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Yin Yoga & Chinese Medicine: Be mindful of your language (Pt. 1)

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is an absolutely fascinating system of health. I remember my early days at University learning about Zang Fu organ theory and being completely ensconced with all the incredible new ways of thinking about the Liver, the Heart and the Kidneys to name but a few.

I see the same fascination in my students when I deliver the Chinese Medicine lectures in my yin yoga teacher training course. A lot of these students also expressed that learning about Chinese Medicine was one of the reasons they wanted to become a yin yoga teacher in the first place.

Even though Yin Yoga has not come from China in the way in which we practice it today, Chinese Medicine and Yin Yoga seem to have been woven together in way where you would be forgiven for thinking so.

Yin Yoga and Chinese Medicine

Many of my students are surprised to learn that the Yin Yoga postures have their roots in Hatha yoga (with lovely new name changes for the asanas) which means there has been a lot of Indian influence in this practice, as well as martial arts and daoism. It has quite a mixed bag of influences.

Influential ideas have been adopted from Daoism and the Chinese Medicine meridians and used as frameworks to explore the asanas.

Chinese Medicine for Yin Yoga

Chinese Medicine is not limited to acupuncture and herbal medicine, it is an entire way of living to prevent disease. Therefore diet, movement, breath, mental awareness and the application of acupuncture and herbs where needed, all form part of a beautiful system of preventative medicine.

This can present some issues in a yin yoga class, where we might be inadvertently suggesting with our language and conviction, that a yin yoga sequence that explores a particular meridian, could be equally therapeutic to the entire offerings of Chinese Medicine.

I often find myself wondering if it is irresponsible to be pitching yin yoga's healing potential in this way?

Within the yoga community we often share a common interest in health and well-being and want to learn about how we can take the best possible care of our bodies, minds and hearts. I had this same feeling when I was learning about some of the basics in Ayurveda when I did my first yoga teacher training.

When learning about Chinese medicine, especially Zang Fu organ theory, we are learning an entirely new way of considering the organs in the body; what kinds of emotions they are connected to, what kinds of functions they are said to perform within the network of the body, and what kinds of signs and symptoms can present if these organs are out of harmony.

Yin Yoga and Chinese Medicine Karina Smith

A lot of the fascination with learning about Chinese Medicine, is the inevitable self-diagnosing that happens along the way but when we only know a tiny amount of information about a vast system of medicine, we tend to grasp for possible connections and give them meaning in a cause and effect manner.

  • "The tip of my tongue is very red, does that mean I have heart fire?"

  • "I have a fuzzy head every morning when I wake up, does that mean I have damp?"

  • "My periods are always very painful, does that mean I have Liver Qi stagnation."

And for our Yin Yoga students:

  • "I get really angry doing dragons, I think there might be something wrong with my Liver"

  • "I find toe squat really painful, does that mean there is something wrong with my kidneys?"

Can you see how this can become problematic?

While it is really interesting to learn about these diagnostic tools, were have to remember that Chinese medicine is a holistic system that looks for many signs and symptoms in the body in order to draw a diagnostic conclusion.

In order to properly diagnose someone with heart fire, damp, or liver qi stagnation we ask a series of questions about all the systems in the body, we feel the pulse and we look at the tongue.

Whereas in the West, we have been conditioned by the medical industry (and our own desire for quick fixes when something feels uncomfortable) to have a very reductionist view about cause and effect. For example; "this health problem was caused by one single change I made in my diet", or "if I take this pill it will fix my pain" (I guess we do need to look at our relationship with taking analgesics when we are in pain and see how we have applied that to other issues in the bodies that we want resolved quickly and with one "thing").

We have not been conditioned to think holistically about health by our society.

This makes things a bit dicey when we start talking about an ancient medicinal system of health within the context of a movement class.

I often hear yin yoga teachers, all excited with their amazing new information about the body, reel off the functions of a TCM organ in class.

Let's keep using the liver as an example: it stores blood, it nourishes the eyes, it regulates the smooth flow of qi throughout the whole body, when it is not flowing well we can find ourselves irritated, frustrated or angry.

The enthusiastic yoga teacher may then proceed to guide people through the yoga sequence, with the unspoken assertion that by doing this sequence, that laundry list of liver functions will be improved.

Be careful of making reductionist connections between small pieces of information, as a yin yoga sequence that is designed around the pathway of the liver channel, will not necessarily have an impact on all the Chinese medicine functions of the liver.

For the student that has fatty liver, or high liver enzymes, or some other chronic illness involving the liver, they may come away from that class thinking that "doing a yin yoga liver sequence every day can cure their illness", which is highly unlikely and very misleading.

