Learning To Work With Yin and Yang To Help Your Yoga

As well as teaching yoga for many years Richard is also a practising acupuncturist and works with the concepts of Yin and Yang within the treatment room. He's also found they become a fantastically helpful prism for how we perceive life around us, including helping to manage our own wellbeing as we can’t escape the dynamic impact of these forces on every aspect of our lives – including our yoga practice.

Within the context of yoga we may only really come across the term ‘Yin’ with any great regularity, due to the style of yoga known as Yin Yoga, with less reference to Yang. So in this article I’m going to explain some of the benefits of getting to know the ins and outs of Yin and Yang and how it can benefit your practice, and your life.

Before we get into yoga detail, it’s essential that we grasp the concept of Yin and Yang as a whole to truly understand the inherent impact of these forces.

Firstly, the very fact that the sun shines down on the planet means we have this huge ‘Yang’ phase of uplifting, motivating and activating force, of heat and light, bearing down on us for roughly half the time, which catalyses movement in the life underneath it. We can obviously see this during the course of the day when the sun is present that we are more active, and also during spring and summer, when similarly with more Yang in the ascendency, we are also more active.

And for the other half of the time - when the planet’s relationship to the sun changes at night-time or in autumn and winter - the heat and light drops and the natural life under its influence goes back to rest. This is a ‘Yin’ phase of cooling and heading inwards, slowing down and becoming more passive. So thousands of years of evolution being part of this natural ecosystem means our bodies are also geared up to follow this flow of being ‘out’ and active and ‘in’ and resting, despite our cultural and societal tendencies to try and ignore or discount them!

When we are younger, we tend to be much better at flowing with this ‘in’ and ‘out’ movement but as we get older we tend to fall out of alignment. We are often overstimulated when we should be resting (think stress, laptops, phones, insufficient or poor quality sleep and eating late) and also too sedentary when we require movement (think sedentary work environments and general lack of exercise or positive motivation).

This means that as we get older we are often bucking this natural flow which is injurious to our health and wellness. Generally speaking most people in a western urban environment tend to be what we call chronically ‘Yin’ deficient after suffering from too much stimulation as detailed above, but also in many cases also physically ‘Yang’ deficient too. So sometimes not enough deep rest, sometimes not enough movement, which means either of these forces within us can become severely chronically compromised, but for some people it can actually be both yin and yang compromised, where the polarity between the two collapses with an over stimulated, but yet sedentary lifestyle. And Yoga can help us recover this! 

It’s important to note that yin and yang aren’t absolute, as they describe the characteristics of two things relative to one another. For example, England’s weather is yin (cooler) compared to France’s yang (hotter) weather. But France’s weather would be yin (cooler) compared to Mexico’s yang (hotter) weather. Or in a yogic sense, the Dru yoga I teach is yin (gentle and slow) compared to Ashtanga yoga’s (stronger and faster) yang. But the Dru I teach would be yang compared to Restorative yoga which is even more gentle and slow.

On the whole Yoga is of itself a relatively Yin practice compared to a lot of our other activities or exercise as the overall impact is to typically stimulate a relaxation response - but what we are discussing is how to fine tune our practice as there is also a lot of variance within styles.

For example, if someone is suffering from deep Yin deficiency, depleted, exhausted, burnt out, then a more ‘Yin’ style such as restorative, yin yoga or a slow paced Hatha class with lots of relaxation could be better suited than blasting out 60 mins of power or hot yoga (both relatively yang!) Conversely if someone has become stagnant through lack of movement, where the stagnancy itself can further contribute to feelings of lethargy, then a more active Yang yoga, such as vinyasa flow, Ashtanga, Sivananda or similar might be exactly what they need to clear the stasis. Please note it’s not possible for me to name all yoga styles here, there are also so many nowadays, but I’m trying to provide an overview to the energy and ‘feel’ of the class.

Counter Intuitive

The tricky bit is that what you think you need or want can often be counter-intuitive to what you actually need! For example a common pattern is that people who are actually yin deficient and overstimulated become physically and mentally restless (as the inner Yin which holds you at peace is depleted) and thus what they tend to do is push themselves into very active or strenuous practices as a way to try and ‘burn off’ the restlessness, feeling that by exhausting themselves further it has a sedative effect, but actually the overall impact of this can be further depletion. So what is actually needed is to find ways to substantiate the Yin with greater and deeper relaxation! But the difficulty is that it can feel confronting to take a slower practice when you feel restless, as you’ll be experiencing the mind jumping around and agitation in the body (which is why we seek something more active) but it’s actually the deep prolonged meditative connection with oneself that can resource the Yin.


And this is where we also start to move into the multi-dimensional nature of yoga practice – that by taking slower, even more inward practices with longer relaxations it can also bring you closer to your own inner voice, your ‘higher self’ which gives you direction but yet we often seek to avoid for many reasons! For example, perhaps your higher self witnesses you pushing yourself too hard at work on a daily basis and we seek to avoid its counsel by steering clear of slower practices which take us too close to its wisdom!

