In my last post but one I wrote about Yin and Yang and what they mean in the context of the human body. But I didn’t mention acupuncture. So how do Yin and Yang relate to this therapeutic practice? In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) theory, Yin and Yang are fundamental. Imbalances in Yin and Yang in the body as a whole, or in a part of the body, cause disease. These imbalances can be corrected by the stimulation (by various means including the insertion of needles) of well-selected points located on “meridians” (energy channels) that run through the body. Such stimulation must be done at a few specific points among the 360+ points (depending on the authority) and in specific ways determined by the diagnosis, otherwise it will not work or may even make matters worse. In my view this is not so. The trouble with it is that if you go with your problem to several different acupuncturists from several different cultures (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, etc.) or schools of thought (or even the same culture and school of thought!) you will likely receive several different diagnoses and several different treatments, and all of them will be making a living and claiming good results with their patients. As I explain in my book, Acupuncture: A Stress-Based Model, the specificity of acupuncture treatment is overstated, and is largely an illusion. And as I explained in my post on Yin and Yang, I consider these to be useful linguistic concepts rather than universal forces. But let us get down to essentials, the essential bit where TCM theory and I agree with each other. Health is a question of physiological balance, which can be described in terms of Yin and Yang. When acupuncture is effective, it is because it has helped to restore physiological balance.
There can’t be many people who have not seen at some time the Chinese Yin-Yang symbol. There are many versions of it, and I have chosen this one with fish as it is attractive, different, and I have always liked fish!
According to Chinese philosophy everything that exists is a product of two mutually antagonistic but complementary forces, Yin and Yang, which by feeding on each other keep each other in check. You most probably know this already. If you do not, please see here.
I am assuming that much is known, because I don’t wish to spend words on the basics here. What I want to do here is to demystify Yin and Yang. Much that I see written on Traditional Chinese Medicine insists on using Chinese words, or literally translated terms that obscure what are actually very practical and ordinary ideas. The context I am going to use to demystify Yin-Yang is the human body (and mind) in health and disease.
In the mind think creativity, movement, responsiveness, emotionality, expressiveness.
You can be born more Yinny or more Yangy. After forty years of age these tendencies may start to cause health problems. If you are very Yin, you may gain weight and slip into obesity. This may have knock-on effects like wear-and-tear on your knee joints (osteoarthritis) and diabetes. If you are very Yang you may have begin to experience troubles of excess like stomach acidity and high blood pressure.
Yin-ness and Yang-ness can also be acquired by lifestyle patterns or choices. For example a hectic life with too much to do and long hours causes Yang-ness: much mental activity, physiological changes like having a lot of adrenalin flowing, and reactiveness to situations, like your heart racing. This will soon lead to depletion of Yin. But Yin provides the nourishment, the fuel for your activity, so you will be running around anxious to get things done but with insufficient physiological resources to do it. Burn-out.
A lack of Yang in your life (e.g. no movement, sedentariness, no physical exercise) will lead to Yin problems like weight gain, osteoporosis, fatty deposits in your arteries (atherosclerosis) and lack of motivation.
Yin and Yang symptoms and diseases have more or less the same characteristics as those listed above, or extensions of them. Yin ones have the characteristics of coldness or getting worse in the cold (e.g. arthritis), stillness and/or stagnation (e.g. swellings), solidity (e.g. tumours) stability (symptoms that don’t move and last a long time, chronic diseases), withdrawal (e.g. depression). Lack in any form in any form is also considered a Yin symptom, e.g. lack of substance (atrophy), lack of strength (paralysis), lack of resilience (susceptibility to infection, small physical or mental traumas).
Yang symptoms and diseases are hot (e.g. acute inflammation, fever) or get worse in hot weather, movement (symptoms that involve movement, e.g. tachycardia, or which move around the body like shifting pains), tension (e.g. tight muscles, intestinal colic, tension headache), pressure (hypertension) reactiveness/intensity (e.g. severe pain), excessive mental activity (e.g. anxiety, mania).
If you think about it, this is all fairly intuitive, right? Personally I regard Yin and Yang not as actual forces in the universe, but as metaphors people use to understand and talk about the world. Yin and Yang represent broad categories of things which people intuitively (if not always logically) see as opposites.
And it is common sense (as well as scientifically accurate) to say that health is defined by balance and is not favoured by extremes.
1 There are two basic kinds of nutrients: those which provides the physical building blocks of life and fuels for their activities – proteins, fats and carbohydrates; and those which catalyse metabolic and other chemical reactions in the body – vitamins and minerals. The former are Yin (flesh, nourishment), the latter Yang (heat, movement, transformation).
2 I was tempted to avoid this word as it is over-used and much misunderstood. Substance too stores energy, in chemical form. However, in common parlance, we all understand what it means to be “energetic”. I use the word in this way here.