Just about everything you’ve done, thought, or felt today has been controlled by your body’s nervous system. Movement, emotions, stress response, healing, sleep, breath, senses, aging, digestion—all happening thanks to this central command center.
Now, think about how many of those factors play into your mental wellbeing!
Your nervous system is responsible for the “fight or flight” response—one we are all too familiar with in today’s world. Not because many of us ever need to run from a hungry lion, but because of the hectic, high-stress lifestyle that’s become the norm.
Your nervous system has another function that doesn’t get as much attention as it should: “rest and digest.” This is the calm down. The healing and repairing function. The self-care. Our culture often brushes this side off as unnecessary, or even weak and lazy.
But if we want a healthy body and mind, we must pay attention to the power of yin and the nervous system.
Yin and Yang: What’s The Difference?
First off, let’s make sure we understand yin and yang. The ancient yin/yang symbol represents the two seemingly opposing, yet harmonizing sides of your life force.
Here is a simple infographic to help you see the differences:
If you want a deeper dive into yin and yang, check out this blog HERE.
Yang and the Nervous System
Yang activities tap into our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). This is often called “Fight or Flight.”
SYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM (SNS), defined by the American Psychological Association
“One of the two divisions of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), the other being the parasympathetic nervous system. It is defined functionally in terms of its ability to act as an integrated whole in affecting a large number of smooth muscle systems simultaneously, usually in the service of enhancing the fight-or-flight response. Typical sympathetic changes include dilation of the pupils to facilitate vision, constriction of the peripheral arteries to supply more blood to the muscles and the brain, secretion of epinephrine to raise the blood-sugar level and increase metabolism, and reduction of stomach and intestinal activities so that energy can be directed elsewhere. Thus, the sympathetic nervous system tends to antagonize the effects of the parasympathetic nervous system.”
Think of the SNS as the “life force switch-on button.”
Sure, there are moments in everyone’s life where danger is real and the fight or flight response is a lifesaving measure. But many times, we feel that stressful situations in our ordinary lives are dangerous, even though they are not in fact putting you in real danger (this is called perceived danger).
Your tight work deadlines, scheduling five different after-school activities, rush hour traffic, and the pressure to make more money to buy a better house are not actually going to kill you in this present moment. But the chronic stress of it all is signaling danger to your body.
We need to turn off this chronic stress … which brings us to …
Yin and the Nervous System
Yin activities tap into our Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS). This is often called “Rest and Digest.”
PARASYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM (PSNS), defined by the American Psychological Association
“One of two branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), the other being the sympathetic nervous system. It is defined functionally as the system controlling rest, repair, enjoyment, eating, sleeping, sexual activity, and social dominance, among other functions. The parasympathetic nervous system stimulates salivary secretions and digestive secretions in the stomach and produces pupillary constriction, decreases in heart rate, and increased blood flow to the genitalia during sexual excitement.”
Think of the PSNS as the “life force switch-off button.”
How Yin and Yang Work Together
Now, imagine that you are a car.
The life force switch on/switch off button is the key ignition. Your physical body is the body of the car. Your energy source is the engine. Lastly, your mental health is the car’s software.
Next, ask yourself what type of car you would be if you actually were a car, and answer your question honestly. What is the year, brand, and model of your car? For instance, when I look at my own overall physical, energetic, and mental capacity, I feel that I am probably most like a Volkswagen Passat, one that is less than 5 years old with no more than 50,000 miles on it.
Let’s stick with this analogy for a few more paragraphs, shall we?
Since you are aware that your car has a limited lifespan, I am guessing that you can see the value of turning your car engine off in between commutes or trips and not keeping it running at all times. I’m also assuming that you would like for your car to be reliable because no one wants their car to break down (similar to physical and/or mental illness), especially not on the highway (similar to high-stress situations) if one can prevent it.
Some ways to increase the reliability of your car is by filling it up with gas when your car is running low and doing regular maintenance check-ups (similar to healthy nutrition and preventative healthcare, both physical and mental healthcare).
When you look at the people around you, you can see an obvious difference between someone who is either a newer Hummer, a beat-up old Toyota Camry, or a brand new little Smart car. You see the diversity when it comes to their different capacities.
Why then is it that we so often see the differences when it comes to someone else’s vehicle, yet when it comes to our own human vehicle, we misjudge our bandwidth entirely? Why do we stretch ourselves too thin—physically, energetically, and mentally? We seem to think we are without boundaries or limitations. Sticking with our car analogy, we seem to think that we have a bottomless pit of gasoline we can draw from and that we can make do without regular check-ups and without pressing the brake or turning the engine off altogether.
Yielding To Yin For More Rest and Digest
Is it truly just societal pressures and misconceptions that are holding us back from pushing the brake pedal to either slow us down or stop us altogether … or is there something else?
My clients claim that they are tired of “being in a rat race,” “running on a hamster wheel,” or “running around like a chicken with its head cut off.”
So, why then do we keep buying into the yang culture so seemingly mindlessly?
What other reason or reasons might hold us back from indulging in yin more?
Why would we not want to take extra time to rest, practice mindfulness, decompress, or wind down?
It sounds so easy and fun, don’t you think? Well, the truth is: not always and not initially.
As humans, we instinctively seek out instant pleasure and gratification, so with the little free time we have, we would rather keep things light and fluffy, and fill it with pleasure activities. This may work for a while, but not forever.
The reality is that, if we wait too long to include time and space to yield to yin in our daily lives, then it is likely that our shadow side will turn dark and scary over time. If that is the case, slowing down or stopping long enough to step into our minds and bodies will bring up thoughts and feelings that seem intolerable at first.
So, ideally, we tend to our emotional needs and wants on a daily basis; and, even then, our thoughts and feelings will still feel unpleasant and uncomfortable at times, but at least not intolerably painful or scary (with exceptions, of course).
Do not despair, it is never too late to stop distracting ourselves and, instead, to start paying close attention to our most important needs and wants!
15 Yin Activity Ideas
Ready to tap into the power of yin and the nervous system? Use a gentle approach when tuning inward. Here are some ways to do just that:
- Yin yoga
- Restorative yoga
- Foot reflexology
- Breathing exercises
- Binaural sounds
- Drum circle
- Social connection
- Healthy diet
- Adequate hydration
- Guided meditation (The Honest Guys, Jason Stephenson, Michael Sealey)
Check out my Yield2Yin page for tips, techniques, and exercises to add more yin to your life!
You’ll also find a Yield2Yin section at the bottom of each blog. This gives you yin yoga poses, books to read, and mantras to repeat.
- Healing Card Deck: A Therapist’s Advice 55-Card Healing Deck by Sara Cloostermans
- Book Recommendation: The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh
- Mantra: I AM REST // repeat with diaphragmatic breathing
- Yin Yoga Asana: Reclining Twist Pose
This page includes Amazon Associate affiliate links, which means I may earn a small commission at no cost to you if you purchase a product I suggest. I only recommend products I believe in. Learn more HERE.