Yin yoga is the practice of being still amidst discomfort. For several minutes at a time we lie on the ground with our arms, legs, heads propped up in various positions and at various heights. As we wait for the minutes to pass, we yield our bodies to gravity, and our own weight, pressed against the props, puts increasing pressure on our joints, slowly pulling them apart. As the pain and intensity builds, we sink deeper into ourselves, breathing, releasing, and ultimately seeking to experience the sensation in its entirety.
At the end of five minutes or so, the pose is complete and we return the force of will to our muscles. Some poses can be incredibly painful on the way in, others are only painful on the way out. The feeling is similar to when we fall asleep with our arms at an odd angle; upon waking it is as if hundreds of tiny needles are being thrust simultaneously into our flesh. Whatever the sensation, pain or pleasure, relief or loss, when the time arrives we release the pose. This is the practice of Yin Yoga.
In many ways, practicing Yin is like practicing personal integrity. Personal integrity, in another word, honesty, is the art and skill of knowing who we truly are and what we truly desire. It is painful to practice personal integrity because we exist in a society which is bolstered by a civilization, and the notion of civilization itself is to deny our most fundamental desires and instead focus our energy towards an idealization of humanity which seeks to magnify some traits and disguise, or even erase completely, many others. Civilization is built on the idea that some humans are barbarians, more animals than they are humans, but that others are loftier, closer to God or closer to some other kind of Ideal, in the Platonic sense. Society reveres the lofty and despises the barbarous. Thus in order to achieve success in a civilization, it is necessary that we deny the part of our selves which is animal. The practice of personal integrity is then opposite of civilization. It seeks to acknowledge all of our selves and accept it without reaching towards an ideal or comparing our self with others.
Civilization is important. Society, even without a civilization, is important because humans are profoundly social creatures. We are all connected to each other and need each other to survive. Our connection exists on many levels, too. We have an emotional connection to our parents, particularly to the woman who raises us from infancy whom we come to know as Mother. But we also connect to each other practically. Even the solitary old curmudgeon is connected to his landlord for a place to sleep, his grocer for food… We are all connected to, and rely on, each other for our survival and for our happiness, so we need society. But civilization is also hurtful.
It is not hard to understand that any systematic denial of our rawest and most fundamental desires will ultimately lead to suffering. One of the most human desires that we all have is connection. I might call it love. We crave to love and be loved by others, at least by one other. Love, however, is multifaceted. We can love with our minds, we can love with our hearts and we can love with our bodies. Perhaps there are also other ways to love. Civilization tells us that to love with our minds is acceptable. To love with our hearts is unavoidable, but to love with our bodies is shameful. A woman should love her husband and love her children. If, perhaps, she should fall out of love, the civilized thing to do would be to suppress her own feelings for the sake of the children. The woman who does this loves her family with her mind. She rationalizes love into her life and she makes choices that mimic the choices a loving woman would make. This woman, however, does not love her family with her heart. Civilization expects us to backwards engineer the fruits of love, but it does not care if love itself is actually present.
The divide between a Civilized Man and a human grows even stronger when we consider loving with our bodies. A civilized man loves only one woman and his body is only attuned to and aroused by that one woman alone. All other sexual response is shameful. This includes desire for someone outside of marriage, or more recently outside of long term monogamy, and it includes sexual desire by women. Civilization’s ideal human is male. I believe that part of the reason why men are revered more so than women is because a woman’s body does not permit the systematic denial of humanity that is necessary to rise to the highest peaks of society. She bleeds, she cries, and she births life from inside her own body with even more blood and even more tears. She is frightening and she is terrific and she is a powerful reminder that we are not the ideals that we try so desperately to fit ourselves to, but that we are human, raw and beautiful and helpless to the forces of the universe.
To practice personal integrity therefore is painful. We must acknowledge so many things about our selves that we would rather believe are otherwise. Personal integrity means acknowledging that we are less than the ideal we defined for ourselves. It means acknowledging that our bodies desire things that are not appropriate, or are shameful, and it means accepting those desires as part of who we are. As a consequence, the practice of personal integrity is also the practice of vulnerability. As creatures who are part spirit and part flesh, when we acknowledge the physical side of our existence, we acknowledge that our minds are powerless to control that flesh, and powerless to control the environment within which it operates. All these things are painful and frightening, but they are also rewarding.
As in Yin, personal integrity exposes us to painful realities, but it also provides us relief. As long as we deny parts of who we are, we carry that denial with us, and we also carry the parts that we deny even though they are pushed from our consciousness. But when we take the time and care to experience those parts of us that we deny, fully experiencing without attempting to escape them but instead surrendering fully to the implications of our selves, we are able to release them. Whether we seek to mold our selves into the shape of the ideal, or accept our selves with passive surrender, we are who we are. The civilized ideal, however, is heavy with unfelt emotions and pent up shame while the self which experiences personal integrity experiences every moment exactly as the universe provides it. It is a lighter and freer self.