As we seek to obtain health, both physically and mentally, we can look to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and their concept of Yin and Yang for guidance.
The terms Yin and Yang are used to describe two opposite qualities of things we observe both inside ourselves and in the environment around us. These “things” can be both physical like objects, as well as activities and emotions. Yang qualities and things that are fast, hot, outward, expansive, the day time, power and so on. Yin qualities are things that are slow, cool, inwards, fluid, dark and the night time etc.
When we look at the activities in our lives it is advised that we have a healthy balance between Yin and Yang activities. One day we might surf, workout and head to the pub to meet with friends (all Yang actives) and in the evening we might stay put and rest – Yin activities. Let me explain why this is so important, particularly for us surfers who often enjoy the thrill of riding waves and physical exercise, to make sure we find enough Yin in our lives…
When we are always doing Yang things – working, surfing, exercising, stressed, always chatting, travelling and on our phones/computers etc. then our body’s nervous system switches to the Sympathetic Nervous System – or “fight, flight or freeze” mode. All this go-go-go gives the body the message that you may be in danger and very cleverly priorities its reserves to focus its effort on keeping you alive during this time. It slows the digestion up so you have more energy for your arms and legs in case you need to fight or flee. You crave sweet food for a quick energy burst, rather than using up its fat which is a much slower energy supply. You find your mind starts to run faster to help you constantly move from one thing to another and frantically tick off things on your to do list.
When “the danger” has gone and you slow down, rest, read a book, meditation or take a slow walk in nature, the body switches to the Parasympathetic Nervous System. Here it can fully digest the food you eat, detoxify the cells in the body, grow the muscles that you worked out and make sure all the essential systems are working properly again.
Ideally we want to be doing both Yin and Yang activities so that the nervous system can return back to the Parasympathetic Nervous System after all the activity has stopped and keep the body working heathily.
But what if we’re always on the go? Always moving, always working out, always working, stressing, eating on the run and ticking off things from your ever-lasting to-do list?
When this happens the body perceives that you’re in real danger. It doesn’t know the difference between your full go-go-go lifestyle and a potential “tiger” that is lurking around the corner, or perhaps worse, constant war or a natural disaster. It sounds dramatic, but how would your body know any different? If we never stop, particularly if we feel guilty about resting or worry about what we’re missing out on the body is only (and cleverly) responding to the information it is given.
The body cannot keep this up. After all, the actions of the Sympathetic Nervous System is only meant as a temporary measure to get you out of danger. When we don’t allow ourselves enough rest and relaxation we begin to obverse the body showing signs of it not coping. It can “hold onto” fat, “just in case we don’t have enough food” in this time of need. For us women, our periods can go out of whack (irregular, too heavy or scanty). Our sleep is disrupted (because we have to remain somewhat alert even at night if there is “danger out there”) and we start to become wired but tired. Worse still, we never feel fully energised and alive when we want to be.
The lessons we can take from this is to have a healthy balance between both Yin and Yang activities in our routines. When we have a good balance we begin to notice we have more energy to do the things we love – surfing, working out or spending time with our friends and loved ones. We feel energised, present, we sleep soundly and our creativity and inspiration flows more freely and easily.
And for those “Yangsters” out there who find it hard to stop and slow down, take note of Brene Brown who advises us to “Be brave, and take a nap”. Enjoy.
Words by Lucy Foster Perkins | Photos by @carolionk