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What is Yin and Yang? From the Blog

Yin and Yang in TCM: Beyond the Trendy Design of College Dorm Room Posters, Tattoos, and Necklaces

What is Yin and Yang: some people think of them only in terms of being opposites. However, Yin and Yang also explains how the universe works.


Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) diagnosis and treatment is guided by the philosophy of Yin-Yang, which instead of treating patients with pharmaceutical solutions, treats by examining internal disharmony.

Almost everybody has heard of Yin-Yang. But relatively few people can define it.

Yin-Yang: The Natural Order of the Universe

So what is Yin-Yang? It could be defined as one way in which the world operates; a natural order of the universe. Yin and Yang are often thought of as polar opposites on a most basic level.

But the concept of Yin and Yang goes much deeper. Yin and Yang also falls into the realm of quantum physics. It could be considered, like karma, an esoteric way of understanding the governing laws of the planet.

For example, modern era physicists such as Fritjof Capra, author of “The Tao of Physics,” described in his book how Yin-Yang diagrams are similar to how particles and antiparticles occupy opposite places.

Capra explained the parallels between Yin-Yang and quantum physics. He observed how both have a similar structure and how in each respective discipline (or philosophy), change is a constant, no matter how fixed a structure may seem.

That the same ancient Yin-Yang concepts can be found in the relatively modern field of quantum physics is not surprising; the philosophy was developed as a result of observations of the movement of the planets and observations of the body.

Capra describes how Yin-Yang is virtually indistinguishable from string theory. Or, as string theory is known at the time of Capra writing his book, “S-matrix theory). Both systems are comprised of reactions that give rise to all the phenomena in the world, whether the world is subatomic or the every-day occurrences we see on planet Earth.

If fact, a core tenet of Yin-Yang is that the machinations of the human body mirror those of the universe.

What is Yin and Yang: Opposites but always relative and changing

For those seeking the basics of Yin Yang characteristics, here’s a brief primer: yin/yang have attributes of, respectively: female/male; negative/positive; dark/light; damp/dry, cold/heat, state of growing/state of being in creation; rest/activity; inside/outside, etc….

Be it a planet, body of water, organ, landscape, time of day, etc., Yin-Yang does not exist in a static state. For example, a mountain may have Yin attributes because it appears a fixed object at rest. But relative to the tectonic plates of the planet, a mountain has Yang qualities.

In TCM diagnosis, certain organs are yin or yang, relative to other organs, as well as the time of day and other factors.

What is Yin and Yang from a Western Perspective?

From a western perspective, Yin-Yang is likely discredited by certain people in the medical community. That’s perhaps empirical data does not validate Yin-Yang; there is no scientific basis for Yin-Yang. It’s largely a big mystery, and as such, western medicine does not use it as a guiding philosophy.

However, certain medical conditions can be viewed through a Yin Yang lens. One small example is the balance between sodium and potassium in every human cell. When the level of one goes up, the other goes down and vice versa.

What is Yin and Yang? Diagnostic Examples

Using Yin-Yang in TCM theory, here’s a diagnostic example: if somebody feels excessively hot, has red skin and perhaps allergies, there is Yang excess. To bring the body back into a state of homeostasis, this person will need some Yin tonics to bring Yin-Yang in proper balance. And if someone runs cold in summer (even if it’s just their hands or feet), then there is a Yang deficiency, and herbs that nourish Yang energy would be the diagnostic solution.

If someone feels heavy, lethargic, suffers from bloating and gets sick often, these are all signs of excess dampness in the body. Dampness is a sign of excess Yin energy. Someone with excess yin can exist in better balance by taking herbs that nourish Yang energy. There are also lifestyle factors that can help diminish Yin energy in the case of dampness. One example is not eating fast food, which would further contribute to excess dampness and Yang deficiency.

In colloquial western parlance, someone with Yang excess, by contrast, needs to “cool their engines” and eat foods and take herbs that nourish Yin energy.

What is Yin and Yang? A Philosophy of Life

There is no single, unified source of Yin Yang. It’s not a philosophy that necessarily needs to be quantified, at least in the eyes of TCM doctors. Yin-Yang is a philosophy that applies to all of life’s phenomena. It reflects the internal property of everything. And what constitutes internal or external, like Yin-Yang itself, is relative. For example, a person’s body is internal, relative inside of a room, yet external relative to the cells within the body.

Yin cannot exist without Yang and vice versa. Yin properties such as dark, of course, would not exist without Yang’s light. Those who believe in Judeo-Christian teachings believe that good cannot exist without bad/evil. Perhaps there is a striking similarity between the ancient Chinese philosophy of Yin-Yang and Judeo-Christian teachings. Yin and Yang are dependent on one another. They are polar opposite, yet Yin may transform into Yang and vice versa.

Using the example of good and evil, neither can exist without the other. If everybody and all creatures in the world were ‘good’, would we know what ‘bad’ or evil is? Someone with overwhelmingly good attributes can skew towards the unethical, and vice versa. TCM practitioners use Yin-Yang theory to address internal imbalances. It’s no stretch to see how we humans can become imbalanced, from a health and character perspective. In TCM theory, Yin and Yang can consume one another if there is a state of extreme imbalance. As we all too often witness, humans become consumed by greed.

Yin-Yang theory, then, not only diagnoses patients, it also applies to human behavior, as well as every other phenomena. Not only on this planet, but likely, in the entire universe.

  • Jason Argos

    Well stated.

    • Sheldon Li

      Thank you.