Thanks for all your thoughts on the subject. It certainly is a lot to think about. Sorry I haven’t been more clear about the reasons for my interest in the topic. I wanted to open the field for discussion before planting it, as it were. First, for those who may not have noticed, I am a woman, and as a woman who trains the chuan aspect almost exclusively with men, I have a particular interest in the advantages and disadvantages of yin in tai chi practice. I see and hear a lot about the yang side (the opposite of yin, not Yang family) even when training with men who are interested in learning to combine yin with yang. Its enough that I get confused now and then about what’s useful and what’s not with regard to yin. I’m not always sure where my instincts are right and where I should be doing things differently. So I wanted to open this discussion to learn from others and help clarify my own understanding. I certainly don't have all the answers either! In fact, it's sometimes easier to see from the outside (yang) than from the inside (yin) so I'm really enjoying everyone's posts!
Continuing our examination of yin in tai chi chuan, from Audi’s list perhaps we can say that yin is: stillness, calm, following, sinking, slow, curved, yielding, contracting, and soft. The items I left out were things I wasn’t sure how to categorize—I agree that they are halves of wholes and as such, part yin and part yang—I just wasn’t sure which was which. For more yin-yang polarities here’s a handy-dandy chart that I found with a Google search: http://www.yinyanghouse.com/chinesetheory/theory/theory-yinyang.html
So what does yin look like when it’s balanced and not in excess? I think it’s yielding without collapsing, responding without losing one’s center, connecting without clinging, absorbing without draining, compliance without conformity, stillness without stagnancy, calm without dullness, contracting without constriction, following without obsequiousness, slowness without torpor.
Yin in excess is seen more in women than in men, IMO, so I don’t really see these qualities in my male push hands partners. I list them because I sometimes see a tendency among heavily yang-oriented tai chi chuan enthusiasts to deride those who study for health and not the martial aspects (I’m not talking about anyone in particular). An imbalance is just an imbalance and is generally self-correcting through practice. Some of those who start practicing for “health only” just have an excess of yin that balances eventually and who later become devoted enthusiasts of the martial aspects as well. Tai chi chuan can strengthen those with an excess of yin, making timid people more courageous, just as it can tame those with an excess of yang, making angry people more peaceful and tolerant. Some start out too hard, and some start out too soft—but both sides are working towards the middle I’d like to see more tolerance, from both sides, for people practicing on both sides of the yin-yang divide.
I think this board is great, and I admire the balance of rigorous exploration and restraint that I see here. It really gives me something to aim for in my own practice. Thank you all.
<BLOCKQUOTE><font size="1" face="Verdana, Arial">quote:</font><HR><font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2"><B>
By the way, what about opening and closing? Which should be Yin, which should be Yang, and why? </B></font><HR></BLOCKQUOTE>
It seems to me that opening would be yang and closing would be yin—but opening and closing are very profound concepts that I haven’t explored or experienced very deeply yet. From my view on the surface, it seems like opening is yang because it’s an expansion. The qi expands outwards from the center (peng jin) and this opens the inside and expands the outside like a balloon being inflated. Closing seems yin because the qi is condensing, solidifying, retreating.
Although the quality of “openness” can be yin in the sense that “openness” has aspects of the tabula rasa (blank slate ready to be written on), welcome, beginners’ mind, and availability, I think that “opening” in tai chi refers to something different because it’s an opening out, an expansion…but now that I think about it, opening out is preparation for receiving in. One cannot receive without openness, and reception is a yin quality. What if we say that completely open is extreme yang and leads to/generates the yin aspect of receiving and closing inward? Yes, that makes sense to me.
I have to go back and read the full vs. empty thread again. I don’t remember what was said.
<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2"> I think that when Yin is insufficient, there is a tendency to solve every problem with more Yang, i.e., more strength and more movement. When your opponent unites Yin and Yang in Taiji, I think you get the feeling that more Yang will be of new use or even dangerous. At the other extreme, you get the feeling that doing less will leave you vulnerable. From this tension and the inability to adjust it, you get doubled up or “double weighted” and cede control to your opponent. </font>
Very true! I agree completely. Pushing with someone who has their yin and yang better balanced is frustrating because either way you lose. Too much yang and you get tossed or strain joints and muscles. Too much yin and you still get bowled over or twisted into a pretzel.
