Balance as Health: Yin and Yang

Yin and Yang Symbol
Yin Yang symbol called a tai ji

One of my secret indulgences is watching food television programs. In a recent international baking competition, the American team created a cake based on the theme of yin and yang. It occurred to me that what started as a Chinese philosophy has now become a part of the world’s vocabulary, but few people understand this concept in the context of Chinese philosophy and medicine.

Origins of Yin and Yang

Originally, the terms yin and yang referred to the two faces of a sun-bathed mountain. They called the sunlit face yang and the shady side yin. Philosophers observed that while these two sides are opposites, they are inextricably linked. When there is light, there is also a shadow.

Yin describes actions that are slow, calm, and restful and objects that are heavy, dark, and cooler.  Yang describes actions that are fast and energetic and objects that are light and warm.

Philosophers used yin and yang to describe the dualistic and cyclic flow of the natural world: the day becomes night, the ocean tides ebb and flow, seasons change from hot to cold, and constellations of the night sky rotate throughout the year. Yin yang philosophy encompassed the ideas that opposites balance each other, create one another, flow into one another, and are both required for their mutual existence.

466px-Yin_yangThis symbol, called the tai ji (supreme ultimate), represents the balance and mutual dependence of yin and yang. Yin is represented by black and yang by white. The diagram conveys the intertwined nature of yin and yang. Also, notice that at the core of yin lies yang, and at the core of yang is yin.

Yin and Yang in Everyday Life

Further developing the yin and yang concept, philosophers expanded the metaphor by assigning yin and yang general characteristics, which gave it the ability to describe objects and actions, in addition to natural phenomena. Objects associated with solid, dark, cool, and heavy characteristics are yin in nature and objects that are light, thin, hot, and translucent are yang in nature. Yin actions are slow and resistant to force, while yang are rapid and move without resistance.

A central tenet of the philosophy states that everything has both yin and yang qualities. For example, a tree would be considered very yin in nature because it is solid and hard, but it also has yang features. The most yin feature is the tree’s roots, because they are deep in the ground and support the tree’s weight. The leaves, on the other hand, are very yang in nature, as they are thinner, grow more rapidly, and are less weighty.

Actions can also be described in terms of yin and yang. The growth of the roots digging into the ground for nutrients would be a yin type growth, as it is slow and gradual for long term sustainability. Bringing water and nutrients up through the roots, the trunk, and finally to the leaves are the yang actions. These different functions are both needed for the tree’s survival.

Yin and Yang in Health and Chinese Medicine

Yin and yang are the most basic concepts in Chinese medicine and are the key to health and wellness. Put simply, health is the proper balance of yin and yang. We use exercise, food, acupuncture, acupressure, and Chinese herbs to balance them.

Yin is used to describe thick substances and stillness, and yang refers to more energetic actions and bodily substances. For example, blood is a yin type of substance and qi, the body’s energy, is more yang. In treatment, the acupuncture techniques and herbs encourage the body to be more yang or yin in nature.

Women during menopause tend to have too little yin, which has cooling properties. This in turn leads to a relative excess of yang causing hot flashes. To treat the hot flashes, we use acupuncture techniques and herbs, which add yin to create a balance.

Balancing our Yin and Yang

Individuals can help promote their own balance through breathing techniques, getting a good night’s sleep, food choices, and physical activity. And of course there is also the Acupressure Tune Up, which helps move qi throughout the body and promote balance of yin and yang.

Breathing for Balance

Our society tends to be very yang. We stay up late, work in stressful environments, and sit for long hours in front of computers. Breathing techniques are a wonderful method for attaining balance.

Breathing is mostly a yang activity in which we inhale air into the body to use for energy. By breathing slowly and in a more controlled fashion, we can add yin to the action, thereby balancing out the yang with stillness and relaxation.

Try it. Sit on a chair with your feet on the floor. Hold your hands palms up on your lap, just under your belly button. Relax your shoulders and chest and breathe into your hands allowing your stomach to naturally rise and fall. Do this for 5-10 minutes per day and you will begin to feel more relaxed and calm.

Sleeping For Balance

During sleep our bodies repair themselves and store energy. That is why a good night’s sleep is essential for attaining balance. For those who have difficulty sleeping, try the above breathing exercise before bed. Simple acupressure can sometimes be helpful as well.

There is a point on the forehead just above the center of the eyebrows which can help you relax called Yin Tang. Gently rub this point downwards (towards the nose) while breathing deeply. Also, rubbing the ears helps calm the entire body and promote relaxation. Those with significant and long term insomnia may need acupuncture and Chinese herbs.

Eating for Balance

Food choices are fundamental to maintain balance. A few simple choices can make a big difference. Whenever possible, eat whole foods, preferably organic. Also eat a variety of flavors and foods. This not only gives the body a diversity of nutrients, but also helps satiate us.

For the most part, eat cooked food. Digestion is a yang activity. Cooking food makes it easier to digest, and we can absorb the nutrients more easily.

Balancing Physical Activity

Physical activity is required for maintaining balance and health. But a proper balance of aerobic exercise and stretching is required. Aerobic exercise is a yang activity. When we exercise, breathing becomes more rapid, heart rate increases, our bodies get hot, and we sweat. Running is a perfect example. A great exercise to maintain fitness, but alone it is often too yang, and can lead to joint pain and injuries. Stretching and soft movement exercises, such as tai ji and qi gong, can be combined with running to make a more balanced workout.

Joseph Alban, L.Ac.
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