Untangling Yin, Yang, and Yoga
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | February 17, 2023
A consistent habit of the west has been to throw everything from Asia into a big pot and stir.
You can see this all the way back from Europeans’ first encounters with the mysterious east to the kitchari of stereotypes that persist today. The tendency to lump eastern cultures together and then project any kind of wacky, mystical, and/or salacious stuff onto them has been so common that Palestinian academic Edward Said coined a term for it, “Orientalism.”
The yoga world in the west has begun to unravel and examine some of its own orientalism and that’s positive – it’s important to acknowledge our lack of cultural awareness and/or tendency for cultural appropriation and replace it with respect, gratitude, and humility. Referring to the world wars, Carl Jung said:
“The European invasion of the East was an act of violence on a grand scale, and it has left us with the duty – noblesse oblige – of understanding the mind of the East. This is perhaps more necessary than we realize at present.”
The world is changing. People are more mobile than they once were. Cultures, spurred by geopolitics and climate change, are shifting and merging. So perhaps Jung’s words were prescient. Perhaps the need to understand is more urgent than we know.
In 1989 I moved to San Francisco and spent my free time studying acupressure, Chinese medicine, qi gong, and yoga. I learned about the concepts of yin and yang from the Tao Te Ching. According to Chinese philosophy, these opposite but interconnected forces permeate all things. They are receptive and active, soft and hard, dark and light, female and male – the pairs of opposites that ceaselessly morph into each other.
In 1991, I moved to Japan because I wanted to study shiatsu and meditation. But I soon realized Zen Buddhism wasn’t my jam and so I started to study yoga philosophy more seriously. I went to India and spent many months studying at different ashrams.
A few years after I came back to the states in 1995 and started teaching, I heard about a style called, “Yin Yoga.” Because I’d studied in India and had learned plenty of what could be labeled “yin” practices, I was a little confused as to why this new style emerged and why it was being called “yoga” when it was derived largely from Chinese philosophy and practice?
Perhaps the proponents were frustrated by westernized yoga because it was so…well, westernized. Mainstream western yoga was (and largely still is) primarily forceful, fitness-oriented, and fast and sweaty. Perhaps they wanted something different – something internal, slow moving, and meditative.
I took a few classes which were certainly slow and meditative. But, for me personally, they were a bit too intense – I’d even call them yang! For me, qi gong felt much more yin. It calmed my mind and nervous system, and also felt deeply introspective.
Of course everyone has their own preferences and I realize that many people absolutely love Yin yoga – which I honor and respect. It just wasn’t right for me. I also understood that the therapeutic concepts of yin and yang are situated in the tradition of Taoism and Chinese movement practices. For me, they make sense in terms of that model and those practices.
The Indian systems of Yoga Cikitsa (therapy) and Ayurveda have similar concepts to yin and yang. In Yoga Therapy the words Brmhana (nourishing) and Langhana (lightening) are used to help direct the practitioner to appropriate practices to support their constitution or condition.
A Brmhana practice may be a bit stronger and employ strengthening breathing ratios and postures and a Langhana practice may be a bit more focused on letting go and soothing the nervous system (it’s more complicated, but those are the basics).
Brmhana and Langhana are similar to Yang and Yin (at least therapeutically), but not equal, especially philosophically. They have different therapeutic applications because they are underpinned by different worldviews and mythologies. They are embedded in very different, ancient, complex, nuanced philosophies and practices.
Additionally, Indian philosophy has its own take on the pairs of opposites, but again, these are contextualized within different mythology and worldviews.
The thing is that Indian culture ≠ Chinese culture.
Westerners are quite familiar with the terms Yin and Yang, whereas Indian therapeutic yoga terms are almost completely unknown in the west. So it makes sense that the word “Yin” was used in the late 1970s to classify a more internal way (as opposed to a fitnessy way) of approaching asana practice.
We are living in times of seismic cultural shifts with dialectics are at play – synthesizing and catalyzing cultures perhaps more rapidly than ever before. At this time, when things are so crazy out there, we need all the wisdom we can get. And it can be beautiful to share and interweave these traditions. However, if you throw five spice and curry powder into your pot without learning the basics of each cooking theory and practice, you’ll lose the nuances of both.