We need to be very careful, because some students have a tendency to catastrophise their health, or make negative connections between their felt experience and their organ health.

Even on YouTube classes and Facebook posts I see Yin Yoga teachers trying to make these connections. Even more concerning, I see posts from new yin yoga students who have serious health concerns; fibromyalgia, chronic nephritis, arthritis, cancer etc. asking "what yin yoga posture will help to heal my conditions?".

These are all genuine concerns, and may create a lot of unnecessary worry (which is not great for the health of our Spleen Qi), and is mostly caused by the fact that they don't know enough about Chinese medicine and are using what they do know from Western medicine to try and analyse their physical experience to determine if their health is ok.

It can be very confusing.

It becomes problematic to try and sprinkle ideas from the vastness of the Chinese medicine paradigm into a class, to try and make healing connections with the yoga postures, when perhaps that is not the connection between Chinese medicine and yin yoga at all!

I think as a community we need to be a little bit more responsible with how we deliver the practice without pitching it in prescriptive healing terms.

Any kind of absolute statement made in yoga classroom, in my opinion, could probably do with a bit more generality and inclusive exploration rather than fixed statements.

Kind of like when B.K.S Iyengar states in his classic "Light on Yoga" text that Ardha Chandrasana "cures gastric troubles", and that Jathara Parivartanasana is "good for reducing excess fat" and also that Marichyasana 3 "reduces splitting headaches, lumbago and hip pain."

With all due respect, we can't responsibly be making claims like this, or speaking in absolute terms about definite health outcomes from certain postures or sequences.

As a registered practitioner of Chinese Medicine now for almost 2 years, and after spending 5 years studying the medicine at University and with my mentors, I utilise the modalities of acupuncture and herbal medicine in my clinical practice.

I am also a Yin Yoga teacher and Yin Yoga educator and have been training Yin Yoga teachers for the past 3 years.

Whilst I acknowledge I am at the very beginning of my clinical career, and there is still so much more for me to learn from future clinical experience, with all that I have learned so far, I often feel very reluctant to talk directly about Chinese Medicine and acupuncture meridians in my Yin Yoga classes.

When I teach the Chinese Medicine component of my Yin Yoga teacher training, I always start with a disclaimer that it is perfectly fine if you never mention meridians in your Yin Yoga classes.

Because regardless of whether you speak to them or not, the meridians of the body will be stimulated, and if you create enough of a well rounded sequence (as opposed to a whole class dedicated only to hip openers), the whole channel system will receive an energetic flush anyway.

The number of Yin Yoga teachers that have also studied Chinese Medicine at tertiary level are few. Perhaps this is a case of "the more you know, the more you want to keep things simple", but I would rarely mention meridians in my classes at all because I didn't not want to confuse people about the health of their organs, or to possibly create an unreasonable expectation around what Yin Yoga can do for healing chronic illnesses.

Instead, I use a roundabout way of including meridian theory into the class by drawing on the seasonal, elemental and emotional concepts that can be associated with Zang Fu theory.

This creates a more conceptual frame-work for students to explore the practice, rather than saturating them with lots of new information and setting off any unnecessary alarms to do with their organ health.

Yin Yoga and Chinese Medicine Online Course
The Five Elements Wheel of Zang Fu Theory

For example, in a Bladder/Kidney sequence, I may make minimal reference to those organs, but I will create a concept for the class that "the breath is like a water moving through the body" (The Bladder and Kidneys are a pair that represent the water element), and I may use a lot of language that encourages the students to give themselves permission to rest and replenish their reserves (as the Kidneys are connected to Winter which in Chinese medicine is a time to replenish Yin, Blood, and Yang in order to have stores to draw from when Spring arrives).

I would not list off all of the functions of the Bladder and Kidney organs, as this will just get the student in their heads, and I am trying to help them get back into their bodies.

Yin Yoga is not Chinese medicine but we are playing on the same playground.

Both acupuncture and Yin Yoga are exploring the fascial network of the body.

The work of Helene Langevin has been extraordinary at helping us find this link between what is happening to superficial fascia during acupuncture and also when the tissue is being stretched. Here she explains some of her findings.

So, what exactly can stretching tissues do for the meridians of the body?

What is the connection between Yin Yoga and Meridians?

Stay tuned for Part 2 where I talk about my understanding of what meridians are, where they are, how they are affected by what we do, and how the practice of Yin Yoga can have an influence on the current of Qi running through the meridians. To get part 2 delivered to your inbox, don't forget to subscribe.

Karina x

Chinese Medicine for Yin Yoga Online Course

Photography by Anthony Shkraba, Rodnae Productions, via Pexels.


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