An introduction to Yin-Yang Theory
Has a close friend ever called you the “yin to their yang?” Or maybe you owned a necklace adorned with the famous black and white yin-yang symbol at some point in your life (looking at you, 90’s kids.)
While the general idea and imagery of yin and yang has been showing up in Western culture for a few decades, this concept goes back thousands of years -- and represents a living, breathing philosophy. It’s something that lives within and around us, an organic rhythm that’s invisible to the naked eye: yin-yang theory.
This concept is a fundamental part of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and is sewed into the fabric of all life. Nature, relationships, our health, and so much more are all linked by this thread. So what exactly is yin-yang theory, and why is it so connected to our physical and mental well-being?
Let’s dive into the meaning of yin-yang theory, how it applies to both Chinese and Western medicine, and how you can maintain a balance of yin and yang in your own life.
What is Yin-Yang Theory?
The origins of yin-yang theory can be traced back to an ancient Chinese time-keeping system, in which a pole was used to measure the lengths of shadows over the course of the solar year.
The appearance of the pole’s shadow closely resembled the yin-yang symbol that we’re familiar with today. According to this system, yang arrived with the start of the winter solstice, when light dominates darkness, and yin began with the summer solstice as darkness then dominates light.
But beyond measuring time, this concept developed into a fundamental philosophical theory. Around the 3rd century BCE, a way of thinking developed around yin and yang: that all opposite energies are complementary and interconnected. The mind behind the growing popularity of this philosophy was noted cosmologist Zou Yan (also referred to as Tsou Yen). Yan was a key proponent of this theory, and believed that life has five phases: fire, water, metal, wood, and earth. According to yin-yang theory, these phases continuously interchange with each other.
This idea of reciprocal balance can be seen in the mirroring of the symbol’s two sides, yin being dark and sloping downward, and yang being light and sloping upward. Within all facets of life, yin and yang are considered to be forever trying to flow on top of one another. From this endless exchange, a kind of rhythm of life is produced.
What Do Yin & Yang Represent?
Yin is represented by matter, darker, cooler qualities: receiving, tranquility, and calmness. Yang is associated with energy, lightness and action: arousal, giving, initiation. Yin is feminine energy, while Yang is masculine. These general qualities take form in a wide array of outlets -- the human body, nature, art, religion, sex, and much more.
Here are some other examples of forces that demonstrate yin-yang theory:
To put it simply, yin-yang theory boils down to the necessary balance of all things in life. The passing of seasons, of moods, of love, of pain and happiness -- all of this is rooted in the relationship between yin and yang working against and with each other.
The Yin-Yang Symbol
By simply looking at the yin-yang symbol, an organic balance can be seen in the sloping, opposite sides. This first impression tells us a lot about the meaning behind this imagery; the yin-yang symbol represents the interconnectedness of all things in the natural world, as we mentioned above. Notice how the symbol doesn't have a straight line cutting through the two sides, but instead is divided by a soft, flowing S-shape. The white side sloping upwards is yang, and the black side sloping downwards is yin. This demonstrates the flowing, connected nature of yin and yang working with and against each other, forever in flux, contracting and swelling. While the larger black and white segments of the symbol fit together to form the circle, each side also features a small circle of the opposite color within it. This represents the idea that nothing is truly finite when it comes to yin-yang theory. In other words, yin can always have some yang in it, and yang can certainly have yin in it. (We do contain multitudes, after all.) And lastly, notice the outer circle encompassing everything in it -- this represents the oneness of the universe, the space, which includes everything we know and everything we don’t know.
Yin-Yang Theory in Traditional Chinese Medicine
Considering the influential nature of yin and yang, it’s no surprise that it plays an essential role in the human body.
The cycle we described earlier -- of yin and yang continuously flowing into one another in all aspects of life -- is alive within us, as well. This is why yin-yang theory is key to treating ailments and understanding what’s happening internally. Traditional Chinese medicine teaches us that proper diet, movement, and treatment can cultivate a healthy balance of yin and yang within us. And when we feel our best, we can create an enriched, nurturing life for ourselves.
