Yin & Yang: Symbolic Meaning & Connection to Yoga

By Kiel Jacob for Yoga Medicine®.

Most people think of the Yin-Yang sign as an iconic and instantly recognizable symbol representing balance and harmony in the universe (or, something like that).

But what does the yin-yang symbol really mean? Where did the symbol come from, how is the yin-yang connected to yoga, and how can understanding all of this benefit you?

Let’s take a look.

The Origin Story: Where Does the Yin-Yang Symbol Come from?

Like many other ancient symbols, the earliest origin of the yin-yang symbol is not 100% certain. Historians do agree that the ying-yang teachings go back to at least 600 B.C. in ancient China. But according to Dr. Robin R. Wang, an author, professor of philosophy, and Director of Asian Studies at Loyola Marymount University…the earliest Chinese characters for yin and yang are found inscribed on animal bones dating as far back as 1,300 BC (over 3,000 years ago).

Dr. Robin describes these ancient characters on the bone carvings as being used for tracking the sun in relation to its height in the sky, and the size of the shadow it would cast over the nearby mountains.

Eventually by 600 BC, Yin and Yang were taught in more of a symbolic manner.

Yin became known to represent the summer solstice and symbolizes the dominance of darkness over daylight, While Yang represented the winter solstice and symbolizes the dominance of daylight over darkness.

By the time of the Han Dynasty (around 200 BC) the yin-yang became fundamental in traditional Chinese teachings and began to transform from a physical representation of the balance between light and dark, to a metaphysical representation of ch’i (the balance of good energy vs. negative energy in the universe).

This is the fundamental basis that leads the ying-yang to symbolize the balance of light vs. dark, good vs. evil, positive vs. negative, ect.

The Yin-Yang Symbolic Meaning

The philosophical principle of Yin and Yang evolved into the idea that all things in the universe exist as inseparable and contradictory opposites. Or pairs of equal opposites that attract and complement each other. Less like “opposing forces”, and more “complimentary forces”.

Think ‘balance’, not conflict.

In short, the yin-yang has come to symbolically represent the constant path of uniting opposites and the pursuit of seeking balance in life.

The Meaning of Yin & Yang Colors

Yin is black. Yang is white.

As Yin is black, it symbolizes shadow or darkness, things that are quieter, aloof, the moon, and all things with dark energy.

The white of Yang on the other hand, is used to symbolize warmth, positive energy, active motion, and the sun.

Each half of the symbol has a small circle in the center, which is the corresponding color of the opposite side. This is done to show that each side carries the seed, or “essence”, of the other. This symbolically tells us that in order to thrive in life, these forces must coexist and form a perfect union, as we should too with those around us.

The Meaning of the Yin & Yang Shape

The full outer circle of the yin yang symbol, as a whole, represents the entirety of the universe. Circular and never ending.

Each half is split, not by a straight line, but by a perfectly even concave parabolic “S” curve (which is directly in proportion with the elements of the Fibonacci sequence and other elements of sacred geometry).

The “s curve” of the yin-yang symbolizes how both yin and yang are inter-connected, and continuously “ebbing and flowing” into one another.

As yang swells at the top of the circle, yin contracts.  And as yin swells at the bottom of the circle, yang contracts. 

Yin & Yang in Yoga

While the idea and philosophy of yin and yang were being developed in Ancient China somewhere between 1,300 and 200 BC, around the same time-period, yoga was being written about for the first time in Ancient India.

Although the two concepts had yet to meet, they were already based on some of the same fundamental principles of finding balance and harmony in the universe.

The first known writings about yoga come from the ancient ‘Vedas texts’ which date back to 1,500 BC. This text which first discusses yoga, (and also the chakras) is known as the Rig Veda.

When exactly yoga migrated from India to China is up for debate (likely after Buddha took the teachings of the Vedas and left India around 500 BC), but what’s clear is that the underlying concepts of “yin and yang” and the concepts of yoga were destined to meet.

Yin & Yang in the Body

In TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), Yin represents passive forces while Yang represents active forces. It is this concept of yin=passive and yang=active that spawned the yin and yang forms of yoga.

Yin Yoga vs. Yang Yoga

In the 1970’s, martial arts champion Paulie Zink was credited with founding “yin-yang yoga” by combining elements of traditional hatha yoga with Taoist yoga. 

This combination balanced faster paced ‘traditional yoga’ or “yang yoga”, with a slower paced Taoist yoga, or “yin yoga”.

Zink’s Yin-Yang yoga is based on the concept that to create balance in your overall yoga practice, you need to switch between exerting yourself and quieting yourself.

These are the basic differences, But paramount ones all the same…

Yin Yoga

  •     Slow Paced
  •     Improves flexibility & joint mobility
  •     Calms & balances the mind & body
  •     Reduces stress & anxiety
  •     Works deeply on the connective tissues
  •     Can prepare you for meditation

Yang Yoga

  •     Faster paced
  •     Strengthens & tones the body
  •     Increases stamina
  •     Removes tension & obstacles in the body

Summary: Yin & Yang – Finding Balance in Yoga & in Life

Although originating in different cultures, the ancient philosophical principles that the yin-yang symbol and yoga both represent, are rooted in the same fundamental understanding of finding balance in life.

Whether it’s work-life balance, left-right yoga balance, family-friends balance, or meditation-exercise balance, we can all take home valuable lessons rooted in the ancient polarity of the yin-yang symbol.

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