Yin and Yang

The concept of yin and yang is based on the Taoist understanding of the forces and cycles of nature. Tao means ‘way’ and to Taoists it means ‘the way of the universe’. It is a philosophy that we are waking up to in the West: that we are all connected. Yin and yang are an expression of that philosophy: that you cannot have one without the other.

In the taiji symbol (the representation of yin and yang above), black represents yin and white yang. Yin and yang can be seen as complementary opposites. Some examples of what is yin compared with its more yang counterpart are:

  • dark/light

  • night/day

  • moon/sun

  • descending/rising

  • West/East

  • cold/hot

  • North/South

  • solid/vapour

  • earth/sky

  • contraction/expansion

  • condensation/evaporation

  • water/fire

  • feminine/masculine.

Although yin and yang can be seen as opposites, nothing is purely yin or yang because there is always a balance between the two. For example, ice is more yin than water because ice is solid (you could even build with it) whereas water is fluid (it has movement, action), but water is yin compared with steam.

As you can see in the taiji symbol, yin (the white shape) contains yang (the black circle) and yang (the black shape) contains yin (the white circle). This aspect of yin and yang is best illustrated in a quote from qigong practitioner Chris Jarmey "In the case of the human sexes, it is interesting to note that although women are outwardly more yin, they contain within a more masculine unconscious which Carl Jung called the Animus. In turn, men possess a more feminine unconscious called the Anima. This is an example of the profound interdependence inherent in Yin/Yang."

As the taiji symbol demonstrates, yin and yang transform into each other: where yin ends, yang begins and vice versa. The natural cycles of day and night and the seasons are the best examples of this, so where night ends, day begins and where winter ends, spring begins: one grows out of the other.

This extract from the Chinese classic, the Tao Te Ching, describes the interactions of yin and yang beautifully: 
"Being and non-being create each other;
Difficult and easy support each other;
Long and short define each other;
High and low depend on each other;
Before and after follow each other."

According to traditional Chinese medicine, an imbalance between yin and yang results in disease. Re-establishing harmony restores health. For example, the coldness of yin can temper the heat of yang, so a cooling treatment is used for a hot condition and vice versa.

Qigong is a beautiful expression of yin and yang: where there is up, there is down; where there is backwards, there is forwards; where there is left, there is right. We even trace the taiji diagram in one practice! I love how qigong brings balance and I have noticed the dexterity of my weaker left side improve with practice to the point where I can catch and throw a ball with my left hand without thinking about it - and I wasn’t even trying to achieve that! If you would like to experience qigong for yourself, you are welcome to join one of my classes.

Somatics: what is it and how could it benefit you?

Soma means ‘living body’ and relates to how we experience our own body rather than how someone else might observe it. Only you can know how a movement feels to you, no-one can observe that sensation. So ‘body’ describes what an observer sees and ‘soma’ describes how that body feels to the person inside it. It is observing or being aware of the body from the inside. Yoga, qigong and tai chi are ancient somatic practices because they involve both body and mind; they require focus on how the body and movements feel.

Somatic movement appeared in the West in the twentieth century via philosophy and dance, but has moved into the field of complementary therapies in disciplines such as Alexander Technique, the Feldenkrais Method and Rolfing, which you may have heard of.

In his book Somatics, Thomas Hanna explains that “During the course of our lives, our sensory-motor systems continually respond to daily stresses and traumas with specific muscular reflexes. These reflexes, repeatedly triggered, create habitual muscular contractions, which we cannot – voluntarily – relax. These muscular contractions have become so deeply voluntary and unconscious that, eventually, we no longer remember how to move about freely. The result is stiffness, soreness, and a restricted range of movement.”

This loss of awareness of what the body is doing is known as sensory motor amnesia (SMA). Basically, the brain can no longer sense certain muscles and so loses control of them without us even realizing it. SMA can happen at any age, even in the young, as a response to psychological or physical stress or trauma, but it usually starts to be noticeable in people in early middle age. The good news is that SMA can be prevented and reversed.

The age old adage ‘use it or lose it’ does seem to ring true. Much of the deterioration seen in older age is due to a gradual reduction in activities that stimulate body and mind. To retain mental and physical function, we need to take part in varied activities. In fact, activity becomes more important as we age, not less. Learning about somatics and discussing it with colleagues has made me realise just how many of the things that I loved to do as a child I stopped doing in adulthood: somersaults, roly polys, handstands and skipping. They undoubtedly served me well during my development, but why stop there? How much function have I lost from no longer practicing them? I have decided to re-introduce at least some of them to my adult life, just in case…

Endocrinologist Hans Selye described two different forms of stressors: distress and eustress. Distress, as the name suggests is negative or harmful stress, such as the death of a loved one, separation, injury, etc. Eustress is positive or good stress, such as preparing for a holiday, marriage or starting a new job. Distress causes us to feel threatened and defensive, eustress motivates us, it encourages us to action. Our bodies respond to those two distinct psychological stresses in different ways.