When humans live in harmony with the natural cycle of yin-yang in the world, our bodies notice and respond. This is exactly why Chinese medicine focuses so deeply on the balance of qi.
Next to yin and yang, qi is another fundamental part of Chinese medicine. Qi (pronounced “chi”) is described as the energy or life force that flows within us. This energy is transported via twelve meridians, or channels, located on various points of our bodies. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, diseases, pain, and other ailments develop when qi becomes blocked. Through treatments like acupuncture, cupping, and blood-letting, these blockages can be carefully cleared, restoring the balance of yin and yang in our bodies.
While yin-yang theory is central to Chinese medicine, its role is far more invisible in Western medicine -- albeit just as present.
Daniel Keown highlights this in his book The Spark in the Machine, which examines the role of Chinese medicine among the mysteries of Western medicine. Noting the lack of understanding and acceptance of yin-yang in Western science and healthcare, Keown highlights that countless aspects of our biology reflect an undeniable “electricity” or energy that Western medicine often ignores. Not only does Western medicine not acknowledge these occurrences, it even inadvertently validates many Chinese medical theories.
An example of this can be seen in fascia, which is the connective tissue that envelops every bone, organ, blood vessel, and muscle in our body. In Western science, fascia is credited with serving as a sort of electric “current” that keeps things running smoothly, playing a crucial role in the body’s functioning. As you can see, this description parallels the Chinese concept of qi that we described earlier.
Another example of the presence of yin and yang is in the nervous system. Through the lens of Western medicine, the balance between yin and yang can be found in our autonomic nervous system, or ANS. The ANS works both automatically and unconsciously to influence our organ functions, such as digestion, breathing rate, sexual arousal, and heart rate. To achieve this, the ANS relies on the equilibrium of two systems within it: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
The sympathetic nervous system is associated with Yang -- this is the system that provides the familiar “fight or flight” response, stimulated by feelings of stress or danger. Opposite to this system is the parasympathetic nervous system, which is associated with Yin. The parasympathetic nervous system controls our “rest and digest” functions, like sleep and sitting. When there is a lack of balance between these two systems and energies, our bodies will begin to show the signs. For example, if you use a large amount of Yang energy during periods of high stress, a deficiency of Yin will appear in the form of emotional, behavioral, and physical consequences (anxiety, muscle tightness, and sleep difficulties.) This is why maintaining a balanced ANS -- or in other words, yin and yang -- is key to feeling healthy.
Yin, Yang, and You
So, how does one maintain this important balance of yin and yang?
Start by first asking yourself which energy dominates your own life. For example, if you work at a sedentary desk job and spend most evenings on the couch scrolling through your phone, your life is more dominated by yin. Alternatively, if most of your time is spent busy and on your feet with little rest in your schedule, yang dominates your life.
Then, take a few minutes to write down all of the activities performed throughout your day-to-day, including work and non-work days. As you write them down, identify which activities classify as yin or yang.
If you find that yin dominates your life, try these exercises to add more yang to your routines:
Grounding (standing) with morning sunlight on your skin for minimum of 5 min
Stand up and stretch in the opposite position(s) you are commonly in
Take a mindful walk after work for 10 min, before settling in for the night
If yang dominates your life, try these exercises to add more yin to your routines:
Grounding (sitting) with the morning sunlight on your skin for minimum of 5 minutes
Meditate 10 minutes at the beginning and at the end of the day
Exercise deep breathing throughout your day (inhale 4 sec, hold 7 sec, exhale 8 sec)
To incorporate this balance into your daily life, you can even write down your yin and yang activities in your planner.
And remember, it’s perfectly okay to pause your productivity, or get out of your comfort zone -- your body will thank you.
Komorebi Center for Healing
Written by: Sarah Judsen