In Chinese philosophy, yin and yang refer to the complementary yet opposing forces that are both interconnected and interdependent and that together create all aspects of life. Just like a shadow cannot be created without light, both forces are necessary and must be in the correct balance. Yin energy is more passive, feminine, and cool, while the masculine energy of yang is active and heated; yin represents the acceptance of what is, while yang represents the activity of doing and our attempts to change ourselves and the world around us.
In terms of yoga, yin practices involve holding bodily positions that stretch and open deep, dense connective tissue and joints in the body for long periods of time (often several minutes). These poses often lead to discomfort physically and mentally, which is part of the point of the practice: to develop tolerance for discomfort and acceptance of what is. Yang practices are more active and include dynamic styles such as Ashtanga yoga, Hatha yoga, and Vinyasa yoga. Rather than emphasizing acceptance and surrender, they promote endurance, strength, and action.
Yin and yang is not a matter of which is better, but about how to incorporate both. There is power to be found in stillness and discomfort just as there is power to be found in vigorous challenge and disciplined execution. In fact, combining both styles is likely synergistic and better than either approach alone. A yoga practice that combines yin restorative energy and yang vinyasa energy is likely to be more well-rounded, mentally and physically.
Life is also best lived as a balance between accepting and acting. Too much yin energy leaves us open to letting life slip us by and being unprepared for the opportunities that present themselves. While it’s helpful to be easy-going and flexible, too much passivity can set people up to be lazy, unmotivated, and incorrectly believing they have minimal control over their lives. Too much yang energy can be equally problematic; passion is important, but if we cannot accept the things outside of our control, we struggle greatly to feel content and safe.
But, wait, can we really be too accepting? Yes! If acceptance is used as an excuse to lack effort and promote a narrative that what you do in your life does not affect any outcome, you will never reach your potential and are unlikely to feel positively about your life choices and situations. You’re also more likely to stay in negative situations and to condone poor treatment. Everything happens to you and you are powerless to change it. Mindlessly accepting our fate without any attempts to create a life for ourselves rarely works out for people; even lucky breaks generally require some degree of preparation for successful outcomes.
On the opposite side are those who believe they have more control than they have, who tend to blame themselves for things outside of their control, and who struggle to endorse an “it is what it is” approach to life events that warrant it. The benefits of their passion, energy, and drive are often counterbalanced by criticism, self-doubt, irritability, and lack of sleep. At times, we have to be able to acknowledge factors beyond our control and, even when we have some degree of control, to prioritize endeavors that are truly worth our time and energy. This process of prioritization allows us to focus our resources on meaningful and valued activities and helps to prevent the burnout associated with an over-active yang approach to life.
Check in with yourself: do you lean more towards the yin energy of acceptance and passivity or the yang energy of action and doing? To facilitate balance, would you benefit from shifting some energy towards acceptance-based processes, such as beginning a mindfulness practice or letting go of resentment for a past hurt? Or, would you benefit more from cultivating yang energy in your life, engaging in behaviors that are more focused on setting and achieving goals and asserting your impact on the world? Deliberately engaging in activities that are associated with your less preferred or less often utilized approach can help you achieve a balance of acceptance and action that facilitate well-being and maximize the chances for optimal success.