The Yin And Yang of exercise; and why both are important!
Thousands of years ago the ancient Daoists of China evolved a precise and uncomplicated language in which to explain the universe in dualistic terms. This is known as Yin yang theory. Yang is used to describe the outwardly visible, transient, moving aspects of life; represented by masculinity, light, the Spring and summer. Yin on the other hand manifests as those things which we don’t obviously notice, as the solid and dense aspects of life; represented by the dark and feminine, by the autumn and winter. Yin And Yang are ways of thinking about the world but as two sides to the same coin, making it important to understand that no one could exist without the other. Because without the darkness we would not recognise what is the light, as with night to day, The Sun to The Moon, and down to up.So too is it with exercise that we also have Yin or Yang like ways to use and move our bodies and minds.
Yang exercise can be exemplified as rhythmic, repetitive movement involving weight bearing on the bones that works with the Yang like components of the body such as the muscles and the blood. Just think of how much blood is pumping around your system after a good aerobic session. Most of what we in The West consider to be exercise is Yang like in nature and could be exemplified by activities such any aerobic exercise, weight lifting, or dynamic yoga practices such as Vinyasa and Ashtanga.
On the other hand exercising in a Yin like fashion involves long traction and stasis (stillness), which enables us to work into what are considered to be the Yin like body parts such as the Ligaments, tendons and Fascia. Yin like exercise comes in the form of many Eastern practices such as Qigong, Tai Chi and of course, Yin yoga!
We are all aware that when we go to the gym we put stress on our muscles that after changing out of our sweat drenched gym gear will make us stronger to one degree or another; think of the ‘no pain no gain’ mantra so often cited by muscle glad gym bods. This is kind of like temporarily breaking ourselves to then remake ourselves in to a hopefully new and improved more toned model. Of course in the case of overtraining, where someone doesn’t allow the magic rest periods to occur in which the muscle regeneration happens, this stress on the body can become injurious.
But what most people don’t realise is that our joints also need an appropriate amount of stress in order to remain healthy. The tissues that surround our joints regenerate when stressed just as our muscles do after a heavy session pumping iron at the gym. The difference being that our joints are considered ‘plastic tissues’ in comparison to their more ‘elastic’ muscular counterparts and should not be moved dynamically once the joint has reached its full range of motion (ROM) as this could be highly injurious to the joint in question. This is why in contrast to Yang like forms of exercise minimal movement is encouraged in a Yin yoga practice, where long sustained holds use time and gravity to work with the edges of your joints ROM. This amazing thing which we call the Human body has an incredible ability to heal itself by applying the safe and appropriate amount of stress to it depending on whether we’re working with our Yin or Yang tissues.
So why stress the joints? Well as we have seen, joints are subject to the same laws as the rest of the body. And just as muscles can atrophy through hours spent going from car, to desk, to sofa…so too can joints through lack of use and injury, both of which add towards their immobilisation. Just as with muscles, overly stressing the joint outside of its safe limits would lead to injury, which in the case of plastic tissues take way longer to heal than their elastic counterparts, so its fundamental that we use awareness when exercising the joints and take particular care to find that sweet spot; where the tension can be felt enough to stimulate the flow of Chi (energy) around the joint in turn hydrating it, but not pushing it to a point where these more brittle plastic tissues bite back with negative long lasting consequences.
Whether you’re a gymnast, a triathlete, a competitive sports player or simply enjoy a nice long walk on a Sunday afternoon, there’s no denying that including an element of Yin like exercises into your exercise regime will benefit both the short term and long term health and mobility of your joints; not to mention the countless physiological benefits that come from Yin like exercises. So like the little black dot within the white swirl of the white side of the Yin Yang, the key to a well rounded exercise programme is the regular existence of a little bit of yin within the yang. Balance is the key to the longevity of your sport of choice, whatever shape or form it might take on.