Reflections on the Yin and Yang of Exercise

One of the most fundamental concepts in Chinese medicine is that of Yin and Yang, and I was struck by how this concept can be applied to exercise as well.

Yin and Yang are two complementary and yet opposing conditions that are used to describe the nature of anything ranging from food, to the imbalances causing disease, to the changing of the seasons. As it pertains to the body, Yin is often considered the more structural and material expression of anatomy, while Yang is considered the metabolic and functional aspect of physiology. Alternatively, Yin would be considered the dark, cooling, resting state in contrast to Yang, the light, heating and active phase.

It occurred to me that most forms of exercise practiced in the west are very Yang in nature. Whether it is cardiovascular or strength training, we are interested in burning calories, increasing our heart rate, breaking a sweat and shedding fat. In contrast, a lot of eastern practices are much more Yin in nature: Yoga and Tai Qi for instance, are focused on building Qi, conserving energy, stretching and slowing things down.

Even though we may think these two forms of physical movement are at opposite ends, I think that ideally we need to incorporate both styles. Part of the theory of Yin and Yang is that both states are completely dependent on each other and that one creates the other. They are inseparable and can be considered as two sides of the same coin: when the predominance of Yin decreases, so Yang increases and vice versa.  In the realm of exercise, the Yang style of cardiovascular, sweat-inducing, high energy exercise leads to increasing and strengthening muscle tissue and physical capacity (Yin). On the other hand, the Yin style of quiet, nurturing movement leads to increased levels of energy and mental alertness (Yang). Even when considering the Yang style of exercise, we know that after an intense work out, there must be time to rest and recuperate. And once the restorative practice of Yin exercise is completed it is time to get back to the demands of our day.

I think that there is a western perception that ‘real exercise’ must be all Yang and requires exertion and physical strain. This is reflected in the fact that in the west, some forms of restorative Yin type exercise have been adapted to be much more vigorous, contributing to the popularity of styles like ‘power yoga’. The idea, ‘no pain, no gain’ is another example of our ideas about ‘real exercise’ having to be very Yang, but this notion in particular, can be very harmful and lead to many injuries: people don’t give themselves enough time to rest and recover (Yin) between work outs, and end up with strains, tears, repetitive strain injuries or inflammation. To protect our body from such injuries, we need to incorporate at least some Yin style exercise.  Ideally both forms of movement should be incorporated to maintain the balance of Yin and Yang and by extension our health.

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