Most people look at the yin-yang symbol and think, "What a cute reminder to have balance," but yin and yang form the basis for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and epitomize the ancient beliefs in harmony and moderation. According to TCM, everything in the universe exists in relative amounts of yin and yang, and the symbol reflects their four basic properties:
- Opposition: Just as black is the opposite of white, yin is the opposite of yang.
- Interdependence: Take away one half of the circle and you will no longer have a circle. Yin doesn't exist without yang and vice versa.
- Mutual consuming: Following the circle around you'll notice that as the black part becomes larger, the white part shrinks. Yin and yang are constantly rebalancing in relation to one another.
- Intertransformation: The small dots in the center of the opposite color's largest part represent the fact that even in times of utmost yin or yang, there is always the potential for change.
Let’s use a real-life example to illustrate this: When considering a 24-hour day, the most yin time would be midnight, midway between when the sun sets and the sun rises. As night continues on and dawn approaches, yin diminishes and starts to transform into yang, continuing the transformation until noon, which is the most yang part of the day. As the day draws to a close and the sun begins to set, yin increases again, and the cycle of yin and yang repeats. Following the four properties above, night and day are opposite, you can't have one without the other, they fade into each other cyclically, and they always have the potential to convert.
Another easy example of this constant change and balance in nature is the flow of the seasons. Based on what we discussed so far, which time of the year do you think is the most yin? If you answered winter, you’re correct! How about the most yang time of the year? That would be summer. Autumn and spring are the transition periods between the times of utmost yin and utmost yang.
Yin and yang are not just confined to time. Everything in the universe can be classified as either yin or yang, keeping in mind that this classification is relative. You already know that yin is dark and yang is light based on the yin-yang symbol, but where would you put rest and activity, two opposites that we experience every day? If you think about the other examples we’ve covered, it makes sense that rest is more yin because we tend to rest during the night and during the winter – both of which are yin times – and are more active during the day and summer. How about hot and cold? Again, think of summer and winter: The most yang time of the year is also the hottest, so the fact that heat is yang and cold is yin is very logical as well.
Let’s try one that doesn’t necessarily follow the same pattern: Male versus female. While our culture has almost eradicated all stereotypes between men and women, in ancient times, women tended to the home and men went out and worked. Another way of looking at it is that women rested with and nurtured the children – even though we all know taking care of kids isn’t usually restful – while men needed to be active at their jobs. Tying this back to our previous example, yin is more female and yang is more male. I will say classifying men and women this way isn’t meant to be a comment on gender roles; I just think looking at the foundational logic makes these easier to remember.
Another example that might take a bit of thought is liquid versus gas or vapor. Can you remember any elementary physics classes from your childhood? Liquid turns to gas when it gets heated because its particles become more active…making liquid yin and vapor yang. Finally, what do you think about being outside or inside? Where do you tend to be more active? Outside, right? That would make outside more yang and inside more yin. These same principles can be applied to ANYTHING, and you may have noticed that I usually said things were “more yin” and “more yang” instead of simply “yin” or “yang” because everything is relative. For instance, your muscles are more yin than your skin because they are located farther within you. In comparing your muscles to your internal organs, however, the muscles would be more yang because the organs are farther inside.
With this general knowledge about what yin and yang are and how they relate to each other, we can now look at how they affect health. In the case of our bodies, we’ll generalize yin as rest, moisture, and coolness and yang as activity, energy, and heat. Ideally, we would have a balance of both, each flowing with the yin and yang of the day as we cool down and rest at night and become active and energetic after waking. However, that’s not often the case.
To simplify things, the cup below is going to represent the body. Let’s pretend that we somehow measured the perfect amount of boiling water on the right to equalize the ice cubes on the left, so that when we combine the two in the glass they are perfectly balanced in temperature. (Someone in physics might argue this, but again, let’s pretend for the sake of simplicity.) In this state of equal amounts of heat (or yang) and cold (or yin), the body is happy.
What happens, though, if instead of being equal, we add more of the boiling water? Then we would have more heat than cold, and the water in the cup would be hotter than it was in the previous example. Relating this back to yin and yang and the body, we would have an "excess of yang" because yang correlates to that heat. Imagine what type of symptoms you would see in someone with too much yang. The most obvious one is a full-on fever, where someone feels like they’re burning up. A yang excess doesn’t have to be that intense, though, and even someone who tends to run hot day to day can have this imbalance. You can probably visualize someone like this also having an issue with sweating easily and maybe even tending to be red in the face.
How about the opposite scenario? When we add another ice cube and increase the cold yin in the cup, the water inside of it becomes colder, right? This is an "excess of yin," and someone suffering from this condition may run cold all the time. Yin also ties into moisture and fluid, so edema or swelling can present here as well, or even if someone doesn’t feel swollen, they might feel a heaviness in their body. When fluid condenses even more, it can turn into phlegm, which is another yin pathology.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, instead of adding more of something to the cup, we can also take away some of the boiling water. How does the fluid inside of the cup compare to what it was before? It’s still relatively cold, but maybe not as cold as when we added extra ice. This represents "yang deficiency" in the body, or the state of having not enough yang or heat that leads to cold. Another way of saying this is "deficient yang producing cold," or we can shorten it to "deficient cold". Again, this is still a yang condition even though we’re seeing it in terms of cold!
What would you expect a yang deficient person to feel? They’ll tend to run cold, of course, and fatigue is also obvious, as yang ties in to energy in the body. That can be day-to-day energy, but can also apply to specific physiological activities, for instance sex, and a yang deficient person can have issue with sexual drive or function. Just like too much yin produced excess fluid, not enough moving energy in the body can also produce edema in that the normal amount of yin can’t be moved where it needs to go. Deficient yang can also lead to symptoms like urinary dribbling and loose stool because the body doesn’t have the energy to hold things in.
Finally, let’s look at what happens when take away an ice cube. This is the opposite of what we just discussed: The cup's contents are relatively hotter. In "yin deficiency," or "deficient yin producing heat" or "deficient heat," a person usually won’t feel hot all the time like in the case of a yang excess, but rather will experience flashes of heat. They may also feel hot at night – remember night is the time when yin should dominate but here it can’t because there’s not enough of it – or even experience restlessness at night. A deficiency of yin can also lead to unrestrained yang – again heat and energy and activity – rising to the head, as heat rises in physics. What do you think too much activity in the head looks like? Maybe overthinking, anxiety, or mind racing, right?
These are the four textbooks patterns of yin and yang imbalances, but in practice, many people have a combination of them, for instance someone who doesn’t have enough yang and has extra yin, leaving them very cold with symptoms of both the excess yin and deficient yang conditions. We would confirm this pattern with pulse and tongue diagnosis and then work on correcting it with acupuncture, diet, herbal medicine, essential oils, supplements, and lifestyle adjustments as needed.
Kathleen Ellerie is a Licensed Acupuncturist and the owner of Beachside Community Acupuncture. She loves providing affordable acupuncture to the residents of Addison, Dallas, and Farmers Branch, Texas, and educating the general public on how acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine can treat everything from pain to infertility to stress and beyond. Click "Book Now" at the top of this page to book an appointment or feel free to contact her at (214) 417-2260.