The following line reminds me why I opened this topic for discussion: “I think that when Yin is insufficient, there is a tendency to solve every problem with more Yang, i.e., more strength and more movement.” I feel like this discussion board has a pretty good balance of yin and yang, but I’ve seen other places that seem to have a greater focus on yang and often flare into flaming attacks. Conflict is part of life, and it’s good to know how to handle it well, but many people here seem to be working on how to balance conflict with peace, aggression with yielding, attack with retreat, judgment with compassion, etc. Basically, I see that people are working on balancing yin and yang.
I wanted to see what peoples’ opinions and experiences were about why yin is useful. After all, IMO, Americans live in a culture that tends towards yang excess. We don’t get to see yin (or yang really) operating in a healthy, balanced way very often unless we seek it. Tai chi chuan is one of the few places where yin is recognized as a useful part of the balanced equation.
But which parts are yin and which parts are yang? Even the original question is a little misleading: “Why is yin useful?” I think the concept of use and usefulness are yang ideas and that yin just IS. Yang _does_, yin _is_. If we can clarify which parts of tai chi chuan are yin and which parts are yang. That way we can better distinguish between the empty and full or yin and yang so we can pick and choose the appropriate response situations. For example, can we say that yin has the quality of being instead of becoming—that yin is “das Ding an sich,” Kant’s “thing-in-itself” that exists apart from all perception of it and thus, cannot be known? Can yin be known? Or can it only be experienced?
Audi and others with a philosophical bent, I wanted to look up “thing-in-itself” and found a fascinating article comparing Kant’s philosophy and Daoism and will probably write a little about it in a future post. It was “Kant’s Thing in itself, or the Tao of Konigsberg” by Martin Schonfeld, Florida Philosophical Review, Vol. 3, No. 1, 2003. I haven’t read Kant (that I remember). The essay is dense but worth it even though (caveat lector) it contains sentences like this: “First, Kant’s bifurcation arose from an epistemic context, separating it from ontological dualism, and second, his early and late ontology were emphatically monist.” So, if like me, you haven’t read much philosophy it can be a little rough going, but there’s enough to be had from context that you can skip any unfamiliar philosophical jargon. He’s connecting Kant’s ideas to what I’ve seen as the wuji to tai chi diagram and it has fascinating implications about yin and yang, force and fields, intention and manifestation. Here’s a link to it: http://www.cas.ucf.edu/philosophy/fpr/journals/volume3/issue1/schonfeld5.pdf
The Dao is marvelous and strange: I found the Kant essay after writing just about all of this post.
Audi, thanks for your description of the fist/elbow exercise. Definitely sounds like a good practical way for experiencing yin and yang at play. I’ll try it out this weekend.
Yuri and Audi, thanks so much for your translations and explanations. I think I’m starting to understand. “Form has its substance, while Qi has its capacity.” This is something like the yin-yang division of internal organs in TCM. The solid organs are yin (substantive, dense, storing, and transforming). The hollow organs are yang (they get filled to capacity with qi—transported, excreted, absorbed). I think in his fire metaphor the fire/qi is yang, and form or substance (like a chimney) is yin.
<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2"> When form is weak and Qi abundant, using them harms your life essence. When form is strong and Qi feeble, using them harms your spirit (with frustration). When this substance and this capacity match up together, Yin and Yang will be in equilibrium and (practice) methods can bring this spirit into use. </font>
<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2"> “Form being weak and Qi abundant” may refer to people who have deficient postures, but put forth great exertions. They are too Yang. An example would be someone speeding through a Taiji form with lots of Fajin with little understanding of the internal principles. Such practice risks straining the body and its systems (i.e., “Jing”). The spirit is willing, but the flesh weak. Capacity is developed, but the substance meant to contain it is not up to the demands. </font>
I think I can speak a little more about “Form weak and Qi abundant.” I agree with his description, and think that the over-use of Fajin will deplete a person’s life essence eventually, and the scenario above seems reasonable.
Having a weak form is something I struggle with myself, but not quite in the way Audi describes. The external elements of my form are not terrible, but I have internal structural problems with containing the qi generated by practice. To put it in context, I have MCS (multiple chemical sensitivity)—so basically, I’m allergic to everything and if I’m not careful I get depleted easily. It’s as though the boundaries of the body (the form) are weak, so everything gets in too easily (toxins, electromagnetic fields, other peoples’ emotions). The body tries to compensate by fighting everything and uses up its reserves, depleting the life essence. So for a time, tai chi practice made me feel more tired and not energized because I was increasing the abundance of Qi without being to hold it. My Qi would spill out and dissipate: thus, form feeble, and qi feeble too, not abundant.
