“Why does my body not move the way I want it to?”
To answer this question we will look at our joints. There are many tissues that form a joint: bone, muscle, tendon, ligament, synovial fluid, cartilage, fat, and sacks of fluid called bursae. Sufficient to our purpose we need only consider three of them: Muscle, Connective Tissue and Bone. Each of these tissues has different elastic qualities and each responds differently to the stresses placed upon them by yin yoga practice. By learning to feel the differences between these three tissues Yogis can save themselves a great deal of frustration and possible injury.
We begin our analysis by classifying the three tissues according to quality. Muscle is soft; it is the most elastic, and mobile. So Muscle is the most Yang of the three. Bone is hard; it is the least elastic, the least pliable and is immobile. So Bone is the most Yin. Connective Tissue lies between the two extremes.
It is interesting to note that this classification of the Three Tissues remains the same when we examine them not by quality but by location. The muscles are the most external and exposed during yin yoga practice. They are Yang. The bones are the most internal, the least accessible. They are Yin. The connective tissue lies literally between the two.
Why bother with this analysis? Because Yang tissues should be exercised in a Yang way and Yin tissues should be exercised in Yin way. The characteristics of Yang exercise are rhythm and repetition. The characteristic of Yin exercise is prolonged stasis or stillness. We are all familiar with Yang exercises like running, swimming, and weight training. All of these activities are rhythmic. We alternate the contraction and relaxation of our muscles to run or swim or lift. It would be unproductive to just contract a muscle and hold it until it spasms. It would be equally unproductive to just let a muscle stay relaxed. Healthy muscle requires the rhythmic contraction and relaxation that Yang exercise provides. The rhythm is very important. Indeed, it could be said that it is rhythm that distinguishes exercise from simple manual labor.
Manual labor is rarely of the proper rhythm or of adequate repetition to make a person “feel good”. It is usually a haphazard mix of too much of some movements, not enough of others. This leaves us feeling sore and “kinked” at the end of our labors, not pleasantly perspired and relaxed, as with yin yoga practice. In cultures where long days of manual labor are unavoidable Human Beings have responded by making up “Work Songs” and soldiers have invented an endless variety of “Marching Songs”. The purpose of these songs is to create a rhythm to work to. Labor is still labor but it is made more palatable and less destructive by moving, singing and breathing with a rhythm.
Yang exercise is easy to define and identify. It is what we are all familiar with. By contrast Yin exercise seems a contradiction in terms. How can something that is gentle and static even be called “exercise”. One purpose of these articles is to expand our conception of exercise to be more inclusive. Yang exercise is not the only form of exercise.
The characteristic of yin yoga practice is stasis or stillness for long periods of time. Yin exercise has a rhythm but it is a much, much longer rhythm than Yang activities like running. A common misinterpretation of Yin stillness is “passive” or “inactive”. But this misconception is due to our cultural bias to muscular, Yang activities. If nothing were happening in Yin exercise then it would indeed be a contradiction in terms. But tissues are being stressed in proper Yin exercise, particularly connective tissue.
The most common example of Yin exercise is traction. If someone’s leg were broken it would not be beneficial to rhythmically pull on the injured area. But gentle, steady, continuous traction might be absolutely necessary for healthy recovery by using yin yoga practice.
An even more common and less dramatic example of the Yin principle of prolonged stasis is orthodontia; braces on our teeth. Teeth are bone anchored in more bone and yet even they respond to yin yoga practice that we call “braces”. Bone is the ultimate Yin tissue of the body. If we were to exercise our teeth in a Yang way it would be disastrous.
Imagine an enthusiastic body builder taking what she learned from the gym and applying it to her mouth. If she had decided she was going to straighten her crooked teeth by rhythmically wiggling them back and forth in multiple sets it would not be long before her teeth fell out. Yang tissues should be exercised in a Yang way and Yin tissues should be exercised in a Yin way.
We will finish this article with a reminder of the Taoist conceptions of Yin and Yang. When we analyze things we are comparing them to something else. There is no absolute Yin. There is no absolute Yang. If we recall the Tai Ji symbol of spiraling half circles of Black and White we must remember that there is a black dot within the white spiral and a white dot within the black. This is to remind us that when we use language such as “Yang is rhythmic but Yin is not.” that this is not absolutely true. Yin has a rhythm but it is much longer than Yang. Likewise it is not absolutely correct to say “Yang is active but Yin is not.” There is activity in Yin but it is of a different type. It can be tedious to be meticulously accurate in our speech. One of the great benefits of Yin/Yang terminology is that we can express ourselves in terse, memorable ways but always with the understanding that this is not the final word. Like poetry; a deeper analysis might be necessary for different purposes.
Paul Grilley: A well-known master of yin yoga, Paul brings a thorough grounding in Hatha and Ashtanga yoga as well as anatomy and kinesiology to his teaching, which integrates the Taoist yoga of martial arts master Paulie Zink and the Chinese meridian and acupuncture theories of Dr. Hiroshi Motoyama. Paul’s book, Yin Yoga: Principles and Practice, explains how yin yoga can teach us to relax, be patient, be quiet, and focus on the skeleton and its joints—a necessary counterpoint to today’s more ubiquitous muscular yoga.