In the article What is Qi?, I described the concept of qi (pronounced chee). Chinese Medicine is based on natural balance, with the balance of qi in the body being key to good health. The term balance does not refer to a static state, but rather a harmonious rhythm between two states of being, like a cool breeze in harmony with a warm day. The most basic way that Chinese Medicine looks at balance is through the yin-yang theory. Over 5000 years old, it could be called the original ‘relativity theory’.
Yin and yang are opposite qualities that exist in relationship to each other. Yin qualities include: cold, dark, damp, quiet, slow, still, downward, inward, heavy, retraction, degeneration, regression, and introversion. Yang qualities include: hot, bright, dry, loud, fast, movement, upward, outward, lightweight, expansion, growth, progression, and extroversion.
Yin and yang are interdependent, never exist in isolation, and are always relative. This means that something can only be described in relationship to something else. For instance, how do you identify or describe a particular tangerine? You might describe it as large or small, juicy or dry, dark or light orange. But each of these descriptions is unclear – what is small, what is large? However, by comparing it to the size of other tangerines, you would be closer to providing an adequate description. Even the largest tangerine is described in relationship to others, in this case, all others.
Because the concept is so basic, the terms yin and yang can be used to describe every phenomenon, from the cosmos to nano-particles. And everything contains both yin and yang aspects. Even the largest tangerine contains some amount of smallness, which keeps it contained, otherwise it would be infinitely large and no longer a tangerine.
Yin and yang are in a constant state of change. The lessening of yin leads to an increase in yang and vise-versa. This concept describes the rhythms of nature, such as day and night, birth and death, and the changing seasons. For instance, as we say goodbye to the dark cold (usually) wet, greater yin season of Winter, and move into Spring, there is fresh yang energy from longer, warmer days, and bursting forth of new growth upward and outward. You can feel the activity level increasing all around. This is rising yang. Summers here are relatively hot and dry, representing greater yang. After the Fall equinox, nights are longer than days, weather starts cooling, and leaves dying, representing rising yin. The progressively cooler, wetter weather and longer nights brings us back to the greater yin season of winter.
A licensed acupuncturist uses yin-yang as the basic premise for diagnosing and treating patients. Acupuncture points and needling techniques are chosen to restore yin-yang balance, and herbal combinations are designed keeping in mind the individual’s present state of yin and yang. For instance, a person with acute sinusitis accompanied by a fever would need herbs to clear the sinuses and resolve phlegm. Herbs with these actions tend to be yang in nature. Since the patient already shows the yang state of a fever, the sinus clearing herbs should be balanced with col (yin) herbs appropriate for the illness. This attention to natural balance is one of the major differences between Western and Eastern approaches to medicine.