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Learning Yin and Yang

A basic understanding of Taoist philosophy can help us grasp how yoga affects the crucial tissues of the body, including muscles, bones, and connective tissue. This primer explains how to categorize those tissues as Yin or Yang.

By Paul Grilley

meditation

There is so much to say about the human body. For example, the thirtieth edition of Gray's Anatomy runs to nearly 1700 pages—and that is just a description of body parts! Textbooks on physiology easily go into the thousands of pages. But what is most immediately relevant to hatha yoga practitioners is a simple question: "How does my body move?" or, even more precisely, "Why does my body not move the way I want it to?"

The answer to this question begins with our joints. Although there are many tissues that form a joint—bone, muscle, tendon, ligament, synovial fluid, cartilage, fat, and sacks of fluid called bursae—it will be sufficient for our purpose to consider three of them here: muscle, connective tissue and bone. Each of these tissues has different elastic qualities and each responds differently to the stresses placed upon them by yoga postures. By learning to feel the differences between these three tissues, yogis can save themselves a great deal of frustration and possible injury.

Taoist Philosophy

Before embarking on the analysis of joint movement, let's take several steps back and reacquaint ourselves with the ancient Taoist conceptions of Yin and Yang. The concepts of Yin and Yang are tremendously helpful in clarifying not just how the tissues of the human body work but virtually every sphere of human thought and activity. If we take the time to learn the broader implications of Taoist thought, then we will be able to extend our explorations into pranayama and meditation using similar terms and ideas. In fact, we shall see that everything in the universe can be discussed in terms of Yin and Yang. And by making it a habit to describe things this way, we will learn to look past quick and easy, black and white answers and begin to see the interrelatedness of all things, even things seemingly opposite one another.

Empty or Full?

Taoism shares the same fundamental insight as Buddhism and Vedanta when it comes to analyzing the "things" of the Universe. This insight is that nothing exists in and of itself. A tree, for example, can't exist by itself. It needs air from the sky and water from the earth and light and heat from the sun. A tree could not exist without an earth to root in. The earth could not exist without a sun to draw life from. The sun could not exist without a space to be in. Nothing that exists is completely independent of everything else—not a tree, not a stone, and definitely not a human being.

Although Buddhists and Vedantists share the same insight about the interrelatedness of all things, they come to opposite conclusions in their conceptions of ultimate nature of all them. Buddhists say, "No things exist." Vedantists say, "All things are really just the One Thing."

The Buddhist says, "No 'things' exist because if we try to remove their coverings of earth, air, water, and light there is nothing left." The Vedantist says, "All 'things' are really just the 'One Thing' because all things arise from and dissolve into every other thing."

The conclusion of the Buddhist is "All things are Empty or Sunya." The conclusion of the Vedantist is "All things are Full or Purna."

But the Taoists say, "All things are 'Empty' and 'Full'."

Taoists say, "All 'things' exist as a contrast of opposites. We call these opposites Yin and Yang. We cannot conceive of these opposites independent of each other." A Taoist asks the question, "Which is more fundamental to create a room: the walls or the space inside?" Surely both the solid walls and the empty space are equally necessary to form a room. They define each other. Without walls, the space inside is part of all space and cannot be distinguished. Without the space inside, it would make no sense to call what remains walls because it would just be a solid block.

Taoists say that opposites define each other. The very words we use to describe things have no meaning without their opposites. The meaning of words like "big," "bright," and "hot" are defined by their opposites of "small," "dark," and "cold." Taoists refer to these opposing qualities as Yin and Yang. Here are a few examples of Yin and Yang:

The Yang of an object is everything perceived by the senses.
The Yin of an object is everything the hidden from the senses.
Yang things are bright, warm, soft, moving and changing.
Yin things are dark, cold, hard, solid and unchanging.
The epitome of Yang is a warm, bright, open hilltop.
The epitome of Yin is a cool, dark, hidden cave.
The sunny side of a hill is Yang, the shaded side is Yin.
Anything closer to Heaven is Yang.
Anything closer to Earth is Yin.

Everything is Relative

When we use the terms Yin and Yang, we must bear in mind that they are relative terms, not absolutes. We could say the walls of our room are Yin because they are solid and the space inside is Yang because it is empty. But we could also say the walls are Yang because they are directly perceived and the space is Yin because we cannot directly perceive it. Context is everything when using the words Yin and Yang.

When we use the terms Yin and Yang to describe how our bodies move, the context is the elasticity of the joints. Each of the three tissues Yogis need to consider when bending their joints varies in their elasticity. Each of them responds to the stress of Yoga postures differently. To teach and practice safely and effectively, we must to learn to exercise Yin tissues in a Yin way and Yang tissues in a Yang way. Bones are Yin, muscles are Yang and connective tissue lies between the two extremes. Understanding these differences is the foundation for the journey into anatomy that we will be taking over the coming year.

This article is part 1 of the 2-part Taoist Analysis series. Read part 2: The Three Tissues of the Body.

In the summer of 1979 Paul Grilley was inspired to study yoga after reading Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda.
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Reader Comments

Nyk Danu

Actually Tom the article is correct in description of Yin and Yang I think you have confused The Yin & Yang qualities in your mind.
There is a typo or mispelling of Śūnyatā ( Said like Shunyta) in this line: "The conclusion of the Buddhist is "All things are Empty or Sunya." The t is missing.

Nancy S. Hannah

I would like to read the other articles in this series, but can only find this one and the: Three Tissues of The Body. Where do I find more? Thanks

Tom Green

I think there may have been an error in the article that describes examples of Yin and Yang. "Yang things are bright, warm, soft, moving and changing." I think it's hard, solid and unchanging for Yang. Likewise, Yin things are soft, moving and changing.

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