Don’t get me wrong: regular movement is one of the foundations of good health, and Qi Gong (a gentle exercise that links movement with breath) is an important part of the Chinese Medicine tool kit. More intensive forms of exercise can also be positive for healthy, robust individuals, but as with everything in life, there needs to be a balance between Yin (rest) and Yang (exertion).
Running our lives purely in Yang mode – stressful / long work hours, hectic life schedules, insufficient / sub-optimal sleep, rushed / less-than-nourishing meals, constant stimulation and screen-time – doesn’t allow time to rest and replenish our energies, and can leave some individuals running on empty. For these people, an intensive exercise regime can further deplete dwindling energy reserves and be detrimental to health; ultimately, it can lead to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, weight gain, fatigue, anxiety, depression, digestive disorders, imbalanced hormones and compromised mental clarity (amongst many other health issues). These burnt-out individuals need more Yin-time – time to allow the body to rest, digest and rebuild. Unfortunately, our ever-accelerating society doesn’t really prize “unproductive” time, so taking time out to slow down and just be can seem like a guilty, lazy or uncomfortable choice. Instead, we may reach for a coffee, “energy” drink or sugary treat to keep ourselves running around like an Energizer bunny.
So what stops us from getting into Yin mode more often?
One hurdle is that running in Yang mode can feel great! (In fact, it can feel so great that some people become addicted to it). When we are stressed, busy or hyper-stimulated, our bodies are governed by the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). This is also referred to as “fight or flight” mode, and is invaluable for getting us out of dangerous situations. When the SNS is dominant, adrenaline pumps through our veins, sharpening our senses and priming our lungs, heart and muscles for escape. We feel energized, alert and alive. This is very helpful for running away from a dangerous situation, or making a split-second judgment in avoiding an accident – but it comes at a cost. While the body’s energies are diverted towards immediate survival, all those bodily functions that are deemed non-essential in the short term – digestion and assimilation of food, cellular repair and growth, processing of toxins and breakdown of fat – are turned down, and will not be turned back up again until we switch back to Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) dominance, or “rest and digest” mode.
By contrast, PNS mode doesn’t have the switched-on, wired, invincible “buzziness” of SNS mode. To someone used to running on adrenaline, PNS mode can feel sluggish, lethargic and “off”. But the body is wise: it wants to keep us inactive while all of that critical repair and growth is going on, so it doesn’t release any of that buzzy adrenaline that prompts us to move around and get active. PNS mode is the necessary balance to SNS mode: it is a chance to refuel, replenish and repair any damage incurred while running on stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol). And once we get used to allowing ourselves to slow down and relax into this healing mode, it can feel great too: calm, centred, clear and balanced.