Yin and Yang: An Eastern Perspective

“If Yin is a noun, then Yang is a verb, and life is a complete sentence.” – Between Heaven and Earth: A Guide To Chinese Medicine, pg. 52

We recently started a discussion about the Autonomic Nervous System and I explained the breakdown of the sympathetic nervous system versus the parasympathetic nervous system. That was all a Western/conventional/allopathic understanding; now let’s discuss the same concept from an Eastern/alternative/holistic perspective.

Having studied Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for the last few years, I’ve learned quite a bit about how they view the world in the East. It’s fascinating. One of the fundamental concepts in Chinese Medicine is that of yin and yang (pronounced “yong“). We’ve all seen the yin/yang symbol (see right), but I’ve noticed that most people don’t have a clue what it means. This newsletter will provide you with an introduction to these very concepts; the full theory behind yin and yang are much more complex and could easily fill an entire book, but I believe that this will be a good 101.
Yin and Yang are a way of viewing life. Simply explained, yin and yang provide a categorical way to approach the world. In Chinese tradition, everything can either be classified as “yin” or “yang”. Aspects of Yin would include Night, Darkness, The Moon, The Feminine, Stillness, Rest, Passivity, Slowness, Cold, Emptiness, Being, Introversion, while aspects of Yang would include Day, Light, The Sun, The Masculine, Movement, Activity, Action, Swiftness, Hot, Fullness, Doing, Extroversion. The white half of the symbol above represents the yang, while the black half represents yin; these two terms are labels that the Chinese use to explain phenomena ranging from weather to illness to people’s personalities and body types. In regards to yin and yang, Dr. Ruth Kidson says, “You can think of them in the same terms as right and left: Neither can be described without reference to the other, and yet as a pair they are totally understandable and useful concepts. Yin and yang each have their own qualities and, because these qualities are the opposite of each other, yin and yang must be in perfect balance within the body in order to maintain perfect health. An imbalance will cause malfunction in the same way that an object that is much larger and heavier on its right side than on its left may well topple over” (Acupuncture for Everyone, pg. 30).
As you can tell, yin and yang are opposites. What’s so cool about the circular yin/yang symbol, however, is that it demonstrates that yin turns into yang and yang turns into yin; it’s a constant cycle. We can see this easily in nature by the fact that daylight (yang) always transitions to nighttime (yin), which then eventually turns back into yang when the sun arises again. This concept of yin and yang always transitioning back to one another demonstrates perfect balance.
The ultimate goal of understanding yin and yang is so that we can strive for balance/harmony both in our bodies and in our lives as a whole. Now let’s bring it all together in an “East meets West” paradigm shift; as you may already be piecing together, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is a very yang system, while the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is very yin. Just like we talked about before, we want to find a balance between the SNS and the PNS. It’s no coincidence that the sympathetic nervous system narrows the blood vessels and increases heart rate and blood pressure, while the parasympathetic nervous system widens the blood vessels and decreases heart rate and blood pressure; they are perfect opposites, balancing each other and allowing the body the opportunity for equilibrium and homeostasis.
Did you catch that last part? The SNS (yang) and PNS (yin) exist to balance each other. There is a time and place for both yin and yang; one is not necessarily “better” than the other, but sometimes we Americans seem to get stuck in a yang state (the sympathetic). When we’re out of balance (too much yang, not enough yin), our bodies naturally seek yin experiences. For example, isn’t it interesting that we often become ill when we’re too yang/sympathetic/stressed, and that forces us to rest, which is yin? Our bodies are self-medicating. Another very interesting example of becoming more yin deals with weather. We are in the Winter months of 2013 right now. Winter=Yin. As the weather outside transitions to becoming more yin (i.e. it’s colder and darker than Summer, which is Yang), we are simultaneously becoming more yin in nature. Think about it, winter is a time of retreat, reflection, introspection, rest, slowing down, stillness, quiet, etc. These are all Yin qualities. (Maybe the cosmos affect us more than we give credit.)
So indeed, it’s all about finding balance between the SNS/yang and PNS/yin. How do we do this? As discussed last month, very few of us need to become more Yang; rather, our society needs to learn to become more Yin. This can be accomplished by…
  • Breathing. I think we’ve all experienced a moment of stress when we take a deep breath, drop our shoulders, and release the tension we were holding in our body. By focusing on our breath (aka meditating), we quickly enter our parasympathetic nervous system. I recently gave a public presentation on this topic of the autonomic nervous system and Chinese medicine and the first question during the Q&A was, “What would you recommend for me to do if I only have five minutes to get into the parasympathetic?” I recommended breathing exercises to him (consequently, my other two recommendations below both include breathing as an integral part). Follow the link above to read an article I wrote last year on meditation.
  • Doing yoga. Yoga is very interesting because there are so many different styles and flavors. Some of these forms (such as vinyasa, Bikram, and power yoga) are more yang, while others (such as hatha, restorative, and, yes, there is literally “yin yoga”) are more yin. This is what makes yoga such a cool system; however you are out of balance, you can find the solution in your yoga practice. If you’re doing yoga to become more yin, you want to slow down, go deep into each stretch, focus on your breathing, and let your time on the mat be relaxing and calming (yin yoga typically holds each pose for five mintues to achieve these goals).
  • Seeing me for a session. Let’s be honest: what about my treatments isn’t parasympathetic? A nice comfortable and warm table, ambient lighting, incense, essential oils, lit candles, warm towels, a heat lamp, relaxing music, touch, a listening ear. Similar to how yoga can be yang or yin, so can massage–a yang-style massage would incorporate stimulating, quick movements, while a yin-style massage would use slow, smooth strokes, with more stretching, deep breathing, etc. If you want a REALLY yin session with me, schedule a Raindrop, Thai Yoga Massage, or Craniosacral session. (Side Note: When was the last time you apologized to me for being too quiet during the session, falling asleep, drooling, your stomach gurgling, etc.? Listen up: these are all signs that you’re parasympathetic! There is nothing to apologize about!! This is what we want!)
I help you reach that parasympathetic/yin state of being by my work but then I go the necessary step further and teach you how to incorporate techniques and principles into your daily life that will help you reach that relaxed place throughout your normal routine. We discussed our culture’s seeming obsession (it’s an addiction, if we’re going to be honest) with living in the sympathetic (yang) last month, but the reality is that we’ve simultaneously created somewhat of a stigma around the parasympathetic (yin) in that being parasympathetic is often equated to being selfish; let me help you reframe this so you’ll no longer have resistance toward self-care. First, Leo F. Buscaglia said, “Be good to yourself, because without you the rest of us are without a source of many wonderful things.” Second, someone recently told me, “It is not selfish to refill your own cup so that you can pour into others.” And lastly, I was in a yoga class not long ago where the instructor said, “What we’re going to do today is not being selfish. We give and give and give to others. It’s constantly everyone else’s turn; now it is your turn.” It’s no coincidence that flight attendants instruct you in case of emergency to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others put on theirs. Being parasympathetic and taking care of ourselves is nearly synonymous; by practicing self-care, slowing down, becoming balanced/centered/present, and taking time to be parasympathetic/yin, we ultimately become more productive and helpful to the world around us, we experience more creativity and resilience in our lives, and we relate to our significant others, children, friends, and co-workers in a more positive manner. If that’s being “selfish”, sign me up!
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