Distress tends to cause us to withdraw physically as well as emotionally, as if someone has hit us in the stomach, so the jaw clenches, the eyes and forehead contract, the shoulders raise, the head goes forward, the abdominal muscles tighten and the legs and feet turn inward. We clench the muscles at the front of the body and assume the foetal position. Over time this can become a learned behaviour leading to facial wrinkles, neck and shoulder pain, breathing difficulties and even constipation and haemorrhoids.

Eustress triggers muscles at the back of the body to contract, as in the Landau reaction in infants when they become able to lift their head and arch their back at around six months. It is a reflex reaction of activity, allowing a baby to start to move about and allowing adults to meet challenges. If this becomes habitual, it can lead to back pain in adult life.

These reactions to stress happen top down because the impulse comes from the most primitive part of the brain, so it reaches the face first and travels down the body. It also means that it is an unconscious reaction, and a rapid one at that, so we don’t even realise when it happens.

These two reflex reactions to stress are normal and necessary to our survival: one to protect us and one to drive us. Over time we can become stuck in one response or the other, or a combination of the two, unaware and unable to consciously release the muscular tension to allow the body to return to its normal posture. We lose touch with our own body and so lose control over it, which can result in:

  • Stiffness and limited movement from tight muscles

  • Chronic pain from the build-up of waste products around continually contracting muscles

  • Chronic fatigue from the energy used up to contract muscles

  • Shallow breathing from a constricted chest

  • High blood pressure from restricted breathing

  • Low mood from pain, reduced mobility and poor posture.

Traumatic stress can also cause muscles to spasm, in this case to protect the injured part of the body, whether from an accident or surgery, and can lead to the same problems listed above if the contraction becomes habituated and persists after the injury has healed.

Thomas Hanna’s book Somatics is a fascinating read and includes exercises (based on the work of Moshe Feldenkrais) that you can practise to prevent or reverse musculoskeletal problems caused by habituated responses to stress. Or you could try the more traditional somatic practices of yoga, qigong or tai chi, especially if you prefer to exercise in a class. If nothing else, I hope to have encouraged you to tune in to how your body feels, to notice and be aware.

The Value of Touch

Even before lockdown, we were experiencing less human touch than ever before in history, partly because so many of us live apart from family and friends and partly through fear of inappropriate touch. Social distancing has meant that we now hold back from so many forms of physical interaction that we took for granted previously: hand shaking, hugging, placing a reassuring hand on an arm or shoulder. It is sobering to think that many of us now touch our screens more than we do other humans.

Touch is a biological necessity for our physical and emotional wellbeing. For example, a lack of touch in infancy leads to cognitive deficit, and touch at any age can improve resilience to stress. We also need to be able to respond rapidly to potentially life-threatening stimuli, such as fire or sharp objects. To that end, we have two types of touch receptors: fast and slow.

Fast Touch Receptors

The fast receptors have myelinated sheaths, which allow nerve impulses to be transmitted rapidly to the brain for an immediate response to whatever they detect in the outside world, whether that is to pull your hand away from a hot object or to hold more tightly onto a wet glass that is slipping out of your hand. These fast receptors are what enable you to detect, among other things, temperature, texture, pressure and stretch. They are found all over the body, but are most dense on the glabrous (hairless) skin on the digits and lips, and also on the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet.

Slow Touch Receptors

The slow touch receptors (known as C-tactile afferents or CTs) lack the myelinated nerve sheath and so it takes longer for an impulse to reach the brain (about 1m/second). They are only found on hairy skin and are sensitive to pleasant touch, such as a hug or stroking. Research has shown that the optimal stroking speed to stimulate CTs is 3-5cm/s, which is the speed that most of us would use instinctively to soothe a loved one, to show affection or for sensual touch. CTs are linked to our emotional response to touch and are present in the skin of all social mammals, i.e. those that respond to bonding (affiliative) contact between one individual and another.

Health Benefits

Some of the benefits of affiliative human touch are lower heart rate, lower blood pressure, reduced cortisol levels, greater resilience to stress and improved immunity, which is why massage and reflexology can also promote the same effects.

