Living a Yin Life in a Yang World

There is this concept in eastern religions of yin and yang. It’s this idea of finding balance between two opposites: things like dark/light; work/rest; tense/release; hard/easy; do/be. And just like we understand that we need muscle pairs to, for example, lift our arm up and then bring our arm back down, these eastern knowledge traditions understand that there can be no dark without a light; no work without rest; no tension without release; no hard without easy; no doing if there is no space to simply be.

So much of what we’re taught in the west is about going faster, pushing harder, competing more, committing deeper. The Olympic moto is: ‘citius, altius, fortius’ which means ‘faster, higher, stronger’. It isn’t ‘more balanced, more grounded, more rooted’. and that has implications.

Almost a third of all injuries that children sustain come from sports, and a lot of this has to do with the way in which we train kids. For example, when our daughter did Taekwondo there was a huge emphasis on tight, sharp, hard movements; a drive to be faster and kick higher and to get stronger. In less than three years she sustained a broken wrist, a sprained wrist and two significant ankle ligament injuries, one of which required casting for more than twelve weeks and which continues to bother her a year after she ended her training. Although the program was great for her in many respects, this lack of awareness of the ‘both/and’ of training had significant repercussions.

And at least in our daily lives, we began to see in ourselves and in others that we were applying this same principle to the way that we work as well as the way that we work out. We realized that whenever things got intense, we would hunch our shoulders, clench our jaws and tighten up our backs and hips in a physiological response to our desire to try to make things happen with a report we were writing, or code we were trying to sort out or whatever other problem life had thrown our way. We even saw it happening when we were dealing with issues in our relationships – with our kids, with each other and with others in our community.

The problem was, we realized it wasn’t working. This tension without release, this work without rest was causing us to ‘injure out’ – both physically, mentally, emotionally and relationally – far too often, and with our busy lives that was simply not something we could afford to deal with. So we decided to see if there was another option.

Effort Vs. Effortless

So last summer, Trevor decided to take up a new martial art – Tai Chi. And one of the things we discovered is that there are some martial arts  where the goal – the strength – was meant to come from being soft and pliable rather than rigid and tight. This isn’t the same as floppy, lazy, or weak, but we discovered that it was the difference between effortless and effort.

Trevor also ran across a book called Chi Running. The basic premise of the book is that you can run faster and with less injury by letting gravity do the majority of the work of running – simply bringing your feet up behind you and then allowing them to fall naturally back to the ground directly under your centre of gravity. This, along with changes to breathing patterns and to how much tension you carry when you run alleviates strain on muscles, tendons and joints, allowing for increased training volume without injury and consequent speed and distance improvements over time.

It’s a bit counter-intuitive when you’re first getting started. But since my ‘engine that could’ is not really allowed to have a malfunction, we decided to give it a go! We’ve got to this point where we can run a race and we aren’t really doing very much for the first half of the distance. We’re not forcing things anymore – we’re just letting them flow.

If Trevor can keep talking and breathing – remembering to be gentle and easy and light and smooth – then before we know it we are within a few kilometres of the finish line and we can start to bring some effort, energy and ‘yang’ to it.

And we really start to see the difference when we finish the race. Trevor comes across the line and recovers quickly now, often wanting to go for a little jog again by the end of the day. The days of him limping around the house for a few days after a race, and wincing as he goes up and down the stairs are also gone – he hasn’t pushed his muscles to the point of pain or damaged slow-healing tendons or ligaments, and so he is able to continue along with life as if nothing had really happened – which is especially good on the nights I need him to carry me upstairs if I want to go to bed!

As an extra added bonus, we are discovering that training this way and racing this way actually increases our speed and distance capacity in ways that previous training techniques never did. And if that wasn’t enough, we’ve now realized that we need to have conversations with each other during training to keep in the zone – which means that training times are now catch up times, which in a busy household with two teenagers makes it about our best chance to connect all week! 🙂

The Paradox Expands

So we’re learning this incredible paradox: to run faster, we have to start by running slower. If we can’t have a conversation when we’re on our run, then we’re going to fast. While this is difficult to do in the running world, it can be even more difficult when we’re at work, or engaging with friends or whatever else we’re doing.

But that hasn’t stopped us from asking the questions. Like, what would it mean to find a way to relax at work with a tricky problem and simply let the solution come into being? To breathe and ask questions without trying to control the coaching session or meeting? To sit with the emotions of our teens and allow them to be them without trying to force a solution or a decision before they’re ready? What techniques and skills would we need to ground ourselves? How could we allow gravity (the natural momentum of the situation) to do more of the work? What would be equivalent to ‘having a conversation’ if we wanted to check if we were tensing up too much?

We don’t have all of the answers, but we have a few ideas:

  • Grounding ourselves in our values helps to prevent unnecessary contradictions which naturally create physical, mental, emotional and relational tension.
  • Practicing radical honesty – about the work that we do, about our capacity to do it, about what is our job and what is someone else’s – all contribute to increasing our agility and strength while helping us to relax instead of tense up.
  • Surrendering the responsibility to control – developing our respect and our trust in those around us – allows us to relax into the gravity of the situation.
  • Developing body awareness through practices like yoga so that we become more conscious of where we hold tension in our bodies, and then learning to tune in to that awareness and respond with simple strategies like deep belly breaths, short movement breaks or other conscious relaxation techniques can help to reorient us when we start to tense up.

We’d love to hear from you – what do you do to help yourself live more of a ‘yin’ life in a ‘yang’ world? And what impacts do you see that having in your life?

Photo by Dominik Vanyi on Unsplash




Trevor assumes there’s a way, but doesn’t know …

A reason that wisdom literature around the world seems to put a lot of value on rest, and on paradoxes like ‘you win by losing’ and ‘you overcome hate with love’

We see others pushing harder, but often dealing with injuries over the course of the long term. We also see them struggling to make the gains that they are hoping to make.

But when you run long and slow over time, you find you have much fewer injuries


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