This is a translation of an article published in Yoga Journal Thailand April 2011
Harmonising Yin Yang
To Squat or Not to Squat
In Asia, it is natural to squat. It’s comfortable, and a part of daily life activity in cities and the countryside. A view of a shadow squatting in a field would naturally presume “Asian” rather than Western. When Westerners move to Asia, that is often one of the biggest complaints – how difficult it is to squat for knees, ankles and shins. Yet, most Asian may wonder why Malasana squat is a yoga pose?
I noticed years ago, even before I did yoga, that people in the West can’t squat as easily as Asians. Is there a different angle in the hip or joint that makes it easier for us to squat than our Western brothers and sisters? Is that something from childhood, or is there a physical difference? Are we built structurally differently? Will that effect how yoga poses are accessed in the body?
People in Asia often sit on the ground or floor more than in chairs. This allows us to sit without back support into old age. Squatting can improve stability of the lower back and hips, however, if the knee over stretches, it loses stability, which leads to flat footedness.
Squatting and floor siting leads to a different natural flexibility (particularly in the hip joint) found in Asian countries from the Near East to parts of North Asia/Eastern Europe. In many traditional Asian art forms, the beauty of mobile joints, including hands and feet adds grace to temple Apsaras, Chinese acrobats, Indian yogis, Japanese martial artists, Balinese dancers and Easter European contortionists. Graceful expressions of movement are fluid hips and spine, with long, slender hands and feet.
In my travels teaching around the world for almost 20 years, I have noticed something interesting, but never addressed in any yoga classes, trainings or workshops. As a yoga teacher, student and practitioner, I have often wondered if the Asian population in general, is more suited to some yoga poses.
Now my BIG question:
IS there a difference between Western and Eastern bodies?
Will it affect how poses work within the different bodies (East/ West) health and range of motion? Is it an inherited, and genetic trait that is geographically specific?
Of course I have related this question to other races, but since I live in a Chinese body, and live in the Western world (California USA), I will contain inquiry to Asian people.
Balance is what we look for in yoga. Harmonising effort and ease, stillness and motion, Yin and Yang. That temperate, even feeling that all is good in the world, and in me. An evenness in the body from stretching and strengthening, and evenness in temperament, so emotions are regulated, and evenness in life, that things are as they are, perfectly balanced.
Yin and Yang can describe everything in life. Nothing is purely Yin or Yang but contains both in varying amounts. You cannot have one without the other, and both are needed for equilibrium and well being. In Yoga, we focus on balancing movement and stillness, power and grace, suppleness and strength to create a stable and even practice.
Learning to balance and integrate safe, mindful movement while opening the body has been key to my long term practice. I found a practice that is balanced for my life, where I can gain flexibility in body and mind, while developing strength and stamina to ease through life. Yoga awakens breath and fluidity in the body, and stimulates insight into the heart.
Many beauty and fashion adverts that use yoga poses show a hyper-mobility in Asia, particularly in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. There is generally more joint laxity found among Asians than Caucasians, so our bodies may be more predisposed to bending into yoga shapes.
Excessive joint laxity, however, can lead to wear and tear on bone surfaces, and strains muscles and ligaments, creating pain and injury, so it is important to learn how to balance strength and flexibility. The power and grace of Yoga comes from finding your core in balance, rather than exploiting flexibility or strength.
Much of Asian culture understands the concept of balance and harmony, the concept that the energies of Yin and Yang, movement and meditation, effort and ease are both needed for a healthy and whole life.
I have found for myself as an Asian woman, that my hips and shoulders are particularly open, and these open large joints allow me to access many yoga poses easily. When I first came to Yoga in my thirties, I could bend into the most exotic of shapes and was encouraged to go deeper and harder into poses. I didn’t understand why people would not want to go to the “edge” of their flexibility. I even thought that I wasn’t doing it “right” without going to an extreme.
My extreme was to bend and stretch to my maximum capacity. And my back would hurt, or my hips and shoulders would ache. And then my hamstring broke, and my shoulder dislocated from aggressive poses. I didn’t want to be bothered with working on boring strengthening things like standing poses and arm balances that were dificult for me. These poses create core strength and build muscular strength in the arms and legs. I just loved backbends, forward folds and twists! Chatarunga was difficult, and my wrists always hurt afterwards.
A body can be very flexible, but not able to control it, or very strong and stable but not have enough mobility and range. Mine was definitely the flexible variation, and I didn’t want to build muscle bulk. The work for myself was to balance an equal amount of Stability and Strength to my high Flexibility.
Any extreme is, well, an extreme. And my extreme bendiness brought me some pretty yoga poses, but my body ached sometimes, and my mind was still racing with attachment and desire. The aggressive yoga practice actually made me more agitated, and wanting more out of my body and myself. My practice was all about the poses, and getting into poses. My meditation practice slipped, and my life got more out of balance.
My recommendation for students is to balance the Yin and Yang of strength and flexibility. Since many Asians have increased joint mobility, lower body mass index (BMI) and body fat ratios (BF%), there needs to be a balance of strength to match the flexibility of many students. Additionally, without a strong base of cardiovascular and weight bearing strength training, we may be more prone to injury if we get too aggressive in pursuit of “advanced” yoga poses.
One reason women quit strength training is they “go for it” and wipe themselves out with overly sore muscles or injury. Focus enthusiasm on learning good technique and developing a lifetime program. Build intensity gradually. This will help you sustain practice. Build strength with more standing poses, and by slowing down and holding poses. Enjoy the flexibility of working in Yoga, but don’t forget to build strength to balance the energies.
Bring the wisdom of Yin and Yang into your practice and find a way to balance strength and flexibility. To find equal strength to flexibility would help many students, and I am not suggesting we go jogging through the streets of Bangkok, Singapore or Hong Kong to get strong! Or work out until our bellies and arms are hard! Most Asian women don’t have the same desires to get as “masculine-Yang” as Western women. We can embrace our “feminine-Yin” nature, but need to develop core strength. Balancing a strong core with a lithe body creates a powerful centre, emotionally and physically.
Spend time holding poses longer, especially standing poses. Linger in each asana as a meditation. No rush to “get to the pose”. Stay still to stay strong. Not hard, but strong. Yoga provides a
perfect opportunity to work with stability and( Upeksha) equanimity to work on both Strength and Flexibility. A place to discover the harmony of Yin and Yang working together. The dance between the masculine and feminine energies within each of us. Yin is flexible female energy; the intuitive, receptive, nurturing side, the energy that yields, flowing, and smooth. The force that germinates a seed in winter and flows water. Yang is strong masculine energy; the action-oriented force that gets things done. Yang sprouts a seed in spring and makes a strong current move in a river.
Remember to keep things in balance. Tune in to yourself, and feel All the sensations. Listen to your own inner guidance, and follow your intuition. Be inspired with the grace and beauty of poses that encourage flexibility, and take time to find the strength and stamina in holding longer poses. Practice meditation and relaxation to help access the flow of energy to keep both in balance.
A river has banks to contain it, and the movement to flow. Our strength and stamina are the Yang banks of this energy, and the movement of the water is the Yin grace of Chi/Prana flowing.
Balance allows Yang to support Yin, actions to support feelings and desires. Each of us, whether male or female contains both characteristics. There is continual movement of both energies, Yin to Yang and Yang to Yin, just as things expand and contract, and temperature changes. Become a river, and flow with the energy of Yoga!