A point that many authors and practitioners of Chinese Medicine often reiterate is that as qualities of change, Yin and Yang are in a constant process of controlling and balancing one another. A static, unchanging balance is never achieved. What is observed and assisted, however — both by the skilled yoga practitioner and practitioner of Chinese Medicine — is a smooth process of balancing
Everyday Sublime: Shedding Light on Yin Yoga and Meditation
Yin Yoga and meditation are refinements of awareness. The purpose of this podcast is to illuminate the theory and practice of Yin Yoga, Chinese Medicine, and meditation as three interwoven tools for apprehending the Everyday Sublime. As Stephen Batchelor says, "the mystical does not transcend the world, but saturates it."
By observing Yin and Yang dynamics both in the macrocosm and within the microcosm, the overarching intention was always one of promoting harmony. When honored, observed and respected, Yin and Yang describe processes of change that can be fluid, harmonious and balanced. Of course, if neglected or disregarded, the ceaseless process of change between Yin and Yang can break down and no longer be a smooth, harmonizing process of balance, but rather turn into a disruptive, chaotic, and jarring dynamic of imbalance.
Taoists observed how the play of cycles in Nature would manifest in parallel within their internal experience. Understanding and attuning to the world outside facilitated an ability to bring the internal microcosm into harmony with its world, and vice versa, where greater understanding of the microcosm – especially through meditative insight – supported this harmonization with the external environment or macrocosm.
A holistic approach to medicine will formulate a diagnosis of a patient’s condition by taking into consideration the complex dynamic of everything going on internally with that patient, as well as external influences of interpersonal relationship, work, and climate. Whereas a more conventional approach to medicine will try to identify a singular causative factor that generates illness and which needs to be eliminated or suppressed.
I find Aaron’s trios are the settings where his personality and voice shine brightest. In my interview Aaron, he talked about the depth of connection that forms between jazz musicians when they’ve played together for years and years and years, and it’s that level of connection and interpersonal knowing that facilitates the kind of expression and improvisation that is so charged and captivating. It’s that depth of familiarity which facilitates the sublime.
In a Yin approach to meditation, you encounter the raw materials of your life: sensations of the body, perceptions, ideas, thoughts, views, and opinions. And in coming to know these elements more directly, you can shape and make of them what you will. How you act, think, speak, work, and rest are all of one process that you examine and develop in the workshop of your meditation practice. You are both the artist and the creative subject.
What I’m about to suggest as a way of working with sleepiness will likely cause you to question my sanity. But, for me, and many that I’ve spoken to and worked with, allowing sleepiness to be, i.e. letting it go on, is the most effective strategy for working with it. And, in the context of this lesson, by doing so, you might find yourself inadvertently entering deep states of stillness by specifically not fighting sleepiness.
In contrast to more active and Yang ways of working with the hindrances, I’ve found it incredibly fruitful to adopt a more Yin approach. Rather than deploying any prescribed technique or strategy for dealing with them, I’ve found that bringing a relaxed, receptive, tolerant, and curious energy towards the hindrances is a really good first step. These qualities reframe the energy that my mind tends to have in approaching each hindrance. I’m not so much in attack mode any longer. I’m a bit softer and friendlier, encouraging a broader exploration of their energy.
In this Yin approach to meditation that I’m describing, when you dial back any effort to try and control your mind, you’re giving your mind space to explore things that it finds naturally engaging. For example, while relaxing and being receptive to your experience in meditation, you might find that you start to think about about a dynamic at work, or an unfinished project at home, or a disagreement with someone, or a holiday you’d like to take. In allowing your mind to get absorbed into these kinds of themes and topics, certain qualities of focus and calm – often listed in meditation texts – do start to come together.
The peace in the heart of these still states provides a balm to stress and anxiety. There is a profound relief and well-being that often accompanies these states. And frequently, when you experience them, there is a blooming of faith that something significant and important is developing in your meditation practice. And one of the truly wonderful aspects of a Yin approach to meditation is that internal stillness happens rather frequently on its own.
