Demystifying Chinese Medicine – Yin and Yang

If you know anything at all about Chinese Medicine, or about the classical Chinese culture that it grew out of, it is probably the words Yin and Yang. The T’iai Chi Tu symbol, depicting the way Yin and Yang harmonise with each other, appears frequently. I even knew an accountant who had it on his business card! I guess balance is important in accounting too!

Yin and Yang are indeed key concepts in Chinese Medicine, but what do they really mean? Is it just a lot of mystical hot air?

The concepts originate in the observation that many aspects of the natural world are bipolar, they have two opposite poles. Day and night. Hot and cold. Up and down. Earth and sky. Winter and summer.  This is something so obvious it can be overlooked. Yang corresponds to daytime and therefore to warmth, light and movement. Yin is night-time, cold, dark, still. By extension, Yang is energy and consciousness, Yin is matter and substance.

In human life too the same thing is observed: inhaling and exhaling, systole and diastole, waking and sleeping, talking and being quiet, working and relaxing,  we move between opposites all of the time. The ancient Chinese, however, developed this apparently banal observation into a rather sophisticated philosophy of life which encompasses not just medicine but everything from martial arts to flower arranging.

When applied to medicine, this leads to the crucial idea, somewhat similar to the rather neglected western medical notion of homeostasis, that health involves maintaining balance. If Yin and Yang are harmonised in our body, in our mind, in our life, we are healthy people. Lose this balance for some reason, and illness results. The balance is not a static one, however; as the T’ai Chi Tu illustrates, Yin and Yang are inter-dependent, fluidly transforming into each other in the same way as day gradually gives way to night. A healthy person moves from Yin to Yang and back again in harmony with their environment.

Still, that is all a bit vague perhaps. It becomes more concrete when we start to apply it to specific aspects of the human being. For example, consider the blood. The Yang aspect of the blood is its movement; the Yin aspect is the actual substance of the blood, what it is made up of.  Clearly we need both; the blood needs to circulate and flow freely, and it needs to contain enough oxygen and other nutrients. If the Yang of the blood is lacking, we may have circulation problems such as Raynaud’s disease. If the blood is Yin deficient, we may, for instance, have anaemia.

As with the blood, so with any aspect of our being; we can speak of the Yin and Yang of the digestive system or of the kidneys; of the food that we eat and of our daily routine; of our constitution and of our temperament; of our body weight and of our body temperature. Ill health from this perspective starts to arise when, at some level of our being, we start to get out of balance. Maybe this initial disharmony begins in our emotional life or with poor eating habits; maybe it begins with an adventitious infection or with overdoing it at work. To begin with we can probably cope but, if we do not take steps to put things right, eventually our ability to self-regulate can be overwhelmed and imbalance starts to take root, and this has a knock on effect throughout our system.

To take an example, suppose we get into the habit of working late into the evening and not getting enough sleep. Maybe we use caffeine or some other stimulant to keep this up. After a few months of this we start becoming irritable and edgy, but we choose to ignore this. As well as not giving our self sufficient time to rest, we now find that the quality of the sleep we do get is not so great. Alarm bells are ringing, but we are choosing to ignore them!

As time goes by, our palms are becoming sweaty, and we have lost weight; we have a bit of a dry mouth a lot of the time, and a tickly cough. Sometimes at night we feel our heart fluttering, which finally wakes us up to the fact that we ought to get some help.

From the classical Chinese perspective, we have been giving the Yin side of our nature a bit of a hammering. When we should have been relaxed or asleep (Yin) we have been awake and active (Yang). To achieve this we have been using a Yang stimulant (caffeine) at the time of day when Yang should be taking a back seat.

So we end up without enough Yin. We are undernourished and over tired. Since Yin is related to stillness and calm, we are edgy and nervous. Sweaty palms, insomnia, weight loss, a dry mouth and a tickly cough are all classic signs of Yin deficiency, as are heart palpitations that happen in the evening. A practitioner of Chinese medicine will probably consider that the Yin deficiency relates especially to the kidneys, lungs and heart.

To restore health we clearly need to make some changes to our lifestyle; in particular we need to nourish the Yin by giving ourselves time to rest, perhaps by learning (again) to simply be for a bit, without so much doing (if we have been overworking because we need the money, this may be challenging, but not as challenging as what will be happening further on down the road if we don’t take ourselves in hand!). We may also need some treatment to help us; in Traditional Chinese Medicine this may be some acupuncture to calm the mind and nourish the Yin of the heart, kidneys and lungs, maybe also some herbal Yin tonics, and some advice on foods we can eat to nourish the Yin. Qigong or meditation are also a good idea.

Now the human being is a complex thing, and most health problems are not a straightforward case of Yin deficiency or Yang deficiency – or of Yin or Yang excess for that matter. Often the picture is complex and it takes some skill to fathom the ways in which Yin and Yang are out of kilter. There may, for instance, be Yin deficiency in one part of our system and Yang deficiency in another part. It becomes more complex still when we consider that one of the principal characteristics of Yin and Yang is that they transform into each other, as the day passes into night and an arthritic finger joint becomes hot and painfully inflamed if exposed to cold weather.

The human being is an incredibly complex system of inter-relationships and balances, and a big part of the art of healing is for the clinician to perceive just where the fundamental disharmony lies, so that when this is rectified by the appropriate treatment everything else falls into place and we start feeling ourselves again. One of the characteristics of this traditional Chinese medical approach is thus that it looks to treat the disharmony at the root of our problem, rather than just giving symptomatic relief which is not likely to successful in the long run; either our symptoms will return, or new ones will take their place.

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