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.”