Ancient Daoist philosophers developed the concept of Yin–Yang in order to understand and explain the natural world around them, including the human body. The well-known, swirling black and white symbol – known as the tai ji in Chinese – pares this complex concept down to a single, elegant imagine. Much like Einstein’s famous E = mc2 equation, the Yin–Yang symbol describes something that is both elemental yet incredibly intricate. What Yin–Yang represents is so vast, it encompasses all phenomena. Everything in the universe contains Yin and Yang.
The theory of Yin–Yang was originally derived from the observation that all phenomena in the universe innately group into pairs of opposites: heaven and earth, sun and moon, male and female. These pairs represent the dynamic balance of opposites. Although they are antithetical in their individual qualities and nature, they are also inter-dependent. Yin and Yang cannot exist without each other. Together, these two opposing, yet complementary, forces work together to maintain balance and harmony.
For example, night and day is a Yin–Yang pair, with night being Yin and day being Yang. While they are completely different, it is impossible to have one without the other. Only together do they create a complete whole. This suggests that even as things ceaselessly change, they always ceaselessly seek to re-balance themselves.
Ancient philosophers relied on Yin–Yang to describe the dualistic and cyclical flow of the natural world: day becomes night, ocean tides ebb and flow, seasons change from hot to cold, and constellations in the night sky rotate throughout the year. Yin–Yang philosophy encompasses the ideas that opposites balance each other, create one another, flow into one another, and ultimately, need each other for their mutual existence.
Yin (represented by black) has the qualities of earth and water. It corresponds to heavy, passive, dark and cool principles. Yin is substantial, cohesive and gives depth and weight to our lives. Yin is slow, never rushing. It is nourishing and sustaining. In the environment, Yin energy is expressed in the roots of trees and their ability to take nourishment from the ground. It is embodied in the winter season, where we see the hibernation of animals and dormancy of plants. Yin is the tendency to slow down, go inward and reflect, and it represents the quiet, peaceful qualities of night time.
Alternately, the nature of Yang (represented by white) is fiery, active and hot. In the environment, this energy is expressed by the heat of the sun and the growth of plants above ground. Yang is said to rise in the spring and is at its height in the summer. It is the tendency toward activity and creation. We see Yang in the leaves of a tress and it is represented in the dynamic, bright qualities of daytime.
Metaphorically, Yang can be thought of as the desire to become something, while Yin is the desire to return to nothing. Yang is the impulse to go out into the world and explore, while Yin reflects the desire to turn inward and be introspective. Together, Yin and Yang create the movement that defines all aspects of our lives.
Importantly, nothing is completely Yin or Yang, as everything contains qualities of both. Yin–Yang both embody and constantly transform into each other, as night turns into day, and winter turns into spring. Our lives our characterized by active phases (Yang) that need to be balanced with times of rest (Yin). Even within the Yang energy of day there is shade (Yin), and within the Yin energy of night there are stars (Yang). This interdependent relationship captures the dynamic balance of opposites and the inevitable unfolding of change.
Rather than seek balance, much of our modern-day culture seems driven to value and reward the manifestation of Yang energy. We stay up late and work long hours in stressful environments. Yang nature is revealed in that which is outgoing, brilliant, aggressive and focused. What society fails to appreciate or understand, however, is that Yang depends on Yin for fuel and support. Without Yin, there is no Yang. When we undervalue Yin stillness, and praise or encourage Yang activity without knowing or understanding its source, we are in danger of neglecting or over-consuming the elements that ground and refuel us.
Our health also reflects the relative balance, or imbalance, of Yin and Yang. Traditional Chinese medicine applies Yin–Yang theory to help patients harmonize their body, mind and spirit to achieve greater well-being. It underlies every aspect of our physiology as well as pathology, and is fundamental to understanding, diagnosing and treating illness and disease.
In Chinese medicine, Yin refers to the physical and material aspects of the body, such as tissues and body fluids, while Yang describes all of the metabolic activity occurring in the body such as digestion, circulation and respiration. Blood, which has the function of nourishing and moistening the body is Yin. Our vital energy or fire of life – what the Chinese call Qi – is categorized as Yang.
