The concept of balancing Yin and Yang is central to Daoist thought. It’s this idea that orients us in our practice, asking us to not give one side of the coin more importance than the other. The Yin is more manifested, but more limited. It is the structure, the physical body, the unconscious, the closed and the hidden. Most importantly, it’s slow. The yang is less manifested, and so is also less limited. It’s the process, the intention, the conscious, the open and the exposed. If we look at ourselves through this lens, we can see that the body is the Yin, the Mind is the Yang, and the breath (or the qi) is the point of exchange where Yin and Yang mix.
A simple analogy that my teacher likes is one of the bucket and the hose. The mind points the hose at things, and those things receive energy (represented by water coming from the hose in this analogy). The bucket represents our physical body, which is the structure that stores the energy so we can use it in our lives. This is where we have the problem of the leaky bucket:
“There’s no point in having immortal water if your bucket is full of holes”
Our modern culture does not like to hear about our problems, and we certainly don’t want to hear that they take a long time to sort out. But if we want to keep our energy and vitality all the time, that’s exactly what we need to attend to. In the beginning, when we go out and have a good practice we might feel great for 30 mins or an hour after practice, but we find that we quickly return to our pre-practice level of energy (or worse!). It’s like topping our bucket up and it slowly drains out. To plug the holes in the bucket, we have to train the physical. Specifically, we have to train to fix the holes – which are more or less weak links surrounded by tension. These weak links are like the yin of the yin, the hidden parts of the body, and generally we cannot find them unless we put ourselves through a specific process. This is part of the task in training the physical body in Da Xuan, revealing the hidden tension and allowing it to relax by strengthening the associated weak links. When we repair these leaks, we find our body can hold our energy much more effectively, allowing us to keep the nice feeling from training throughout the day or longer.
When we are full of our own energy, we are protected from the elements, from other people’s shitty moods, and from being bothered by whatever the environmental situation is – busy shopping center full of stressed people? No problems! What does full of energy mean though? It’s easy enough to go into fantasy with grand ideas as soon as we hear the word ‘energy’, but let’s keep things simple and down to earth: when you do exercise and you’re nice and warm and you go outside in the cold, you can feel that the air is really cold, but the cold is stopped at your skin, or even just a little outside your skin, like you’re wrapped in a nice fuzzy warmth. If you stay in the cold too long, the feeling dies and slowly the cold creeps in, hopefully not all the way to the bones or you’re going to be cold for quite a while! This is what I’m talking about, it’s a feeling I’m sure everyone is familiar and not quite as fancy as the shield Gandalf uses to stop the Balrog with – but the interesting part is keeping it all the time. It’s particularly interesting when the feeling fills all the parts of the body we usually cannot feel. Being able to feel the back, the legs, the feet, or even better the internal organs with as much clarity as we can feel our hands with is completely possible.
When we hear about this, it’s easy to want to go straight to the fancy and advanced internal alchemy practices that we presume are responsible for such things. They can certainly bring a lot of energy in, but you better have a good bucket to keep it otherwise it will go as fast as it came. If you want to keep it, at some point training the simple, basic physical exercises is unavoidable. It’s not terribly fun or pretty, but it certainly works well!