To Conclude

Hopefully an awareness of this often overlooked sense will give you a greater appreciation of it and encourage you to use it more, where it is safe and appropriate to do so. And if human touch is not available to you or is limited for whatever reason, you can still stimulate the slow touch receptors in your skin with pleasant sensations such as a warm bath, the warmth of the sun on your skin or the wind on your face. Exercise too, especially if done outdoors, can help compensate for a lack of touch.

If you would like to learn more about this sense, I can recommend reading the chapter on touch in Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s book The Stress Solution and listening to his podcast interview with Professor Frances McGlone, a leading researcher in human touch. Coincidentally, psychologist Claudia Hammond explores the ‘Anatomy of Touch’ in her new series on Radio 4.

Why Stretch Yourself?

To stretch or not to stretch? That is the question! That stretching is good for us was once considered a universal truth, but these days the conflicting opinions on stretching can be confusing, so I hope that what follows will help clarify things.

The Stretch Reflex

First, a bit about muscles and the stretch reflex. At rest, muscles are in a state of light contraction, known as tonus. If the muscle receives a signal from a motor nerve, it will contract further and when that signal stops, the muscle will return to tonus. Many muscles work in pairs, for example the biceps and the triceps. When one of the pair contracts (the agonist) the other relaxes (the antagonist). Muscle fibres are not elastic, so they cannot be stretched like a band. Stretching a muscle means reducing its tonus so that it is less contracted and more relaxed.

Muscles contain nerves known as muscle spindles, which detect the level of stretch. Sudden or severe stretching triggers the muscle spindles to send a message to the spinal cord to contract the muscle to prevent an overstretching injury. This circular process is known as a reflex arc and bypasses the thinking centres in the brain in order to elicit a rapid response. An example of that is ‘nodding’ off to sleep when upright. As the chin drops, the muscles at the back of the neck experience a sudden strong stretch, which causes the nerves to fire and rapidly contract the muscles again, jerking the head back up, and all without you having to think about it, in fact, you did it in your sleep!

Regular stretching has been shown to improve flexibility. As you can see, this is not because the muscles being stretched get longer. It is instead because the brain and body get used to stretching further. Basically that means that with regular practise, you can stretch further before the muscle spindles fire off the warning signal “Stop, that’s going to hurt!” You have trained your nervous system to allow the muscle to let go a bit more.

Stretching Before Exercise to Prevent Injury

This is where it can get confusing, because stretching seems to help prevent injury before some sports, but not others. Stretching as part of the warm up for activities that involve bouncing and jumping, like football and rugby, seems to be beneficial, but not so for less intense activities, such as swimming, cycling and running.

There is evidence to suggest that regular stretching at times other than immediately before exercise can prevent injury.

Stretching to Improve Sports Performance

In terms of performance, stretching before a game can have an adverse effect on sports requiring explosive power. For example, a basketball player won’t jump as high after stretching. For these types of sports, the best way to warm up is to do some light aerobic work followed by dynamic stretching (swinging a limb through the range of motion) and then some sport-specific warm-up exercises.

Conversely, short-duration static stretching (holding the stretch) as part of a warm up routine can be beneficial for gymnastic performance where greater flexibility is required.

As with injury prevention, regular stretching other than before the activity has been found to improve overall sports performance.

Stretching for Musculoskeletal Pain

Studies have shown that yoga and stretching can help improve function and reduce symptoms in those with chronic musculoskeletal pain, such as low back pain, neck pain, osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia.

Stretching for Health and Wellbeing

Stretching is an integral part of many traditional, therapeutic practices, including yoga, tai chi, qigong and massage. They work not only on stretching muscles, but other tissues in the body too as part of a holistic approach to health and wellbeing. And of course, we all know how good a stretch feels!

So the moral of the story is that regular stretching is good for us all and if you want to use it as part of your warm up for injury prevention and/or to enhance your sports performance, consider what would be the most appropriate type of stretch to use for your activity. Enjoy stretching yourself!

The Dos and Don’ts for a Good Night’s Sleep

Following on from last month’s post on the importance of sleep for health, this post is about optimising the quality and quantity of your sleep.

If you are unable to fall asleep or stay asleep when you want to, you are suffering from insomnia. Insomnia can be acute (over just a few days) or chronic (lasting for weeks or months) and it can be primary (of an unknown cause) or secondary (e.g. as a result of medication or lifestyle factors). Perhaps more commonly though, a lack of sleep can be the result of simply not allowing enough hours in the day for sleep. To find out more about how much sleep you need, see my previous blog post on that subject.

