Chinese Yoga – Myths and Misconceptions

Chinese yoga is a practice that combines elements from yoga practice and Chinese health systems.

Let’s explore its history, and research the Taoist elements found in Yin yoga.

Is Chinese Yoga the Same Thing as Yin Yoga?

Today when you ask a teacher about Chinese Yoga, they will likely first think of Yin Yoga. Some may also relate the name to the ancient Chinese practice called Dao Yin.

The main similarity between Dao Yin and Indian Yoga is the practice of linking breath to movement to achieve a mind-body connection.

Unlike Dao Yin, Yin yoga was introduced much later to the yoga world. This yoga type is based on Hatha yoga asanas and pranayama (breathwork) and built upon Taoist principles.

When did yoga appear in China? Which Chinese elements are incorporated in Yin yoga? Are there other Chinese health systems similar to yoga? Let’s explore these questions.

When did Yoga Appear in China?

Many aspects of Chinese yoga can be traced back to 2,146 BC, and a record called “Lü’s Spring and Autumn Annals – The Old Tunes”. It describes a form of exercise – a “grand dance” – used to reinvigorate the body and promote the flow of Chi.

The term ‘Dao Yin’ itself was first mentioned in the 3 B.C. text Zhuangzi (Book of Master Zhuang). The book defines it as a physical practice that aims to help practitioners preserve the body and soul, and achieve long life.

Dao Yin also comes up in the medical scriptures published during Han Dynasty, around 160 BC. They include Yin Shu (Pulling Book) and Dao Yin Tu (Guiding-Pulling Chart). They describe stretching exercises used for healing areas of pain in the body.

The exercise system developed further in Qin and Han Dynasties. However, its methods were finally categorised during the Sui and Tang Dynasties (581 AD – 907 AD) in the highly influential book of General Treaties on Causes and Manifestations of All Diseases. This statement included 287 Chinese yoga methods to treat a variety of syndromes.

Some believe that period is also when Indian yoga began to influence the development of Chinese Yoga. At the time, Paramartha translated a Hindu text Mathara Vrtti into Chinese, in 6 AD. This text describes Samkhya yoga, an ancient yogic philosophy.

The Chinese monk Hsuan Tsang also traveled to India in 631 AD. He spent years studying and translating Sanskrit texts into Chinese.

The word yoga also started being used in Chinese. Therefore, we can say yoga existed in China at the time, and also influenced the development of Chinese yoga.

So Chinese yoga began developing as early as 2,000 BC. Later, it was systemised and categorised under the name Dao Yin. It is believed that its development was influenced by yogic philosophies.

A Short History of Yin Yoga

Yin yoga is a modern type of practice, developed in the 20th century, based on the book called Taoist Yoga Alchemy and Immortality written by Lu K’uan Yu and published in 1973.

According to the book, Taoist yoga is simply another name for Qui Kung. However, it inspired martial artist and yogi Paulie Zink to develop Yin yoga, a combination of Indian and Chinese practices. In his version of Chinese yoga, he combined the stretches of Indian yoga with the animal movements from Chinese martial arts.

Paulie Zink’s student, Paul Grilley, utilised this knowledge he received in his teacher’s workshops and continued to develop Yin yoga in the 1980s. 

He brought his version to the west, and that is the Yin yoga style you will typically encounter in any yoga studio today. Paul Grilley is still one of its most prominent ambassadors today.

Chinese Elements in Yin Yoga

Yin yoga marries yogic asanas and teachings from Chinese philosophy. Here are the main Chinese elements incorporated in this yoga style.

Concept of Yin and Yang

Yin yoga uses the Chinese concept of yin and yang, which describes the opposite and complementary energies found in nature. Yin energy is slow, soft, cold, feminine, and passive; as opposed to Yang which is rather fast, hot, hard, masculine, and active.

That explains why the name “Yin yoga” was given to this practice. Furthermore, it activates the “yin” tissues in our bodies with supine and seated stretches.

These tissues are bones, tendons, ligaments, and discs. They can only be corrected, healed, and lengthened with passive stretches, held for a few mins or more.

That’s exactly why you usually hold a pose for at least three minutes in a Yin yoga class.

Flow of Chi

In a deeper sense, the goal of Yin yoga is to improve the flow of chi, the essential life force.  Working on an improved flow of chi may boost the practitioner’s physical and mental health, according to Taoist beliefs.

The concept of chi, which translates to “breath”, comes from traditional Chinese Medicine, just as Prana is from Hinduism.

Nourishing practices like Yin yoga are not only useful for their immediate results. They also preserve the Chi energy in our bodies, leading to longer and more fulfilled lives. 

The Meridians

The poses and sequences of Yin yoga aim to activate a certain meridian. The concept of “meridian” comes from Chinese medicine, and is believed to be the conduit that forms a network of energy, or “chi”, in the body.

If chi is prevented from flowing through the meridians, the organs won’t work as efficiently as they should. According to its teachers, Yin yoga poses can clear meridians, unblock the flow of energy and heal imbalances.

Chinese mystics believed there are 71 meridians in the body and of them14 are key ones. The major meridians are associated with the larger organs in the body.

Like other tissues in the body, meridians can be categorised under yin and yang principles. The yin meridians begin or end in the feet, while the yang meridians begin and end in the hands.

In summary, Yin Yoga includes three main Chinese elements: the concept of yin and yang, the flow of chi, and the system of meridians.

Yoga-like Chinese Health Systems

Dao Yin

Dao Yin is very similar to traditional Hatha yoga. The two systems share postures for stretching and strengthening the limbs, as well as breathing exercises that correct and regulate our breathing patterns. As with Indian yoga, Dao Yin also includes meditative practices.

Tai Chi

Tai Chi shares similar benefits with yoga. Both can increase your flexibility, range of motion, strength, and sense of balance. Continuous practice helps improve your mental health, and reduce pain and the risk of injuries.

Both systems stress the importance of breath and involve diaphragmatic breathing exercises.

Like yoga, Tai Chi incorporates mental practices and focuses on harmonising the mind, body, and spirit. Dao Yin, Qigong, and Tai Chi are three Chinese health systems that are similar to yoga. Like Indian yoga, they include breath work, physical exercises, and meditation practice.

What we can Conclude

Health systems similar to yoga appeared in China 1000s of years ago. With time, Indian yoga began to influence the further development of Chinese yoga alternatives.

In the late 20th century, yoga teachers also developed Yin Yoga, a nurturing practice inspired by both yogic and Chinese principles. Now this form of yoga is very popular across the world.

If you’re interested to learn more about Yin and other types of yoga, read our comprehensive Yoga Types List.

We would also recommend you to look at one of our main online courses on Yin Yoga, which has been created after years of experience and walks you through Yin Yoga practices you probably have never experienced before. Click here to see the course.

3 sources
  1. https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2019/3705120/
  2. https://ia803101.us.archive.org/6/items/LuKuanYuTaoistYogaAlchemyAndImmortality/Lu%20K%27uan%20Yu%20-%20Taoist%20Yoga%20-%20Alchemy%20and%20Immortality_text.pdf
  3. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/tai-chi-or-yoga-4-important-differences
Meera Watts
Meera Watts is the owner and founder of Siddhi Yoga. She is known around the world for her thought leadership in the wellness industry and was also recognized as a Top 20 International Yoga Blogger. Her writing on holistic health has appeared in Elephant Journal, CureJoy, FunTimesGuide, OMtimes and other international magazines. Meera is a yoga teacher and yoga therapist, though now she focuses primarily on leading Siddhi Yoga, blogging and spending time with her family in Singapore.

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