Unless we make a conscious decision to extricate ourselves, we live in a yang world – smart phones, social media, email accounts, countless TV channels and increasingly aggressive and intrusive media techniques all vying for our attention.
Though we are given the sense that we are increasingly in control of our daily experience, our attention snaps from one object to the next, and often we can be so guided by the demands of others that we can lose sight of our own needs. The need to have space, the need to be quiet. The need to look within ourselves, rather than outside ourselves for contentment and happiness.
Yin is a quietly exploding force in the yoga world. A little known practice a few years ago, it is now inspiring many teachers to train and pass the teachings on. Teachers, who in some cases may have recognised their own yang nature or practice, and feel the need to counteract a sense of needing to put so much effort or striving into their approach. After all, ancient yogic texts mention very few yoga asanas as such. Where mentioned, they are mainly utilised as a way of opening up the body in preparation for the higher goal of meditation and Samadhi. Yin offers a modern meeting point between meditation and asana – a place of stillness and balance.
By contract, events in the world are often extremely out of balance – we are destroying our natural environment, fighting wars, there is injustice and aggression to be found all around us. Mark Boyle writes, ‘What we are doing to the world we do onto ourselves…we live in a culture where inexplicably punching someone on the street would provoke outrage, and rightly so; yet where the extirpation of a couple of hundred species every single week due to human activity barely raises and eyebrow. It’s time to resist, revolt, rewild’.
And it’s not only our approach to ecology and aggression to others that potentially sow the seeds for our downfall. The way we habitually treat ourselves can also be abusive. Inhaling tobacco smoke despite knowing it is likely to cause cancer, anorexia, excessive exercise causing major imbalances in the body, vicious self talk that we may not even be consciously aware of. Of course the way we treat our selves and our external world all stems from the thoughts that run through our minds.
Yin Yoga offers us an antidote to these pressures. An accessible allowing to simply slow down. As we hold postures for longer and simplify our thought processes through a meditative concentration on the breath and body, we begin to notice the imbalances we may seek to change, and research shows that empathy is increased by meditative practices – we are likely to become calmer and kinder towards others. Norman Blair writes, ‘What if we encountered each other with well wishing rather than judgement – helping others in everyday ways is a radical response to a culture that worships money and causes ‘individualistic atomisation’.
Also, we know that we hold our ‘issues in the tissues’. In order that we release our negative conditioning and patterns, we need to address these deep seated imbalances. Anxiety and Stress are a common complaint amongst those who work. This is unsurprising as many people work very long hours with rigorous demands made on them. Work tends to be yang (striving, acheiving, forcing); the qualities of yin (softening, accepting, feeling) are minimal parts of many people’s daily experience.
This yang lifestyle is likely to catch up at some point by potentially making us too ill/stressed to work. Norman Blair writes that this is the ‘Age of Speed’….‘The crack cocaine of capitalism with its instant hits requiring continual restimulation comes at prodigious cost to people and planet. Social structures are unsustainable; we are living an Easter island on a global scale’.
Yet despite our society at large’s greatest efforts to maintain the Yang lifestyle, there comes a point where balance must be restored, where too much yang will transform into yin. Our treatment of the environment at present predicts potential apocalyptic outcomes at some point. Though this would be devastating to all living creatures, in terms of the yin/yang balance of planet earth, it makes sense – the universe will restore balance if it moves wildly off course. This is the way of Dao, which lies at the heart of Yin philosophy. The Dao is ‘impersonalised as a benevolent but disinterested power: the way of the universe. Live in harmony with the way and you will benefit. Struggle against the way things are and you will suffer’ (Bernie Clarke).
Our lives have a contrast of good and bad times – the scales of life tip one way and then the other. The ancient Chinese called the middle ground the Dao. When we move away from the Dao we become more yin or more yang and yet the centre is always there for us to return to. Most forms of yoga today are yang, which are designed to work the muscular half of the body. Yin allows us to work the other half – the ligaments, joints, deep fascial networks and bones. Yin is yielding, allowing and nourishing and even in a sweaty yang practice we can adopt a yin sensitivity.
Modern yoga has sprung from many different styles of yoga, and in general is a long way from the earliest records of yogis in ancient India, said to be mythical beings with powers that could transcend this physical realm. Today the focus on yang practices offers a tangible way to enter the practice of yoga. Many of us start yoga to stay in shape or feel less stressed and as we focus on the shape our body makes in the postures, we begin to cultivate our focus and awareness and purify our bodies. As a practice of yoga evolves, most students become more interested in what is more hidden. This more hidden or subtle aspect of reality is called Yin.
Bernie Clarke describes the history of Yin well, “Modern Yoga has its roots in Eastern mysticism, has been fertilised by nineteenth century gymnastics and wrestling, and has been shaped by Western sensibilities…today we practice Western Yoga for the benefits Westerners desire’.
Yoga has been around for thousands of years, there seem to be various claims of when that was, Bernie Clarke suggests 4000+ years. Hatha blossomed around the 10th century and its intention was to prepare the body for the more advanced yoga practices of meditation and insight. Hatha grew out of the Tantra style, which drew from the Classical Yoga style of 2000 years ago.
