You may have noticed Yin Yoga classes titled things such as Yin to revitalise the kidneys or Yin to release anger… and if you’ve never been introduced to the link between Yin Yoga and Traditional Chinese Medicine then it can easily be confusing.
And that’s where I come in. To introduce a little bit about TCM and how it can influence our yin practice – and how is best to use this information, if you want to at all.
What is Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)?
If I said Traditional Chinese Medicine to you, you may think of acupuncture or herbal medicine based on a shop window you’ve walked past. But TCM is thousands of years old and includes moxibustion, cupping, massage, herbal remedies and movement and concentration practices (think tai chi) alongside what we might know of it now.
TCM focuses on the flow of Qi (pronounced Chee), the vital force of life. The Tao (sometimes Dao) can be seen as the universe in balance and order – with any deviation from this seen as Yin and Yang. A symbol you probably know well. But Yin and Yang are extended to a range of things: Yin is the moon, night, female energy, slow and cold. Yang is the sun, the day, male energy, fast and hot.
Both are within us, and we tend to ebb and flow back and forth. It is only when we are unbalanced that can be negative.
Where do the organs come in?
Within TCM there is a model known as the Zang-Fu model of organs, that focuses on how we regulate our Qi. Each Zang organ has a corresponding Fu. In the same way each Yin organ has a Yang organ, and we often practice these together.
Yin organs: Heart, Lungs, Spleen, Liver, Kidneys
Yang organs: Small intestine, Large Intestine, Gallbladder, Bladder, Stomach
It’s important to note that sometimes the organs don’t quite equate to the anatomic organs, so they’re always capitalised. In TCM body functions are more important than the physical structures.
And the elements?
The five elements: Fire (Heart, Small Intestine), Earth (Spleen, Stomach), Metal (Lungs, Large Intestine), Water (Kidney, Bladder), Wood (Liver, Gallbladder).
Chi moves through channels, or meridians, which connect the body organs and functions. Sound familiar? This is often what we focus on in yin yoga classes. We’re trying to stimulate the Qi along these channels.
I am of course very much simplifying as those well versed in TCM study it for years!
Wait, I thought yoga originated in India – what’s the crossover?
Although geographically they may not have crossed paths yoga and TCM have a lot in common which is why they have intertwined in our modern yoga practice. Although poses were held for a long period of time in China (sometimes called Tao Yin) this was mostly as part of a martial arts practice originally. In fact this was the reason it was introduced in the West – Paulie Zink is often credited with putting together Yin Yoga as we know it (although it has been practiced for a long time in various iterations) and he was an American martial arts champion. He combined Tao and Hatha yoga in the 1970s, many many years after both were traditionally practiced.
- Meridians have been compared to the nadis from traditional yoga
- Qi and prana have been compared as different terms for our vital energy / life force
- Both practices use meditation as a way to balance the emotions and mind
- In Ayurveda there are points where life energy concentrates called marma points, these have been compared to acupressure points
- The Tao has been compared to Aum (as aa-uu-eemm)
So should I use TCM in my practice?
It’s important to remember that we only have a small insight into a deep and rich practice. And we shouldn’t use our practice to diagnose a blockage or issue, for example feeling tight in saddle pose shouldn’t be used to jump to the conclusion of a liver issue. Instead I would invite you to use it as another chance to turn attention inwards.
TCM is great for seeing where your energy is at, visualizing the Qi and structuring your practice around the seasons.
- Find what works for you – for some the idea of practicing with an elemental focus really works. Or to focus on one organ and sensations you may feel there. Or even thinking of stepping into your Yin energy…
- If you’re interested, find out more – don’t be afraid to seek out more information on Yin or TCM.
- Notice that yin becomes yang and yang to yin – we can always practice one flow in a yin or yang manner. Although Yin yoga often refers to long held postures we can still try and push in a Yang manner, or maybe we practice in a more flowy manner but with a yin intention.
- Take note – are any sensations arising in the body, do you feel energy energy movement.
The key thing is to use Yin exploratively, if you want to explore TCM treatments more then contact a specialist.
Know that whether we are super conscious of it or not the meridians will be stimulated. I’ve had students comment on feeling a buzz of energy flowing after a practice, or even one proclaiming they felt like they’d just had acupuncture (a personal highlight!). And that’s with a little blurb from me about TCM, not a whole lot of in depth info. It’s about whole body sensation, not necessarily what our brain can understand.
One of my favorite quotes from Dr. Karina Smith I think sums up the relationship between yoga and TCM well: “Yin yoga is not Chinese medicine but we are playing on the same playground”.