If you feel tired, it is important to be aware that there is a difference between sleepiness and fatigue. Excessive daytime sleepiness is caused by a lack of sleep and results in you falling asleep easily in the day during unstimulating tasks like reading, meetings and, most worryingly, driving. Fatigue is physical tiredness due to a lack of rest, not sleep. So if you are feeling tired, but not sleepy, you may just need to rest more. If that doesn’t help, then you may be lacking deep sleep and you will need to work on that.

If you are not sleeping well or getting enough sleep, the first thing to do is to look at your sleep hygiene.

What to Do

Consistency is key to good sleep hygiene, because it keeps your internal rhythm (known as the circadian clock) on track, so try to establish a daily routine that sets you up for a good night’s sleep:

  • Have a regular wake up time every day

  • Exercise outside in the morning if you can to tell the brain and body it is the start of the day

  • Try to eat your meals at the same time every day and try to finish your evening meal three hours before bedtime

  • If you find that thoughts keep you awake, set aside time before bed to review the day and plan ahead, because writing it down can really help get it out of your head, and once the allocated time is up, stop

  • Dim the lighting in the evening to a warm glow similar to candle light and use the night shift option for screens on IT equipment

  • Have a warm bath about an hour before bed, as the drop in body temperature afterwards induces sleep

  • After your bath, do something calming like meditation, a breathing practice (see below) or gentle exercise like yoga, tai chi or qigong

  • Reading before bed may also help you to switch off.

If you wake in the night, it is better to stay in bed resting (if you can bear it) than to get up and do things, as you will at least benefit from the rest. Breathing exercises can be helpful in getting back to sleep. Let go of the fear of not sleeping: control the factors that you can and let go of the rest. Enjoy the peaceful time and remember that rest can be as beneficial as sleep.

What to Avoid

Light, sound and a buildup of carbon dioxide at night can disrupt sleep, so eliminate as much light and sound from the bedroom as possible and ensure adequate ventilation through an open door or window.

If you smoke, be aware that nicotine is a stimulant and so can delay the onset of sleep as well as disrupting the quality of your sleep.

Caffeine is also a stimulant and it makes you pee, which is not a winning combination for a good night’s sleep. It has a half life of about six hours, so it is best to avoid caffeine after midday or at least six hours before bedtime if you want a to sleep well, and remember that there is caffeine in some soft drinks and in chocolate, especially the dark variety.

Although alcohol is a depressant rather than a stimulant, it can still have a detrimental effect on sleep quality. It may help you get to sleep, but it will disturb your slumber later on as the liver gets to work on it overnight.

You may not need to avoid smoking, caffeine or alcohol completely, just be aware of the impact that they can have on sleep and modify your behaviour accordingly, so cut down and/or change the timing of your consumption if you have a sleep problem.

Catching Up on Lost Sleep

If you haven’t slept well and feel that you need to catch up on lost sleep, try to nap before midday. Avoid napping in the afternoon or evening because that can negatively impact sleep. 

If you feel that you need a pick me up in the afternoon, meditating for 10 minutes can be as reviving as sleep without having a negative impact on the quality of your sleep at night, in fact by teaching the body and mind to settle, routine meditation can improve sleep quality. 

A really good way to meditate is to focus on the breath. The box breath exercise is supposed to be particularly good for wakefulness: breathe in for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of four, breathe out for a count of four and hold again for a count of four, repeating for 10 minutes and all the time breathing through your nose. For variety you could try the 3,4,5 breathing exercise breathing in for a count of three, holding for a count of four and breathing out for a count of five. If you feel comfortable with that, you can try extending it to 3,5,7. Making the out breath longer than the inbreath is particularly calming.

Medical Help for Insomnia

If you don’t see an improvement in your sleep after implementing the lifestyle factors suggested above for a month or so, it is advisable to see a doctor about it. Your GP should be able to diagnose if you have a particular sleep disorder such as sleep apnea, narcolepsy, restless leg syndrome or circadian rhythm disorder which requires treatment. Your GP may also be able to refer you for cognitive behavioural therapy for sleep if he or she feels that is appropriate. Sleeping pills should be avoided for daily, long-term use as they are addictive and have been linked to dementia, but they can serve a purpose for insomnia caused by acute stress, among other things.

If you are blessed with being able to sleep well, don’t short change yourself, give yourself at least eight hours of sleep opportunity every night. And if you don’t sleep well, please seek help. Your life really does depend on it. 

If you would like to read more about sleep, I can highly recommend these three books:

  • Matthew Walker's Why We Sleep (the new science of sleep and dreams)
  • Chris Winter's The Sleep Solution (why your sleep is broken and how to fix it)
  • Satchin Panda's The Circadian Code (lose weight, supercharge your energy and sleep well every night)