Whatever names we choose to give things, the ancient practice of calming the mind and developing deeper insight involved sitting for long period of time and is a yin exercise. ‘Yin’ can be found in the oldest medical book, ‘The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine’ – 2nd Century BCE. In the ancient spiritual books of India – The Vedas - asana are not mentioned at all. However by the end of the 19th century, Krishnamacharya claimed to know 3000 postures and the era of yang yoga was with us. Yin like postures didn’t disappear, Iyengar said you should hold some poses for 10 – 15 mins, though the word Yin wasn’t used.
Going back further, 10,000 years ago throughout all cultures shamans were often powerful forces within their communities, and their traditions evolved into yogic practices. Over centuries, knowledge spread out and was shared between cultures. The concept of spirit (breath) in Europe had is counterpart of prana (breath) in India. In China, this same energy was known as Chi.
Yin has its roots also in Alchemical Daoism. This form of Daoism saw yogis seeking to become physically immortal. To achieve this they needed to become extremely healthy. To do this you had to conserve your energy – Jing, Chi and Shen. As these energies leak out illness is caused and ultimately death. Through alchemical practice, our original stores of energy can be rebuilt. To unify yin and yang we must remove all blockages that exist in the body so the energies can unite in the three caudrons – tan – t’ien.
The Daoist practices include both yin and yang form of exercise – Tai Chi/Ch’i-kung. Earliest forms of Daoist exercises were developed after carefully observing animals in nature – they move naturally, spontaneously and in harmony with the Dao. The thinking is that if we copy their movements we can gain the same connection to the Dao that they have.
Around the turn of the nineteenth century a prisoner in solitary confinement for 8 years spent his time studying the movement of the monkeys he could see from his cell. He created a form of martial arts called Tai Shing Men (Monkey Kung Fu). A student called Cho Chat Ling learned his style and then brought it to California. Paulie Zink then picked up Monkey Kung Fu and in 1987 Paul Grilley was amazed by his extremely graceful and flexible movement when he saw him on TV. Paulie then taught Paul Daoist Yoga. Paul was struck by how long postures were held for. Paulie would focus on explorations of the 5 elements and incorporate movement of animals.
Paul Grilley had a strong anatomy background and his practice was very yang – Ashtanga/Bikram. He has helped the yoga world accept that our anatomical structure greatly affects whether we are able to come into poses or not. He was greatly influenced by Dr Motoyama’s investigations into the meridians and his scientific experiments demonstrating the effect on our whole body and energy system from yoga. So Paul combined his knowledge of anatomy, Daoist Yoga and meridian theory and this became his core of Yin Yoga.
Sarah Powers was a student of Paul’s who loved Daoist Yoga. She decided to share what she knew about yin alongside her yang classes. She began calling vinyasa ‘yang’ and long holds on the floor ‘yin’. Paul renamed his book “Yin Yoga’. She began to include Buddhist mindfulness into her style. ‘Sarah feels that enlivening the physical and pranic bodies, as well as learning to open our emotional difficulties is paramount for preparing one to deepen and nourish insights into one’s essential nature’. Her style is called “Insight Yoga’ which interweaves Yin/Yang.
So Yin yoga has deep roots, yet is a new practice on the block in the yoga world. Its popularity seems to be a direct reflection of our state of mind in the Western World. Despite the fact that living conditions for many have immeasurable improved in the last 50 years, many of us are still not happy. The job/mortgage/ comfortable life dream hasn’t lived up to what it was presented to be for many of us, or is entirely unobtainable for others. Thomas Piketty says ‘capitalism is reverting to the Downton Abbey world of a century ago’, with inequalities soaring. Naomi Klein talks about ‘extractivist capitalism’ – the habitual attitude in the West on constantly desiring and plundering the earth/communities without being able to be fulfilled.
As this all takes place, our sense of connection with others can lessen. We operate more as separate entities rather than working together. Norman Blair talks of how we need to nourish ourselves to be able to connect well with others…’ – ‘For us to connect to other – the experience of community – we have to healthily connect to self…we are a prozac nation numbing ourselves rather than dealing with raw emotions of living – despair, hope ,fear, joy’.
Yoga is about transforming our perception of the world. ‘A kindness to others softens the centralising of self. Instead of reinforcing our individual castles, digging deeper moats and building higher walls, we realise that an opposite of fear is trust – trusting ourselves and trusting other people. These are good foundations’ (Norman Blair). As we cultivate a deeper awareness we come to appreciate this precious life life that we have been gifted.
Norman Blair offers a great summary of the benefits Yin may be able to offer us. ‘The yin practices with their calming and cooling, with their surrendering and slowing; maybe they can help us in resolving some of our unease. This is definitely not a magic wand: practising yin will not necessarily solve situations. But it could help us be more grounded, more able to allow and accept what is happening. More alert to constructively and creatively engage with life, more equipped to skilfully refuse and resist injustice and inequality’.
When one practices Yin or comes to deep states of connection and peace, we can begin to understand how different the world would be if these practices were more commonplace. The explosion of this calming practice amongst the burgeoning yoga scene worldwide is a very positive and promising step on the path of greater harmony and peace.