There is great wisdom in all traditions – but can be helpful to understand the differences. It’s also culturally respectful to take the time to dive in to the complexities because, as Jung said, “this is perhaps more necessary than we realize at present.”
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Like always this blog is thought provoking. I guess my major small takeaway is about cooking Indian food without understanding the Ayurvedic system of healthcare behind it. This is so prevalent in how we ignore the origin of ancient cultural practices. As a yoga teacher I know a little about Ayurveda, but your insight is motivating me to go deeper and continue my studies of it. Thank you so much!
Well….couldn’t resist a chance to comment…..The yoga community has mis appropriated the term yin and confounded the whole discussion. How or why Grielly and Powers morphed Paulie Zinks’ original ideas around the subject indicate to me that they didn’t quite get the concept he was teaching. With respect. One explanation is that they dumbed it down……Hummm, they have ended up with a cliched stereotype of yin which as you point out can include an enormous amount of yang energy especially at the joints. Mixing and hybridizing can be a creative insightful practice that can bump us out of same same thinking. I agree, “Brmhana and Langhana are similar to Yang and Yin (at least therapeutically), but not equal.” IMHO, applying the basic energetics of yin/yang provides a solid foundation and model for a safe self-regulated physical practice, yoga or otherwise. You do this by recognising the change from one energy to the other, there is a neutral balance point between the two opposites involving a connection to centre, this is your reference for moving and a concept I have not come across in yoga circles. No cultural clash, just an internal individualised approach that respects the natural ebb and flow of movement and ensures a safe inclusive and accessible practice. I think it’s really practical.
I’m glad you commented because I know this is a special interest of yours. I didn’t realize that Paulie Zinks’ ideas had been twisted. I really appreciate your explanation about balance and this is similar to Krishnamacharya’s idea of finding samana in the practice. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and insight here!
I’ll follow up on Krishnamacharya’s idea of samana. I would’t use the word twisted, there is just 90% of his approach missing from my understanding.
Wow, yes. As someone who always thought of yoga as a holistic practice with both yin and Yang aspects I have been wondering about yin yoga. I had thought to write a blog myself when I saw this.
I guess I’m the West we started by extracting the physical yoga pierce and making it more’yang’ and then realised we needed the other bit too but now it’s sold separately.
More I see loads of ‘breathing courses ‘ for fitness people coming up and I’m wondering, is this pranayama? Will the next thing be ‘yoga breath’ under a new name and sold separately?
Yes, I agree Clare – please write about it! I wonder if you saw last week’s blog about breathing? https://subtleyoga.com/please-dont-put-the-breath-in-a-box/ I also wrote one questioning breathing courses here: https://subtleyoga.com/down-the-breathwork-certification-rabbit-hole/
I don’t have a whole lot to say except that “Yin” stuck in front of the work “Yoga” always confused me for the very reasons you named. So I have steered clear of it. Thanks for addressing this.
What a thought provoking post (as usual)! I never thought about the fact that Yin is an Asian word used in front of an Indian word. I appreciate your information about cultural awareness – which in turn helps me become more informed and thoughtful.
How about referring Yin Yoga to something like “Yin Mindful Movement”? What do you think? I don’t even like to call “Yoga” yoga anymore as it is so far removed from its original intention.
Thankyou ! I knew I was confused about Yin Yoga but hadn’t worked out why. I do now. The analogy of using curry powder along with five spice sums it up.
Thank you! I was feeling kinda happy about that one, LOL!
Yin Yoga has always been confusing to me. Your content above (as well as the thoughtful, educational comments) was my incentive to begin a deeper exploration into the history and it has already clarified some things. Also, a reminder to continue to be thoughtful with words as I lead classes while continuing my own learning journey. Forty plus years into my exploration of yoga, daily, I feel I’m always a beginner (in a good way), thank you!
That’s beautiful Lola, thank you for continuing such important teaching!!
Lola brings up one of the reasons I love yoga, I am always learning, as I did from this blog and comments.-thank you!