The concept of Yin and Yang is the most fundamental principle of TCM.
Yin and Yang represent balance and harmony in the universe, nature, and our daily lives.
Understanding Yin and Yang helps us care for our overall well-being as we live in accordance with the rhythms of time, seasons, and the natural world around us.
What are Yin and Yang?
If you are feeling sick or suffering from an ailment, it is important to discover the root causes. According to TCM, imbalances in the mind and body cause illness as either an excess or a deficiency in Yin or Yang.
So what are Yin and Yang? They permeate the universe as two phases of cyclical change that maintain balance and harmony in everything. They are opposite yet complementary, intrinsically tied to each other, and part of all life. They exist in the everyday, such as in the foods we eat, the ways we organize our schedules, our circadian rhythms, and even our menstrual cycles.
Here are some examples of Yin and Yang at work:
As shown by the traditional Yin and Yang symbol, they are not characterized as simple extremes but more like phases that flow into each other in a continual cycle of transformation. In fact, Yin and Yang have four main dynamics:
- Opposition — in contrast to each other
- Interdependence — dependent on each other
- Mutual Consumption — balanced but ever-changing
- Inter-transformation — if one transforms, the other follows
The five seasons according to TCM — summer, late summer, autumn, winter, and spring — demonstrate these dynamics at play. Yin predominantly applies to cooler and colder weather while Yang applies to warmer and hotter temperatures. The diagram above illustrates the contrast between Yin and Yang with winter versus summer, and that opposition is never fixed in place since the seasons do change. We experience the interdependence of Yin and Yang when winter’s period of hibernation and rest allows for the activation of new growth in the spring. That growth and energy reach a peak in late summer so that harvest time and cooler weather in the autumn season help us prepare for winter.
The ever-changing nature of the seasons showcases the mutual consumption of Yin and Yang, as noted by the presence of spring and autumn. These seasons are unique because they represent the switch from Yin to Yang and vice versa. Lastly, the timing of the seasons shows the inter-transformation of Yin and Yang. The seasons change at the same time every year so that Yin transforms into Yang and Yang transforms back into Yin in perfect harmony.
However, what happens when Yin and Yang are imbalanced? Disruption — maybe even chaos — follows. We feel this after working too hard over prolonged periods of intense exertion (Yang), which can build up to burnout and the need for rest (Yin). Eating ice cream while outside on a cold winter’s day (Yin) can make us even more chilled to the bone, so we favor hot soups and drinks to regain internal balance. This idea of harmony is core to TCM; what we put in our bodies and how we interact with the outside world affect our health. Any imbalance manifests as illness and requires a study of the root causes for proper treatment.
Understanding Yin and Yang helps us access the whole world of TCM and care for our overall well-being.
The concept of Yin and Yang is the foundation of TCM because how they work together informs the way TCM diagnoses patients and views the complexities of the human body. Is the patient dealing with an excess of Yin or Yang? Where is the deficiency? The lower body refers to the Yin side while the upper body refers to the Yang side. Sometimes the body’s internal temperature is more Yin, or cool, while other times it is more Yang, or warm. The goal of TCM is to bring these kinds of imbalances back to a steady, harmonious state (like our biomedical understanding of homeostasis).
The ebb and flow of Yin and Yang always follows a pattern in the body, the same kind of pattern that exists in the seasons and elements that make up the universe. In the human body, this pattern occurs among the Zang-Fu organs. Zang organs are Yin, and Fu organs are Yang.
- Small Intestine
- Large Intestine
- Urinary Bladder
- Energy (Qi) — the vital life force of the body
- Blood (Xue) — the liquid life force of the body
- Essence (Shen) – the raw element or marrow that makes life
- Bodily fluids (Jin Ye) — distributors of nutrients
Spirit (Shen) — regulator of emotions
Dr. Ted J. Kaptchuk explains the TCM perspective on the body’s internal system in his book The Web That Has No Weaver:
“It is an organization of all the observable manifestations of human life into an integrated set of functions and relationships.”
These substances and organs are primary parts of an elaborate network in our bodies that work in sync to keep us healthy. Some potential signs of imbalance are tension headaches after a stressful, grueling day at work, debilitating menstrual cramps, sinus infections, or something more extreme like heart attacks. When something does not feel right, that is a sign of imbalance.
Our bodies alert us for help through symptoms; it can be over a long period of time as a chronic situation or a sudden, sharp burst of pain that calls for quick action. Deciphering the underlying reasons (excess, deficiency, or both) is the first step to restoring balance through holistic treatment that addresses the whole body — the organs, flow of Blood and Qi, and more.
This concept applies not only to health but to the things that influence our everyday lives, from the relationships we keep to the task of juggling a job and a social life. Yin and Yang are the core of TCM, but they can play a center role in life, too.
Overworking leads to an excess of Yang, so it becomes important to rest and recharge to bring in more Yin. We crave refreshing, Yin-strong watermelon in the summertime to lessen high Yang energy (heat) and sleep at certain times of the day to align with the transition from Yang time to Yin time. Yin and Yang govern our menstrual cycles as well, where menstruation and the follicular phase are Yin while ovulation and the luteal phase are Yang. Whether it is a micro detail or a broad scope like an entire season, Yin and Yang are everywhere in the world around us. After all, life is about balance.
Hailin Wu, OM Clinical / Faculty Supervisor. “What Are Yin and Yang in Chinese Medicine?” Acupuncture and Massage College, www.amcollege.edu/blog/what-are-yin-and-yang.
Kaptchuk, Ted J., and Ted J. Kaptchuk. The Web That Has No Weaver: Understanding Chinese Medicine. McGraw-Hill, 2008.
Lim, Allison. “Late Summer: The Season of Nurturing and Transformation.” TCM World, 11 Aug. 2020, www.tcmworld.org/late-summer-the-season-of-nurturing-and-transformation-2-2/.
“Traditional Chinese Medicine Nutrition.” AOMA Graduate School of Integrative Medicine. Dietary Advice for Each Season, www.shen-nong.com/eng/lifestyles/food_diet_advice_season.html.
“Yin & Yang in Chinese Medicine.” Chinese Medicine - Sacred Lotus, www.sacredlotus.com/go/foundations-chinese-medicine/get/yin-yang.
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Zhang, Tianxing, et al. “Human Biological Rhythm in Traditional Chinese Medicine.” Journal of Traditional Chinese Medical Sciences, Elsevier, 8 Feb. 2017, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2095754816301028.
Zhu, Xueliang. “Seeing the Yin and Yang in Cell Biology.” Molecular Biology of the Cell, The American Society for Cell Biology, 15 Nov. 2010, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2982087/.This article was reviewed by Dr. Liem Le.
Dr. Liem Le is a Doctor of Chinese Medicine, Functional Medicine Practitioner, and Nutritionist Integrative Medicine Department at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center. He is a part of the teaching staff for the Masters program for the Functional Medicine and Human Nutrition program at University of Western States. Dr. Le is currently working on his fellowship in Integrative Medicine with the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine via a scholarship from the White House to complete the initiative.