By committing to a fixed time, you will inevitably go through phases of calm, agitation, boredom, restlessness; periods of wondering when it will end, and possibly periods of time of not wanting it to end. And in sitting through all these experiences — riding these internal waves — you will start to get to know your inner world better.
When your mind is given permission to be receptive to the total spectrum of experience and to relax within that process — and to not try and push unpleasant things away — one of the things that relaxes is the resistance to conflict. I’m sure you’ve heard the old aphorism: “That which you resist, persists?” Well, it’s true in meditation, too. If you resist conflict, it tends to just push back and kick its heels in deeper. But if you are receptive and allowing of it, the conflict tends to shift and move, change and flow; it comes and goes more fluidly.
The general “mental posture” within a Yin approach to meditation is for your mind to be receptive and open to the full range of your inner experience. But with such an open-ended approach, it’s not uncommon for challenging emotions and themes to arise within your practice. I suggest handling these strong mental/emotional energies in the same manner that you might negotiate strong sensation in the body during a Yin Yoga posture.
In a Yin approach to meditation, the main emphasis is to develop a relaxed and receptive attitude towards the experiences you have while meditating — you’re not trying to control or overly manage those experiences; you’re developing gentleness and tolerance to yourself and the variety of experiences you have while meditating. To this point, my teacher, Jason Siff, sometimes defines meditation as this: “Meditation is what happens when you act upon the intention to meditate.” In other words, whatever happens while you attempt to meditate is the meditation.
When we look at different mental qualities, Yin qualities of mind tend to include traits like receptivity, allowance, yielding, tolerance, quiescence, reflection, passivity, or non-manipulation. Yang qualities of mind tend to involve traits like doing, manipulating, directing, improving, achieving, controlling, or becoming. From a Chinese perspective, both Yin and Yang qualities are essential. And the value in better understanding the relationship between Yin and Yang qualities is to promote balance and harmony between them.
Simply put, meditation is mental training, and a way to know yourself better. Meditation develops certain qualities of your mind. For thousands of years, this mental training was practiced within spiritual and religious communities, often requiring a fair amount of faith, belief, and superstition on behalf of the student. But now, there is a renaissance underway, ushering in new ways of practicing and thinking about meditation.
I often get the sense that when students come to a Yin Yoga class they want to feel good throughout the class, start to finish, particularly when it’s a class that seems on the surface to be “gentle” and “quiet” and “meditative”. And yet, that is not the average newcomer’s experience. At some point during the second or third pose of the sequence, newcomers often evince a grimace of distaste and concern. And this needs to be acknowledged.
All too frequently, someone says to me: “I love how Yin Yoga makes me feel… BUT, I couldn’t just do Yin Yoga.” Based on their expression as they say this, I can only assume they think they’ve caught me in some kind of gotcha moment, where they’re exposing a blind spot in my understanding of YinYoga. And much to their surprise, I respond, “Of course, you wouldn’t ONLY practice Yin Yoga. I would never suggest that.”
When it is time to come out of a Yin Posture, you may feel a pronounced disinclination to move quickly. Remember: the tissues in the area that you have targeted will be temporarily weakened as a result of the stresses placed upon them during the hold. As such, these targeted areas tend to feel delicate, fragile, vulnerable, and tender. So, because of these kinds of sensations, it’s a good idea to encourage students to also come out of the pose slowly. Or, as I like to cue, “Come out gingerly.”
The third principle of Yin Yoga is to stay still for relatively longer periods of time than you would in an active style of yoga practice, such as Ashtanga or Vinyasa Yoga. The question of how long you should hold the posture often surfaces. By now, you may be anticipating my answer. How long you should stay in a posture depends on a few factors: namely, the tolerance level and strength of the tissue being stressed, and the broader intention behind that stress.