IMO, MCS is a case of the form being too weak to contain the Qi, as though the body cannot hold what it has or what is generated. I’ve been working hard this year on the idea of containment, containers, using the Qi to build, repair, and augment the form and structure and I’m happy to report I’ve improved a lot. Tai chi and acupuncture have helped to the degree that I work a 40-hour week, practice tai chi every day, and rarely take allergy pills. I live a pretty normal life, unlike many who live with MCS, and I don’t have to live in a bubble like the character on the Northern Exposure TV show.
Forgive the personal narrative, I’m trying to relate how my experience with this has increased my understanding of yin in tai chi chuan practice. In spite of health problems, I’ve been practicing push hands regularly since 1999. Definitely a case of “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Because I’ve felt tired and weak for many years, I’ve been unable to use a great deal of force. Even when I was being stiff and resistant, I was still been too weak physically to overcome my opponents. Plus, I’m an Asian-American woman, so I wasn’t very tall to start out with. In fact, I am largely sedentary, except for tai chi, so I certainly didn’t have the muscles to wrestle with the guys!
I’m in better shape now, but my formative push hands years were spent being overly yin. Because of my physical condition, I had to develop more yin skills because, as they say, “Resistance is futile!” I was forced to learn to yield more quickly because I didn’t have the physical strength to resist incoming force. I learned to be fast because I couldn’t be strong. I had to be flexible because I couldn’t withstand a lot of force. I had to make the lower body solid because the upper body got pushed around a lot. I had to develop understanding energy and listening energy so that I could have an “early warning” system in place. It’s not my intention to be boastful. I’m just trying to lay out some examples of advantageous things that can be learned from a yin position of relative weakness. My skill level is still not high and I still get knocked over a lot—just not as much as before.
An excess of yin is just as much a push hands defect as an excess of yang, but it can be useful for exploring what _not_ to do, so one can find the middle ground between too much and not enough. Also, sometimes people with excess yang don’t know what it feels like to be yin, or it doesn’t feel safe so they don’t practice it. These exercises represent an excess of yin—so they really aren’t a good end goal because tai chi aims to combine soft and hard, and not only be soft. But they can be a good intermediate goal. Just like some people advocate training large circles in order to develop small circles, I’m suggesting training an excess of yin may be the “large circle” of gradually understanding the “small circle” of a more balanced yin. So here are some excess yin exercises to consider, but keep in mind these are NOT the goal of practice, NOT what’s meant by tai chi “softness.” I present them because if you haven’t experienced yin, these may be a doorway—and they’re funny too.
Excess yin training:
1)Practice as though you are a wet noodle, or convalescing from a long illness. This promotes the yielding, good timing, and whole body coordination since one arm will be too weak to repel an attack and thus the whole body is needed. You still need a little bit of pung jin to do this and can’t be completely like soft dofu (tofu), but reduce it to the bare minimum and this will help you notice if there are any places where you use pung jin to root and resist instead of responding instantly and flexibly.
2) Practice as though your opponent were a frail grandmother and just as slow. Then practice as if your opponent were a frail grandmother but fast and wily. This trains sticking and sensitivity so you can explore the fine gradations of force necessary to turn, change, and control the opponent—but without using excessive force or brutality. This will help train restraint and not over-committing. Some opponents are crafty and set traps for you, so when you over-commit to an attempt they can uproot you easily. This exercise helps you listen and retreat/respond quickly to avoid these traps.
<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2"> “Form being strong and Qi feeble” may refer to people who have adequate stamina and physique and perhaps good external postures, but who do nothing to rouse the Qi or exert themselves. They are too Yin: all root and no flowers or fruit. Such practice does nothing to increase capacity to a useful level. The flesh is strong, but the spirit unwilling. </font>
I think I know some people like this too. Sometimes the spirit is unwilling, but other times the spirit is willing but trapped and thus frustrated. For some people the form of their bodies can be good and solid, but they are so solid, and hold so well that the qi cannot move easily. It’s the opposite problem of the one I described. It’s more like the form is so strong and dense that it has overrun the channels—like a hardened artery. I can think of a couple of examples: 1) the couch potato who wants to be more active but cannot rouse enough qi to move and 2) the rigid person who has an excellent physique and hard body but who cannot unwind enough to let the qi move. Although the outside looks strong, if the inside cannot move this is also a kind of feebleness.
Well, this post has certainly gone on long enough! Sorry for my long-windedness (there’s that containment problem!). I swear I try to edit and just end up writing more.