Similarly, if we take the opposite end of our spectrum, when we have become too sedentary, too stuck in our comfort zone we may avoid stronger practices that threaten to dislodge the inner stasis as they too bring us closer again to our inner voice of clarity. A good yoga practice that suits you will also clear your mind as well as benefit your body, and this is a courageous path as you build inner wisdom this way as well as facing challenges.

It’s important that we also recognise that a style can have a broad variance depending on the teacher, one Hatha class could be very different from another depending on the teacher’s own rhythm and cadence. I’m a particular fan of classes that are taught in a way where you genuinely feel you have a variance in how strongly you can engage depending on the feedback from your own body – and isn’t this what teachers often espouse, to look after yourself?

Consider Your Constitution

Putting aside the more general energetics of Yin and Yang, there is also a natural instinct to move towards classes which can support your own elemental constitution. For example, people who naturally have a lot more of what we call ‘Wood’ energy (typically of a strong and assertive disposition which can tend to rigidity at times) which relates to the Liver and Gall Bladder in the body would be drawn to stronger, more sinewy Yang practices such as Ashtanga or Vinyasa flow that really engage the ligaments and tendons - as they correspond to those organs functions.

If there is a lot of ‘Fire’ energy, (with a passionate, warm, spontaneous disposition concerned with matters of the Heart) connected to the Heart and Small Intestine the person would benefit from a really soothing Heartfelt practice, like Dru Yoga that I teach.

If there is a lot of ‘Water’ energy, (introspective and reflective disposition, liking time alone) associated with the Kidneys and Bladder then slower Yin or restorative practices could be preferred as they help you to go inside more deeply.

If there is a lot of ‘Metal’ energy, (disposed towards enjoying a sense of inner and outer space, and being clear about what is of value) associated with the Lungs and Large Intestine one may favour a practice with lots of breathwork such Kundalini which strongly stimulates these faculties.

And finally a person with lots of ‘Earth’ energy (disposed towards structure, stability and being comfortable, without excesses) associated with the Stomach and Spleen may enjoy a moderate practice like Hatha where your muscles nicely engage!

Pro - Tip!

Find out more about these constitutional types by exploring Chinese Medicine 5 Element theory or attending Yin Yoga, which is based on these principles.

So as we can see there are lots of potential variances towards why we may be better suited to one practice or another, but stripping away my words, what I’m also trying to encourage is to actually ‘get out of’ your head and really start to listen to the body, as it’s often our errant thoughts and belief systems about life, and even about yoga classes, that often lead us astray.

Yin and Yang in the Mind

And this brings us onto another layer of our Yin and Yang exploration, our own ‘inner’ experience of the practice. Relative to each other, the body is Yin, and the mind is Yang and becoming more conscious of the balance of these aspects of ourself during practice can be an excellent developmental tool since what we experience on the yoga mat is a slowed down and more rarefied version of what we experience in our life off the mat.

For example, if you tend to be too Yang, too in your thoughts, then what can happen when you go into an asana is that you are fixated on what you ‘think’ the asana ‘should’ be, or ‘should’ look like, and you override the signals of the body to achieve the mental fixation or objective that you have in mind – sometimes based on what you see around you also. If you have this tendency on the mat, you may also have this tendency in your life too, to ignore the signals of your body.

Conversely, if your inner world is too Yin, we tend to seek the comfort of the body too strongly and are not willing to push out and stretch ourselves into new perceptions of what we can achieve, instead clinging to our comfort zones, which again can be a tendency which can permeate your life.

The crucial thing is to maintain a healthy balance of both these aspects of self and yoga practice gives you the perfect laboratory - you perceive and open to what can be possible, and you listen to your body too! And remember the balance point between mind and body is the Heart, so tuning into its ultimate wisdom will stand you in good stead in yoga as of course in life!


- Remember if you are restless in mind and body and generally physically over-exerted then a slower, more deeply inward class which substantiates your Yin can be exactly what you need even if you don’t think it’s the case!

- Remember If you are chronically feeling lethargic (rather than fatigued) and too sedentary then a more active, Yang, class, (also taking care to build up gradually) can be beneficial.

- If your job is both too sedentary and also over-stimulating with too many desk bound hours behind a screen leaving you mentally wired but unfit, then having classes from both ends of the spectrum can be helpful. A slow deep yin practice that strongly activates ‘the relaxation response’ is recommended, but also a more strenuous, invigorating practice is also helpful to recover Yang and promote the health of the Musculo-skeletal system too.

- If you have space for more than one class per week, and you feel in good balance, then you can similarly try classes from opposite ends of the spectrum, but tailor them to the dynamics of your working week. For example have a more active class near the start of the week when energy is higher and to blow out any excess from the weekend, and also try a deeply relaxing Yin yoga, restorative or Dru yoga class, later in the week when you need to restore and recuperate!

- For more on the ‘relaxation response’ check out the work of Herbert Benson. He identified that when the body is deeply relaxed it has tremendous healing potential. It’s also worth noting that sometimes as little as 20 mins deep relaxation has been associated with an equivalent regenerative effect as 2-4hrs of sleep.

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For more information please feel free to visit Richard's site, or of course book on a programme and come and meet him in person! 

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