Restoring Yin

Posted on in Healthy Living by Mary Saunders

Reflecting on Our
Inner Rhythms


My friend Michelle lives a stressful life in the city, her days full of teaching, writing, and keeping up with an extensive social network. Now that the weather is turning, she seeks time for reflection as she leisurely walks her dog near her home in Brooklyn. “The world is burning around us. Migrants, refugees, typhoons, glacier melt, hurricanes, and desertification. But my mind of peace is the cool stillness, the pool in the middle of the fire,” she says. She finds the inner spaciousness she craves by moving slowly, allowing her dog to sniff and smell as much as he wants, and realizes she is happy, despite everything. In this ordinary moment Michelle is experiencing a perfect example of the traditional Oriental concept of yin and yang. The calming effects of feminine yin slowness and inner reflection balancing out the masculine yang fire of excessive activity in the world around her.

In Oriental medicine, health is understood as a state of balance, of harmonious relationship, between the yin and yang aspects of our being. Disease results when either of these forces is unbalanced, blocked, or stagnant. For example, good health demands that we balance yang activity and yin rest. This seems like common sense, yet the norm today is to lean into the masculine yang approach to life that moves us to constantly produce, strive, and build our businesses, our bodies, and our bank accounts. This is a worthwhile perspective, but in excess it leaves no room for the feminine yin that values receptivity, intuition, and simply being in relationship with our loved ones and with all of life. It is a law of nature that we live well only when the forces of yin and yang are both expressed and in harmony.

I have observed that, partially because of a culture that devalues a more yin, feminine relationship with life, women have distanced ourselves from nature, the body, and our inner knowing so effectively that we no longer remember how to access the common sense wisdom within us. We do not trust our own experience but look to others to tell us what only we can access within ourselves. This loss of connection to what is sacred and essential to our nature as women creates myriad forms of disease, physical as well as emotional, and has brought us to a way of living that in many cases no longer makes sense.

Central to the understanding of Oriental medicine is wu hsing, or the five phases of change. These phases are metaphors for elemental qualities of energy that are constantly in relationship to one another in nature and within us. Seasonally, the Metal phase is when we transition from the expansive yang energy of summer into the cooler, more inward yin energy of autumn.

However, this phase may manifest at any time in a person’s life due to a loss, an illness, or a longing for something that is calling them inward. The human body and psyche naturally respond to this time of contraction, and we retreat within to reflect on life’s happenings and our relationship to them.

For many of the women in my practice, inward reflection is unfamiliar, perhaps even scary and uncomfortable. We cannot overestimate how profoundly we are informed by cultural norms in this regard. Our yang, extroverted culture tells us to seek external stimulation and activity, to be always emotionally up and on. The seemingly solid ground of youth and outward expression are what this culture encourages and rewards, not the mature attitude of reflecting on the inner world. We may perceive our inwardness in the Metal phase as depression, when in reality we are simply following the natural movement of energy inward at this time.

Women resist the quiet spaciousness of inward reflection because we are afraid of what we may feel and come to know when we listen deeply to ourselves. Perhaps we will see that we have been avoiding an essential part of ourselves, or that we need to face the reality of a challenge at home, work, or in the world. We also believe, perhaps unconsciously, that there is something wrong or shameful about our feelings of sadness, loss, and longing or that they are “too much,” and we will be overwhelmed by them.

In reality, however, all of these feelings are natural and are essential aspects of our humanity. When we allow ourselves to experience them fully, we come into deeper relationship with the truth of who we are and can then move on with our lives, enriched by this knowing. Inner reflection increases our capacity to accept all of life, the sorrow as well as the joy, and to understand our connections, hopes, and needs. Sadness helps us be aware of our sensitivity and the part of us that cares deeply. When women are attentive to the rhythms of their inner landscape, they tell me that even though at times it may be painful, they feel stronger, more compassionate, and more fully themselves as a result.

In my coaching practice, I encourage women to use journaling as a powerful technique for inner reflection. In a quiet place where you will be undisturbed, close your eyes and breathe into your belly. Feel into yourself and simply write down your dreams and thoughts or use the following inquiries to get you started:

  • » What is most important to you now?
  • » What are the essential qualities you need to be fulfilled?
  • » What awakens the deep longing within you?
  • » What inspires you, and what do you love?
  • » What is your relationship to sadness and loss?
  • » What is your way to contribute and give back to the world?
  • » What behaviors and roles are you tired of? What do you need to let them go?

Writing frequently for even 10 minutes a day will keep the practice going and help you stay in touch with yourself. The writing doesn’t have to be pretty or nice—in fact, if it is, be suspicious! This is not the time to seek anyone’s approval or try to please; it is a time for honesty, awareness, and acceptance of what is true in your life. Your journal will be kept private, for your eyes only, so tell yourself the truth. You may be surprised by what is in there. When practiced regularly, journaling in this way will help you gain perspective and recognize patterns in yourself, eventually increasing your self-awareness and sense of your own wholeness.

With over 25 years of experience in Oriental medicine, Mary Saunders is a practitioner, educator, author, and coach who speaks from a place of direct experience.

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