This is the twenty-fifth in this series of 26 posts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that I am writing during the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016. You can find all the posts, as they are published throughout the month, by following the A-to-Z April 2016 tag.
Y is for Yin-Yang.
You have seen the symbol: two tadpoles, commas, or drops, called tomoe [TOE-moy], spiraling around and flowing into one another, one white (yin), one black (yang). Within each one is a spot of the opposite color. This yin-yang symbol is called a taijitu [tie-GEE-too]. Let’s explore the meaning of it.
Nothing is ever purely yin or entirely yang. The two are always in dynamic relationship. Even when something is mostly one, there is always a component of the other.
- Yin is feminine, earthly, rain, receptive, soft, free.
- Yang is masculine, heavenly, sun, assertive, hard, disciplined.
Yes, yes, I know. Try not to get plugged in about feminine and masculine. It irks me, too. But these qualities are not meant to be personified in women and men. They are cultural archetypes, ways of characterizing energies or concepts, that have been in use for ages. Think of them as convenient cosmological groupings, not as prescriptive rules for human behavior.
Some people speak of yin and yang separately, as if they were opposites, but they are complementary parts of a whole. Consider female and male. They are not in opposition. They do not invalidate or cancel each other out. Rather, each only makes sense in relation to the other. They join together to create life.
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“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.”
~ John Steinbeck
Travels with Charley: In Search of America
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We cannot go through life only breathing in, and never breathing out. Nothing is static. There is always movement, interplay, and balance between qualities. Daytime requires night, and up needs down. Without one, the other would be meaningless. Joy and sorrow, light and dark, north and south, water and fire, inside and outside.
Yin-yang in Aikido, and in life
In Aikido, whether we are practicing individual techniques, or responding freely to any attack our partner chooses, we will be expressing some quality or energy – a certain feel to our bodies and movements. We might be solidly grounded today, or we might be flowing and light. These energies might come up spontaneously as part of our innate nature, or because of the kind of day we’re having.
We might also elect to play with new energies intentionally, to see what’s available from each one. At one level, we can manifest a single quality, like clarity, grace, or expansiveness, and see how that affects us.
But sometimes Sensei gives us a bigger challenge. He incorporates seemingly opposite energies into his teachings. For instance, we might do techniques for a while embodying discipline (yang). Then we switch to performing our techniques with a sense of freedom (yin). Gradually, we mix these two energies together, and discover that not only can we be both disciplined and free on the mat, but that it improves our Aikido.
This is one of many lessons we can take out of the dojo and into our daily lives. Rather than being resolutely disciplined – serious, stern, and methodical – as a strategy for success in life, or determinedly free – capricious, flighty, and fun – as a way of expressing who we really are, what if we could combine the two? It’s not an either/or choice. We can be both, in a functional way that supports us more effectively than either one alone. Having just experienced that on the mat we are in a better position to bring it into other aspects of our life.
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“Freedom without discipline is foolish, discipline without freedom is insanity.”
~ Ilona Mialik
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Another pairing we have experimented with includes embodying a flowing energy, and also having a solid structure. Sensei uses the analogy of an aquaduct. Without the water in the channel there would just be a long concrete ditch. Without the walls confining the water there would just be a damaging flood. It takes both the flow and the structure – the inseparable yin-yang of the thing – for it to serve the purpose of an aquaduct. In Aikido and in life we can play with mixing flow and structure in a mature, balanced way that offers whole new possibilities.
It may be human nature, or possibly our culture, that causes us to see things as exclusively one way or another. But the concept of yin-yang reminds us that many of these seemingly opposite energies co-exist, and we can access both together, to our benefit. In the dojo we develop the ability to notice this as a possibility, and to gain some ease in working with these qualities. When we are able to apply this in our work, our relationships, and our daily way of being, we become more adaptable, functional, and balanced people.
Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, personal trainer, horse person (with a pet donkey), and former software/web industry professional (tech comm and UX). She is currently completing two books for students of Aikido, one for children and one for adult beginners. Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the first black belt rank, sho-dan. Sho-dan literally means “beginning rank.”