A couple things have brought the yin yang symbol to my awareness recently. And naturally I have related it to fitness and overall well-being. Yin can be thought of as the negative and passive force and yang can be thought of as the positive and active force. Yin and Yang are also often referred to as the feminine and masculine symbols respectively. Neither is better than one another, and each have aspects of the other and that is what the dot in each side of the symbol represents.
I just finished a book called The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin, and if you are on any sort of journey of mastery I recommend it. The movie Searching for Bobby Fischer is based on the author, so you are getting insight into the mind of a chess prodigy. I enjoyed this book for many reasons. I enjoyed the philosophical approach to learning and competition, but also the fact that this kid was a prodigy (immense innate talent), but that that was only a part of the puzzle. Josh dedicated himself to his craft as a child to a degree not reachable by most adults in their lifetimes. By listening to his journey through the competitive world of chess you gain insight into how hard the elite really work, even when they are talented. But, hard-work isn’t necessarily going 100% all the time like we think.
I drew something else from this book I want to mention and then I’ll get back to the Yin and Yang.
Not only did the author rise to the top of the chess world, but he is also a multi-time world champion Martial Artist in Push Hands, which is the combat form of Tai Chi. By mastering the learning process of chess, he already had a huge advantage when he decided to set himself at competing in something else. Mastery in one thing, can also be thought of mastery of the learning process as well. So, since he was already a master learner, he was able to master Push Hands relatively quickly and compete and thrive on the world stage.
I use this as justification for the journey of health and fitness as a great starting point for people who want to change their lives for the better. Mastering your health and fitness is not easy, and will take a lot of hard work and dedication. But if you are able to sharpen yourself physically, you will undoubtedly be sharpening other aspects of yourself throughout the process such as will-power, mental focus, and commitment. By developing these skills through health and fitness you will be able to apply them to other areas of your life such as work, relationships, or whatever else you are into. I keep reading online that millennial are lost and have no identity or passion, well why not start with yourself. Why not make yourself your project and your passion.
Back to Yin and Yang.....
In The Art of Learning the author stresses that there are different ways to approach learning and competition. There is the brute force attack which is go, go, go. Naturally some people will be inclined to this approach, and I can count myself as part of this pack. This seems great on the surface, but this approach will often lead to unnecessary or unsustainable energy expenditure which can lead to burn-out. And sometimes these folks also miss the subtleties of learning or the game. This is a type-a approach, a yang approach, a masculine approach and the goal is to conquer.
The other way to learn is a softer approach, more focused on the experience, the journey, the beauty. This can be though of as the artistic approach, a yin approach, a feminine approach. The focus here might instead be discovery, enjoyment, growth.
We are conditioned in western society to believe that the former approach is the way to go, but those who have a balance of the two will be more successful in the long run. Hard-work only takes you so far, and if you are not enjoying what you do for reasons other than winning or PR’s or goals, then your success will be limited and you will always be chasing. When I think back to the best athletes (those who went on to play professional) I played with in lacrosse, all of them had a strong balance of yin and yang. It is like they conserved their yang for when it was needed and were smart enough not to waste it.
The other thing that brought the yin and yang to my brain space has been my yoga practise during my time in Byron Bay. I committed to practising Yin yoga 3x/week. So, this has been the most Yin yoga I have done in my life by a long shot at 270 minutes/week. I was lucky to end up in a studio with some instructors who were dedicated to teaching Yin, and had a great experience. Being a rather Yang person by nature, after my first few classes it became clear to me that I needed some more Yin in my life despite the efforts I had put forth towards being more Yin in the past couple years.
I experienced something that I learned later was quite common in Yin, but it initially caught me off guard. During the first 5-6 sessions, I found myself with a big lump in my throat, and sometimes even tears welling up in my eyes during certain poses. Not because of any physical pain or discomfort, but rather, by breaking through some physical tightness some emotional barriers were brought down as well. Things that I had bottled up in the past were finding their way to the surface and after class I was utterly exhausted and quite miserable. But, I stuck with it and after a few weeks I no longer felt emotions welling up, and caught myself smiling and sometimes holding in laughter. So, needless to say, I am sold on Yin yoga and these past two months of practise have been like mental and physical therapy.
To relate this yin yang business to fitness, one just has to think of how they are approaching their relationship with health and fitness. Of course there is benefit to the yang approach, but I think our society oversells it. You do not have to go 110% every time you exercise and nutritional habits can have some more lee-way as well. Health and Fitness isn’t some dragon that needs to be conquered. It is our natural state we simply need to return to. Believe it or not we were all made to be healthy and fit, but collectively as a society we have been led astray by comfort, pleasure, and convenience. But for whatever reason we keep marketing it as something nasty, when it isn't.
I had a client who was sending in her results during the first month always with a similar comment of something like “it was a struggle to go to the gym today”. This was troubling, because I am not in the business of fitness coaching to torture people, and do not like fitness being viewed as a chore or punishment because then it will never became normal or a habit. So, instead of taking the yang/drill sergeant approach, which would be framing the sessions as something to overcome or conquer, I attempted to help her re-frame her training sessions as something to be looked forward to and experienced. It is a privilege to get to take 90 minutes to take care of yourself, push yourself, and learn about your body and its limits.
The idea of fitness and healthy eating can be quite daunting if viewed as something to conquer or a dragon to be slayed. It doesn’t have to be that way. Health and Fitness can be enjoyed and experienced without timelines, scores, competitiveness, or even intensity. Taking a yin approach to fitness is a much more sustainable approach. Furthermore how you approach each training session should have a solid balance of yin and yang. Not everyday has to be better than yesterday despite what instagram tells you.
I tried a new mindset on a couple years ago when I decided to take a break from competing. The decision was quite simple on the surface, but it was deciding that I was fit enough (by my own estimation) and I was just going to enjoy where I was at. This was a yin approach to fitness. I still train, eat healthy, and all of that, but there is no pressure. I do it because I enjoy it, not because I am trying to win something. To my surprise, by deciding to just be, and experience where I was, rather than perpetually chasing something, my progress continued at a near similar pace anyway. After being so yang for so long, I was burnt out, and only after a couple years of a Yin approach to things am I starting to think I need a little Yang back in my life, and want to compete.
That was a bit all over the place, but I wanted to have some sort of reflection on my last night in Byron Bay and my main takeaway has been more Yin is needed out there and not just the yoga practise. I would say that as a location Byron Bay is the most Yin place I have been. Even the air feels softer here. I am hoping that what I was trying to convey was noticed. Our lifestyles are by nature very Yang. We are always focused on what is next, how to level up, how to make more, be more, have more, lift more, do more, etc. With lives so full of Yang, it isn't necessary to make all training sessions Yang as well. So, take notice of the Yin Yang balance in your life, and perhaps you will be able to identify some areas where you are being unnecessarily Yang. If you bring a little more Yin into your day you will find a great balance as a person and be healthier as a result. Sometimes you are already all you need to be, and the best thing you can do for yourself is to just relax.
Grit Human Performance