Taoist Analysis: Getting familiar with Yin and Yang
By Paul Grilley
When analyzing the human body there are many things we could discuss. 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 “How does my body move?” or even more precisely “Why does my body not move the way I want it to?”
To answer this question we will look at our joints. There are many tissues that form a joint: bone, muscle, tendon, ligament, synovial fluid, cartilage, fat, and sacks of fluid called bursae. Sufficient to our purpose we need only consider three of them: 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.
Before embarking on the analysis of joint movement we are going to take several steps back and reacquaint ourselves with the ancient Taoist conceptions of Yin and Yang. The reason for this digression is that the concepts of Yin and Yang are tremendously helpful in clarifying not just the tissues of the human body 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 or white, answers and begin to see the interrelatedness of all things; even in things that are seemingly opposite to one another.
Empty or Full?
Taoism shares the same fundamental insight as Buddhism and Vedanta when it comes to analyzing the “things” or “nouns” 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 things. 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. These 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 going to be the elasticity of the joints. There are three tissues Yogis need to consider when bending their joints and each of them varies in their elasticity. Each of them responds to the stress of Yoga postures differently. We want 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. We will begin to elaborate these differences in the next article.
Author: Paul Grilley
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