Ellie Clarke teaches yoga, works in the wellness PR industry, and is studying naturopathic nutrition. After spending years going hard in the gym, she’s totally changed her approach to a gentler, more holistic understanding of fitness, exercise and its benefits. Here’s why – and you may find yourself wanting to do the same…
A life of stress
In traditional Chinese medicine, the theory of Yin Yang energy is a concept of ‘duality forming a whole’ – this notion of two opposites that come together to create balance and harmony. Over many thousands of years, our experiences (from our emotions and actions, to the foods that we consume) have come to be classified as either Yin or Yang in nature.
Whilst we come across both aspects of Yin and Yang throughout our day, in the Western world (and even more so living in a metropolitan city) we have a much stronger Yang energy influence in our lifestyles. We’ve become accustomed to working long, hard hours, catching the tube at rush hour, drinking coffee and alcohol, and listening to loud music from our headphones. So it’s no surprise that, as Yang-driven creatures of habit, when it comes to our exercise choices we tend to favour high-intensity training that’s all about efficiency and burning as many calories in as little time as possible.
It was a few years ago when I realised that I was addicted to Yang energy culture, when I went for a massage for my birthday. Despite asking the masseuse several times for it to be ‘a little harder still please’, I wasn’t getting the pressure I was after… surely it has to hurt to make a difference? As I lay there I had the realisation that everything in my life – work, exercise, a ‘relaxing’ massage – had to be fiery, fast-pace and efficient in in order to be worth doing. I had fallen into the trap of going to exercise classes in dark rooms with flashing lights and loud warehouse music. Even in my yoga practice the emphasis was on the physical movement (asanas) and working up a sweat.
High cortistol levels
Over time, an imbalance of Yin and Yang energy can lead to poor wellbeing, which in the case of the Yang-driven metropolitan (like myself) is often as a result of excessive high cortisol. High cortisol activates the body’s stress-response system, which amongst other things can result in increased heart rate and blood sugar (glucose) levels, and suppression of the immune and digestive system functions. Sustained periods of high cortisol can result in an overexposure that, in turn, can cause disruption to the body’s essential processes. As was true in my case, health problems can include anxiety, poor sleep, depression, digestive issues, hormonal disruption (e.g. lack of periods), headaches, weight gain and poor concentration.
Since that massage (which on reflection I realise I could have done with relaxing and enjoying it for what it was), I have qualified as a yoga teacher and am also studying naturopathic nutrition. Through my work it has been really interesting to observe Yin or, more often, Yang energy dominances in my clients and offer techniques to help restore balance. One area that comes up a lot, especially with female clients, is that the client has come to realise that the high-intensity nature of their exercise might be feeding into hormonal imbalances, physical injuries and fatigue.
Of course it has to be said that when it comes to exercise there’s certainly a time and a place for high-intensity workouts and getting a good sweat on. After all, exercise promotes the release of endorphins and also helps us to maintain healthy weight. However, it’s really important that we simultaneously prioritise more Yin-style activities, such as having a long bath, taking a long walk or meditating.The reason for this is that it offers both mind and body the chance to relax and enter our healing state – ‘rest and digest’.
Teaching yoga in London, I often find I have to lure people in with what they want – a strictly physical practice – and then over time feed them what they need. We are so lucky to live in a city where there’s a style of yoga for everyone but, for me, the most important thing we can do is make space for a more restorative and nurturing yoga practice. This opens the door to developing the skills we need to off-set our busy, fast-paced lifestyles and counteract the effects of cortisol over exposure. In yoga we can learn how to breathe properly – on and off the matt – so that we can find comfort in any situation.
Getting the balance right
Making time for Yin-style activities including yoga, breath work and low intensity exercise such as Reformer Pilates, have been proven to have amazing effects on our health. Off-setting some of the effects of cortisol overexposure, when we offer space for the mind and body to slow down and relax, amazing things can happen such as lowering of the heart rate, reduced anxiety and depression, balancing of blood glucose and reproductive hormones, improve sleep quality and a general feeling of improved wellbeing.
As a parting note, it’s important to remember though that the body is in a constant state of flux. We’re not trying to achieve the perfect balance but tune in to how we are feeling – physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. In this case, noticing if there is a tendency to be more Yin or Yang inclined. In turn, we can respond with actions that will restore some of that balance. On days when I feel bombarded by emails, Whatsapp messages and the need to multi-task, I know to opt for a quiet yoga practice and an early night over heading out to a spinning class. It helps me to feel calmer, more in control, and I know that in the long run my mind and body will thank me!