When I first tried Ashtanga yoga, I thought that with all its energy and impressive-looking moves, I was going to love it. I was wrong. It was a time in my life when I was working very hard at my job and running daily. My body was already exhausted and my competitive spirit meant I was just hurting myself by over-striving in the Ashtanga class. It was one yang activity too many for my already over-yanged self. In contrast, when I first tried Yin yoga, although my mind violently resisted the stillness, on some level, I intuitively knew it was exactly what I needed. I went back week after week for the next five years.
Years later I gave Ashtanga yoga another try. It was a completely different experience. It wasn’t the practice or the teacher,
but me. It was a time in my life where I was mentally and physically
more grounded, more yin balanced. I had given up running after enduring too many injuries
and I had the physical energy to enjoy the yang energy of Ashtanga. I
also had the mental balance to understand my own limitations and not let
my competitiveness overpower listening to my body.
Philosophy of Yin and Yang
Chinese philosophy states that all things have yin and yang polarities. Yin is feminine, dark, passive and deep; while yang is masculine, light, dynamic and superficial. Whether you buy into this way of understanding the universe or not, it can be an insightful model when considering how to work with and balance your energy.
The idea is that, although opposite, yin and yang are complementary. They are interconnected and interdependent. They provide the balance for one another. As individuals, we need both yin and yang energies. We want to feel energized without being overstimulated, and relaxed without feeling lethargic.
So, when you are feeling low in energy, it is worth considering which kind of energy you may be lacking. Is it a lack of restorative stillness that is missing from your life, or is your lifestyle low in activity and movement? Understanding this can help you to gauge how to work with your own energy in the moment.
Lacking in Yin
- Are you feeling exhausted and burnt out?
- Is your lifestyle very hectic and busy?
- Do you spend a lot of time traveling? (If so, you may want to read about Yoga for Your Travels.)
- Does your mind race when you try to sleep at night?
- Has your exercise regime caused you physical injuries?
If the answer to three or more of these is “yes,” it’s likely that you’re low in yin.
Lacking in Yang
- Do you feel tired and lethargic?
- Is your lifestyle very sedentary?
- Do you tend to stay in the same place, following the same routine?
- Do you have a tendency to nap a lot?
- Have you let your exercise routine slide?
If the answers to three or more of these is “yes,” chances are you need more yang in your life.
So, what can you do about these? How can you work better with your energy?
How to Cultivate More Yin
Ideally, you want to cultivate more stillness and quiet in your life. This can feel challenging when your mind is over-stimulated and racing, but carving out time for peace is important. Even just five minutes spent in meditation can make a huge difference. Yin is also associated with being in a state of receptivity, as opposed to giving. (Read more about meditation in How Do I Start Meditating?)
In yoga, seek out styles with longer, deeper holds of postures, as opposed to dynamic and flowing styles. Yin yoga is ideal, but Restorative yoga and gentle Hatha yoga can also play their part. (Learn more about Yin yoga in Yin Yoga: There is Power in Surrender.) Forward bends tend to be particularly soothing and calming for the body and mind, and twists can help you to wring out any tension.
Other activities that can cultivate more of this stillness and quiet are spending time in solitude, reading or journaling. You could also treat yourself to a massage, or get outside and soak in the beauty of nature.
How to Cultivate More Yang
What you want is an injection of activity and movement. Put on some uplifting music and take a dance break to boost your mood and energy level.
Choose styles of yoga that get you moving, such as Vinyasa, or Flow, yoga. (Here's A Vinyasa Sequence for Beginners to try out.) Find a teacher and a class that helps you to feel excited to practice. Backbends and inversions are particularly energizing. This is a great excuse to learn how to do a handstand and turn your world upside down!
When you’re feeling lethargic, it can be a challenge to motivate yourself to try more yang activities. This is where being sociable and placing yourself in settings where you can benefit from the energy of others is a great idea. Maybe that’s a dance class, or a running group, or even just getting together with friends to go on a hike together.
Assess Your Yin and Yang Balance
The key to working with our energy is to make an honest assessment of where we are right now. If there seems to be a lot of yin or yang, invite more of the opposite quality in. Sometimes this feels strange, as if we are going against our nature. (Learning about Accepting Discomfort can help you do this.) However, in time, and with practice, you learn that you can work best with your energy when you cultivate a balance of both qualities in your life.