The dynamic balance of Yin–Yang within the body can be correlated with modern biology: all life activities and bodily processes can be explained by the opposition and transformation of Yin and Yang. For example, in the central nervous system, inhibition and excitation – the parasympathetic and sympathetic functions that give us our “rest and digest” and “fight or flight” responses, represent Yin and Yang energies respectively. While these two systems are in opposition, they require a dynamic balance to maintain normal nervous activity. The same is true of estrogen and testosterone in the endocrine system. In muscles, this is seen in the opposition of contraction and relaxation. For glucose metabolism, there is insulin and glucagon. In metabolism, there is anabolism and catabolism. Between each these pairs of opposites, dynamic balance must be maintained for optimal health to thrive.
Ultimately, when Yin and Yang are in balance, we enjoy a state of good health and well-being. When there is an imbalance of these two fundamental energies within the body (and either Yin or Yang becomes too dominant or deficient), disease manifests. Finally, death results when there is the complete separation of Yin and Yang.
To properly balance the Yin and Yang within our own lives, we must evaluate when to be assertive and take action, and when to be still and remain true to ourselves. When we feel pressure to conform to outward standards and appearances, we lose touch with our inner self. Eventually, we may lose touch with our integrity and our ability to know what is the right path for us. When that happens, we substitute the demands of others, or current fashion, for our own inner knowledge and trust. It we prioritize external demands with no reference to inner needs, eventually imbalance and illness will result.
Our culture tends to dismiss the value of Yin, except as fuel for Yang. Most of us push ourselves beyond our natural barriers without supplementing our Yin reserves to support this hyper-activity. This creates imbalance, as excessive Yang consumes Yin. We see this pervasive attitude even in the over-consumption of natural resources that is damaging the earth. If we over-consume Yin, we begin to lose our endurance and reserves. We become over-reactive and hyper-sensitive. Growth slows or even stops – physically in children, and emotionally/spiritually in adults. We eventually lose depth and life becomes superficial. Physically, it becomes difficult to relax and rest, even to the point of insomnia. Dryness will start to pervade – in our skin, hair, eyes, nose and mouth. Aging accelerates, causing (premature) grey hair and a decline in vision and hearing. Low grade fever, fatigue, low back and knee pain, poor memory, anxiety and bone deterioration are all more advanced signs of Yin deficiency.
The way we use our mind and emotions also has a very strong effect on our store of Yin. If we habitually use anger, worry and anxiety as methods of action, then the hot, hyperactive, Yang nature of these emotions will over-consume Yin. And the less Yin we have, the more easily agitated and disturbed we become. Minor inconveniences threaten to overwhelm us as we lose our “shock absorbers”. Constant tension, feeling burnt-out, and being easily hurt or offended are all signs of Yin depletion.
You may have noticed that many of the signs of Yin deficiency parallel what it means to age and grow older. This is true – many of the typical issues associated with aging are due to the fact that, inevitably, living does deplete Yin. But too many of us accelerate the aging process. The imbalance or depletion of Yin (as well as Yang) is accelerated by an overly active lifestyle, excessive stress, poor diet or chemical toxicity. Two classic, centuries-old Chinese herbal formulas – tonics designed to replenish the body’s store of Yin or Yang and return the body to balance – are Lui Wei Di Huang Wan and Jin Gui Shen Qi Wan, respectively. Er Xian Tang is the go-to formula when both Yin and Yang are deficient and need fortification. All three of these formulas have a remarkable capacity to strengthen the body’s fundamental Yin–Yang energies and resolve the symptoms that often accompany their deficiency (For instance, hot flashes during menopause are considered to be a classic symptom of Yin deficiency, while excessive nocturnal urination and low back pain are often a telltale sign of Yang deficiency).
How can you apply this awareness of Yin–Yang to your own life? Working with your acupuncturist/herbalist, you can work to re-balance the Yin–Yang energy in your life to help harmonize your body, mind, emotions, and spirit. Taking a step back from your day-to-day routine, look at where your lifestyle may actually be creating health issues and imbalances that are keeping you from reaching your goals and moving forward in life. Where do you push too hard? Where are you perhaps overly passive? Going beyond merely treating your symptoms, your acupuncturist can help you determine what emotions, patterns of thought, belief systems, or aspects of your lifestyle are out of balance – and work to change the root cause(s) of the issue – and achieve greater health and vitality.