This Thursday sees me running the first of my monthly ‘yin’ style yoga classes, with long-held, supported postures and a slow, meditative pace. This might seem a strange thing for a die-hard ashtangi to be doing, but I suppose that is the point of this post. We need both the yin and the yang. The more I ponder about life’s little conundrums, the more I find myself simply concluding ‘it’s all about the balance’. I can’t think of a single aspect of life where this isn’t the case and it shows through in our everyday language – ‘work-life balance’, ‘a balanced diet’, being a’well-balanced’ person. There is a natural tendency towards finding the equilibrium; that sweet spot of lightness and effortlessness.
I LOVE ashtanga yoga. It is a part of me, it has moulded me, honed me. It is familiar, warm and comforting like an old friend, yet endlessly challenging, intriguing and exciting. I love that there is always further to go, more subtle fruits to yield – it never stops. It’s humbling, and in its simple repetition, day in day out, it provides a platform to delve deep within ourselves and observe the daily changes to our mind and body – the practice becomes a personal laboratory of introspective investigation, allowing awareness to grow.
But sometimes ashtanga isn’t enough for me. Sometimes I need to really slow down and let my yin energy rise. The Chinese Taoists would have it that everything, including ourselves, is composed of yin and yang energy – they are two sides of the same coin, and the balance between them is always in flux but always seeking equilibrium. We all possess and need both, but some of us are naturally more pre-disposed to yin energy (feminine, soft, pliable) and some of us exhibit more yang tendencies (masculine, hard, competitive, full of drive), and understanding this about ourselves can help to bring us into balance.
For me, I feel strong affinities with both yin and yang energy and, before I had the self-awareness to recognise this about myself, I was often out of balance, swinging wildly between extremes of the two, but more usually suppressing my yin side. Eventually, in the frenetic ‘yang’ madness of university finals, I was drawn to yoga for the ‘something else’ that it offered; something that was as yet elusive but that I sensed I needed. A space to slow down, to suspend judgement, to soften. And then I found ashtanga yoga, which seemed to still offer that third dimension, but also satisfied my need for physical challenge.
Since then, on my ashtanga journey, the challenge has always been to keep the yang in check and foster the yin element. And, yes, it’s taken me almost 8 years to come to this point of awareness. Now, through emphasising the breath and mindful focus above the physical achievements, and not being drawn into always seeking the next pose, I’ve learnt to tap into ashtanga’s softer, yin side. And boy, it’s done me good.
This growing awareness that I need to top up on healthy doses of both energies has led me towards softer forms of yoga as a complement to the ashtanga. I’ve always enjoyed both dynamic and softer styles but have only recently realised how much I need both of them in my life. Over the last year or so I’ve devoured books by Donna Farhi and Sarah Powers (both quite ‘yin’ teachers) that would previously have left me cold. But now they really speak to me. And I’ve found I really enjoy teaching soft, slow classes as well as dynamic and challenging sessions. For me, there’s a balance in the combination. We all go through different phases in our lives and our yin-yang energy balance will always be in flux. And it’s our responsibility to recognise when it’s out of balance and make positive changes to address it, for our personal well-being. Adding occasional yin sessions into the mix, for me, improves the overall benefits of my yoga practice. Although the beauty and magic of ashtanga arises from the repetition of the sequences and commitment to regular practice, I’ve learnt not to berate myself if sometimes I substitute the traditional sequence for a slower, softer version without jump-throughs, or a completely different yin-style sequence, if that is what my body and mind are genuinely calling out for – the tricky thing is spotting when it’s genuine need or when it’s just the mind telling us stories to mask laziness! For those who often suffer from lack of motivation and low energy, ironically the more yang practices such as ashtanga are likely to be better for bringing you into balance, as your energy is likely to be a bit too yin-dominant.
For example, if I’m feeling fragile and sorry for myself then a fiery ashtanga second series practice might just lift me out of that mood. Or if I’m feeling a bit weary or under-the-weather then maybe I need to honour that and practise a slow, shortened primary series. Likewise, if I’m hyped up in a slightly anxious way then a sequence of calming yin postures and pranayama is probably best, but if I’m feeling jubilant and playful then a creative ashtanga session with some handstand practice at the end will probably make me feel great. And so on…
It’s all about knowing ourselves well and trusting our intuition, and yoga is a brilliant vehicle for this journey of self-awareness. It’s no coincidence that hatha (hatha yoga is the umbrella sanskrit term for all forms of yoga that emphasise the asana element) translates as sun (ha) and moon (tha), which coincides with the fiery sun-like yang energy and the liquid, moon-like yin energy. And yoga means ‘to yoke’ or ‘to join’, suggesting it’s all about bringing these two elements together, in balance.
Maybe one day I’ll find a way of satisfying both my yin and yang needs within the ashtanga system alone, through enhanced awareness and further development of pranayama and meditation practices. But, this is where I’m at for now and I’ve learnt to let go of expectations about where I think I ‘should’ be. The journey is always shifting course, and we just need to keep our eyes open to the changes that occur, through constant self-enquiry, and find ways to move past obstacles as they arise.
Does your yoga practice make you feel in balance? Does it leave you with a feeling of calm contentment or is there some niggle that might need investigating? It’s all about the balance… 😉