off point for a vigorous practice is around 6 pm. Otherwise, I will be up half the night from elevated energy. But a great way for me to wind down at the end of the day is a few sun salutations to massage out the aches and pains of sitting in chairs followed by some Yin poses to bring me down to Earth.

If I sneak in asana in the middle of the day, my mood or mental state tends to play a bigger role in what I choose to practice. Usually, I only go to the mat during the day when something is on my mind that I need to shake off. In other words, I draw from my mind-body toolbox to proactively address unhelpful mental chatter. I will do a short check-in meditation to see what’s below the surface, and then start my practice from there. I find that Yin Yoga poses bring me down from an emotional ledge, and yang sequences raise me up.

I also work with a Chinese Medicine doctor who gives me prescriptions based on the health of my Chi body. Sometimes he has me target specific meridians, so I’ll select Yin Yoga poses to access them. Other times when he tells me I need more heat, I’ll turn to more vigorous modalities.

The thread that runs through all of this is that there should be a “why” to what you’re doing. Are you targeting a geographical landmark in the body? Are you interested in cultivating presence? Are you healthy or getting over a bug? What time of day is it? What do you need to be ready for an hour from now? What have you been doing lately overall? What will bring you balance?

Every time you stand on your mat, the answers to these questions will be different. It’s not useful to add external rules that can prevent us from addressing our actual needs from moment to moment.

This can be frustrating advice when we seem hardwired to seek out steps and systems that tell us how to run our lives while eliminating ambiguity. Maybe we crave guidelines to be more efficient or because we lack confidence that we know what we need. I’m not sure. But when it comes to personal well-being, there is no one-size-fits-all method, and we need to dispense with the rules in favor of the spirit of inquiry and exploration.

Hi! I’m Jennifer O’Sullivan (Sati Yoga). I write about yoga, meditation, stress management, functional anatomy, and bit of this and that about living a healthy life. I teach yoga classes and workshops in the Washington, DC area, and you can find me online at Facebook or www.sati.yoga.
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