Monday, May 28, 2012

The Importance of Yin & Yang in Traditional Chinese Medicine

The article I originally intended to write when I sat down at my computer was going to be entitled "The important role of the seasons in Traditional Chinese Medicine". But I soon realized that I had yet to fully address the cornerstone of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) & before one could discuss the important role of the seasons in food energetics, one must first have an adequate understanding of yin & yang. So it looks like the 'seasons' will have to wait to be my next article.

Most concepts of TCM are new to Westerners, but many have at least heard the words 'yin & yang' and have seen the tai chi symbol that represents this foundational concept of Chinese medicine.The tai chi symbol (pronounced like the words "tie chee") represents the ancient Chinese understanding of how the universe operates. The outer circle represents 'everything', while the dark & white shapes within the circle represent the interaction of two energies, called 'yin' (dark) & 'yang' (white). These two energies cannot exist without the other & cause everything to happen in the universe.
The tai chi symbol represents yin & yang, but more importantly our universe. The white shape must be on top & the black shape must be on bottom for the symbol to be correct; a symbol with the colors inverted is an incorrect representation. 
The concept of yin & yang is still used today & in many forms. Modern day physics uses this concept in much of the same way the Chinese did thousands of years ago when the idea was first invented. Physicists describe energy that is stored or inactive as potential energy, while this passive energy would be considered yin in TCM; energy that is being released is described by scientists as kinetic energy or would be considered yang in TCM. As you can see, there are many similarities in the way Easterners & Westerners describe the interactions in our world.

The tai chi symbol is extremely instrumental in understanding both yin & yang & how the two energies interact with one another. The white shape (yang) must be on top & the dark shape (yin) must be on bottom for the symbol to be correct; a symbol with the colors inverted is an incorrect representation & unfortunately a common mistake. The reason for this particularity is that the shape of the yin & yang sections of the symbol actually gives a sense of continual movement between the two energies: yin to yang & yang to yin. The interaction of these two energies causes everything to occur in the world, i.e. objects expanding & contracting, temperature changes from hot to cold, & day turning to night, etc. So when looking at the tai chi symbol, imagine heated water turning to steam & rising, and as the steam cools & condenses, returning back to water: if the white section which represents yang & the steam were switched with the dark section representing yin & condensed water, it would be rather confusing when one considers that heat rises & cold falls. Or when the sun rises, the moon sets, & so on. The examples of yin & yang are limitless & the tai chi symbol is most representative of this. 

Associating the principles of yin & yang with opposites is another good way to think of these concepts. While referring to the tai chi symbol again, picture the world in this way: the universe functions as a single entity which is represented by the 'circle' since the universe encapsulates everything. Now this entity is divided into two opposing principles, yin & yang. Yang (white) is opposite to the actions of yin (dark) & vice versa. All things follow this order & are either yin or yang.  As a result, all things are related to one another in some way because the very nature of opposites is that one is related to the other. For example, positive is related to negative, or the north pole is related to the south pole. You cannot have one without the other, because their very definition includes the other.

It might seem confusing at first, but don't over complicate it. Let's look at more attributes used in Traditional Chinese Medicine that characterize yin & yang. The following examples of yin & yang are in the table below, but first see if you can determine whether something is considered yin or yang!
Yang is active & hot. What things first come to your mind when you think these adjectives? If you thought the sun, light, summer, day, or fire your guesses were all correct. Activity, hot, sun, light, summer, day, & fire are all considered yang in TCM. Visualizing the white section of the tai chi symbol will make it much easier to remember yang things.

Now if yang is active & hot, then what is yin? Visualize the dark section of the tai chi symbol to think of things that are yin in nature. Yin is inactive & cold. What things first come to your mind when you think of these adjectives? If you thought the moon, dark, winter, night, or water your guesses were correct. Inactivity, cold, moon, dark, winter, night, & water are all considered yin in TCM. Did you notice that the yin natured objects are all opposite of the yang natured objects first listed?
This table shows some typical characteristics of yin & yang.
The principle of yin & yang permeates every aspect of life.
At first, the reader might not realize that this article deals with more than just Chinese medicinal principles.  The understanding of the principles of yin & yang moves beyond TCM & touches Western medicine, since physics lies at its very core too. In order to understand the energetic principles of food, the human body, our world, etc. it is essential to comprehend the universal principles of yin & yang. For the practitioners of TCM, this principle is immersed in everything around us: foods & herbs have either yin or yang properties, our organs are either yin or yang, illnesses can be either yin or yang, a particular time of the day is either yin or yang, the seasons are either yin or yang, different types of exercise are either yin or yang, & even personalities have yin & yang traits, etc. Due to the cyclical nature of yin & yang that causes change within our bodies & outside of us in the universe, the goal of Chinese medicine is to identify the cause as either yin & yang in order to restore balance back to the body. Food energetics is just one of the many tools that TCM utilizes to heal the body & maintain health.