In ancient times people were urged to recognize and differentiate between yin and yang in order to live a life in harmony with the Tao, the natural flow of the Universe. In more modern times, the concept of recognizing yin and yang is largely overlooked but can be found in the practice of T’ai Chi Chuan (taijiquan) which emphasizes recognizing the physical aspects of yin and yang within the body evident in the shifts of weight within movement as well as the muscles flexing and relaxing; for example, feeling which arm is pressing forward (yang) and which is withdrawing (yin); and which leg is fuller (yang) and which is emptier (yin). T’ai Chi is the act of feeling ourselves more deeply, which translates into understanding the yin and yang of our physical selves.
The act of feeling, though, extends to the exterior of the body as well. From a martial standpoint, recognizing yin and yang in another person allows for us to respond in the most appropriate way and without undue loss of energy to that person. Identifying yin and yang fuels Wu Wei—apt action—which is a core principle that forms the foundation of the martial aspect of T’ai Chi.
Yet this discernment is not limited to the physical realm of oneself and others. Proper practice extends outward to identifying the yin and yang of everything: the yang of Spring emerging out of the yin of Winter; the Full Yang of Summer waning into the coming yin of Autumn and then Winter. Since everything has yin and yang, the object of seeing yin and yang applies to all aspects of the world.
Awareness extends in the realm of the social too, and proper T’ai Chi training should orient the practitioner to the yin and yang of interpersonal dynamics. This social aspect of T’ai Chi was not lost to the great Internal Arts masters of the early 20th century, who argued that T’ai Chi has a civic responsibility to help people to become better members of society at large. The act of discerning yin and yang falls into the realm of the social whereas a person “reads” the yin and yang of another person and then responds appropriately in order to help that person through appropriate action—not unlike the act of push hands where one person is helping the other to better understand the physical principles of T’ai Chi.
This social aspect is not the sole propriety of Chinese thought; it is prevalent in the Buddhist conception of compassionate living, which is embodied in the Sanskrit word “upayana” or “skillful means.” Further, it is the core of the ancient Greek concept of “Rhetoric” where the individual orator learns how to “steer” an audience toward a common social good. Rhetoric, in this sense, is built upon an ethical foundation of working toward the larger social good; similarly, upayana is founded upon the Buddhist principle whereby the individual strengthens the ethical core of “right” thinking, speech, and action, and uses that position to extend compassion to help others—the skillful “tool” of upayana.
In all of these instances, the practice is founded upon moral strengthening of oneself and sharing that understanding through compassionate action. In the language of Taoism, the practice rests upon the act of everyone becoming “real humans” to help others become more human too.
Unfortunately, some people resist help and their egotistical conceptions of themselves become obstacles so much so that sometimes that person may lash out at the person who is trying to help. Recognizing yin and yang also applies to the people around us, which translates in our ability to respond to another person appropriately, but sometimes no amount of our understanding or effort will mollify and balance another person. As much as we may try to help, the other person cannot be reached. So what do we do?
Taoism would answer that the timing of our own actions isn’t right, and our continued effort is useless at this time. Instead of continuing to act fruitlessly, it is appropriate to walk away from that person and the situation. Perhaps we can return later when the time is right. Or perhaps we don’t. Similarly, T’ai Chi teaches us to keep moving, stepping aside to deflect the aggressive actions of another, and to leave that person behind if our attempts to help are pointless.
Our only obligation in any situation is to examine ourselves and to make sure that we are part of the solution and not part of the problem. To do so, we must understand our own yin and yang of personality. (And if we are part of the problem, own our part.) Such inward looking requires honesty with oneself and a willingness to see the yin and yang of our ego. Such introspection is extremely difficult since we must confront the very image we have constructed of ourselves, which may or may not correspond to reality.
Fortunately, T’ai Chi isn’t just about strengthening the physical body; it also strengthens “Yi,” the intentional mind so that the practitioner is better equipped to explore the self with greater depth and develops the inner fortitude to maintain the arduous task of that introspection. Yet that strengthening of the physical and conscious self feeds the continuous process of the cultivation of the self and reveals a more harmonious balance within ourselves and the world.
Authentic T’ai Chi practice is not only about recognizing the yin and yang of living but engaging in that process with depth of feeling. To fail to apply that understanding of yin and yang to oneself, others, and to the world in which we live is to miss the open secret of real T’ai Chi. The act of discerning yin and yang and then applying that understanding enables us to become more human and in doing so to better respond to the world and the people who make up our world. The ancients urged people to see and abide by the cycle of yin and yang in order to live a balanced life. While the times have changed, the real benefits of a harmonious life certainly have not.