Updated: Sep 25
You might have heard of the yin-yang or seen it on every martial arts logo like ever. You might even have seen it on hippie vans from the 70s and photos of temples in Asia. But what is it, what does it mean and how is it relevant to your Tai Chi practice?
Yin-yang literally translates to "dark-bright." The symbol you are most likely familiar with is a modernized version. The ancient diagram was created from plotting the ends of the shadow cast on a sundial over the course of a year as the seasons changed and the days grew longer and shorter, brighter and dimmer, warmer and colder.
It represents an ancient philosophy about the duality of being and describes how seemingly opposing forces are sometimes interconnected, complimentary and interdependent. We may think of hot and cold for example as separate things that cannot coexist in the same space at the same time. In reality though, one gives rise to the other. They are two sides of the same coin. If the day is particularly hot the air rising off the heated earth creates a vacuum pulling in cool air from the ocean in the evening to displace the heat of the day. Thus the hotness contains in itself the seed for the coldness that is to follow.
We are used to seeing this symbol as a static diagram, but in reality it is always in motion. The little swirls are circling each other, constantly displacing one another in the position of dominance.
The yin-yang represents everything in existence. If you look at the diagram below you will start to get a better understanding of the meaning of the symbol. Inhalations are yang and so is your chest when your lungs are filled with air. Exhalations are yin and so are your lungs when they are completing the out breath. A punch is yang, rolling back from it is yin. Coiling your muscles before a move is yang but relaxing them after the expression is yin.
Yang initiates and exerts force, yin receives it and yields to it. A boulder falling into a lake is yang. The lake is yin before it receives the boulder. As the boulder hits the bottom of the lake and comes to stillness the lake is still rippling and sloshing from the impact. At this moment, the tumultuous lake is more yang than the settled boulder.
Once the water settles though, the lake is still the lake and the boulder is now part of the lake. The lake received the impact by absorbing it with submission. The surface of the water yielded to the impact and in doing so subdued it. Had the lake somehow been able to scramble water particles into some sort of hard crust to resist the impact we would simply have arrived at an impasse with a hard boulder sitting on a hard lake. This is the hidden lesson of yin-yang for Tai Chi and any other martial art for that matter. Often, it is better to meet force with submission and conserve our energy. (You might know this from every kung fu movie you have ever watched.) If someone strikes at you you can either stand your ground and get punched, or dodge the punch in a way that puts you in a more advantageous position to land your own blow when your opponent is off balance after throwing his. At this point you have changed your approach from yin (rolling back) to yang (striking).
But aside from push hands there isn't too much fighting that goes on in Tai Chi so how is the philosophy of yin-yang relevant to our everyday practice? Well, it helps us connect with our bodies and understand them better. It also helps us understand our form and movements better. It helps us find and toe that line between the two thus finding balance. If our posture is too relaxed, too soft, too yin then our movements lack structure and strength. If our posture is too yang our movements become rigid, stiff and robotic and Qi can't flow.
It also helps us connect our breath with our movements. Every movement in the form is either a contracting or expanding, either a coiling or releasing of tension, either a gathering of Qi or expression of it. If you start to understand which is more yin and which more yang then know where to place the in breath and out breath can be achieved without a teacher telling you when. Of course, these things aren't set in stone. Some moves can either be yang or yin depending on the intention and application, but starting to think about that will deepen your practice tremendously.
Yin-yang is also emptiness and fullness. It is knowing where your weight is, feeling the different qualities between the foot that is rooted firmly and unmovable and the one that is light and agile, ready for anything. It is feeling the exchange between them as your weight shifts, as yin turns into yang and vice versa. Think of Cloud Hands for example; if you don't allow yourself the time to slowly and methodically shift your weight from one foot to the other when your feet are close together then the movement will look unbalanced and jerky.
Balance is not a static thing. Yin-yang is never still. Sometimes we try to limit the interaction - like during standing meditation for example - but it is impossible to freeze the movement right at the point where it is most yang and hold it there since the moment we stop moving it automatically becomes more yin. It is the constant interchange between the two that is Tai Chi. In fact, the yin-yang is also called the Taiji, which is the more correct romanization for the Chinese symbols that we commonly translate to Tai Chi. So the yin-yang is Tai Chi and Tai Chi is a dance of opposites. It is also the self, the cosmos and the self moving through the cosmos.
There are so many layers to the philosophy of yin-yang that I can only really begin to scratch the surface in a post like this. I encourage you to do more research and keep learning. You can start with these amazing videos:
If you have questions or want to discuss this further I would love to hear from you in the comments.