Yin and Yang: Creating Balance in Your Life

Traditional Chinese Medicine is all about bringing the body into balance. Yin-Yang theory is the basis for understanding what that balance looks like, and can be used to help us create balanced lifestyles that lead to good health. As a bit of a stress-head myself, I particularly find it useful to remind me to relax and add some calming activities into my schedule.

While almost everyone in the West is familiar with the famous Yin-Yang symbol, unless someone has studied Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), they probably don’t know what it represents. I remember buying a Yin-Yang necklace in my early teens and having some vague notion that it represented peace (it doesn’t). The paired principles of Yin and Yang are foundational to the theory of TCM, and understanding them can give us insight into our lives and our health, so today’s blog post is all about clearing up any confusion about Yin and Yang, and then (as usual!) applying these concepts to everyday life. And if you just want the Cliff Notes version in the form of a cute cat video, skip to the end.

Yin and Yang: Dualism, But Not as We Know It

In the West, we’re really used to dualistic thinking. We like to split things up: good versus evil, mind versus body, right versus wrong. Yin and Yang are paired opposites, but it’s not dualism as we’re used to it, because they’re not actually in opposition – their relationship to each other is far more complex than that. The complexity of the relationship is represented in the symbol. Pure dualism would be two square boxes side-by-side: one black, one white. But Yin and Yang are shown like this:

The Yin-Yang symbol shows the complex relationship between these paired principles.

The Yin-Yang symbol shows the complex relationship between these paired principles.

As each part reaches its fullest expression, it declines and the opposite starts to grow. In TCM, we say that Yin and Yang mutually create, or engender, each other. The centre of each part contains the seed for its opposite. So it’s not either/or – it’s ebb and flow. Yin and Yang are dependent on each. It’s not that one is better and one is worse, but that you need both in the right proportions, and they are always waxing and waning, constantly giving birth to each other.

This is the way that natural systems work. They are complex. Their parts are interrelated. Everything is always in flux, because homeostasis is not actually static – it is dynamic equilibrium. In the West, we often use a mechanical model to understand the human body, which has many benefits but sometimes leaves us unable to explain things that don’t show up under a microscope. Yin-Yang theory can help us to better understand our bodies, and design lives that work to promote this dynamic equilibrium.

What Do Yin and Yang Mean?

The reason that Yin and Yang don’t get translated into English is that, just like Qi (read this post for an explanation of what Qi is), there simply are no equivalent words or concepts in the English language. The original meaning of Yin and Yang is that they are two sides of the same mountain, with Yin being the shady side, and Yang being the sunny side. Two sides of the same coin, but with very different qualities. This video explains some of the qualities associated with Yin and Yang:

Yang is hot; Yin is cool. Yang expands outwards; Yin moves inwards. Yang represents the exterior of the body while Yin represents the interior. We use these paired principles to understand many physiological processes in TCM, as well as describing disease processes by assessing how things are out of balance.

How to Use Yin-Yang Theory to Create Balance in Your Life

Knowing that we are constantly changing organisms with complex, interrelated parts is all well and good, but how do we use that knowledge to improve our health?

When we understand that we need balance between these paired principles, we can look at our lifestyle and see if we’re skewed too far in one direction or another. I often apply Yin and Yang to the idea of “being” and “doing”. How much time do you spend running around getting things done? How much time do you spend sitting quietly in contemplation?

A stereotypical Type A person might be scheduled down to the millisecond, with no downtime at all – too much Yang, not enough Yin. A stereotypical couch potato might spend all day in front of a screen without moving much at all – too much Yin, not enough Yang. Real people aren’t stereotypes and few of us embody these extremes, but most of us tend to live unbalanced lives to some extent. We can use the concept of Yin and Yang to honestly assess our tendencies and make changes to bring ourselves back to dynamic equilibrium.

Cultivating Yin in a Yang Society

We can also use these principles to look at our culture. In the West, we have a lot more respect for Yang than we do for Yin. We’re big on success, ambition, and accomplishment. We’re not so into calm, contentment, and contemplation. We’re encouraged to do, not to be. This is why stress-related illnesses are such a big problem in our society – we haven’t created the right balance between Yin and Yang.

Knowing that our culture biases us towards one value at the expense of the other helps us to intentionally correct for that. If we want to be healthy, we need to buck the trend, to question what’s considered normal. We need to slow down and carve out some Yin time. This is why I always encourage my patients to build relaxation into their daily activities and, if they’re open to it, to start a meditation practice. Meditation helps to bring things back to balance by adding some Yin into a fast-paced Yang lifestyle.

Live Like a Cat: Flow Smoothly Between Yin and Yang

As a real life example of the interplay of Yin and Yang, I made this little video about how good my cat Orpheus is at balancing Yin times and Yang times. When I get home from a busy day, I find it hard to switch my brain off and relax. When Orpheus gets home from a busy night of terrorising small mammals, he contentedly blisses out for several hours.

Take a leaf out of Orpheus’s book and learn to flow between Yin and Yang. Who wouldn’t want to be that happy?

Your health ally,

Moss

Moss
Moss Andrewes is an acupuncturist and practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine, specializing in women’s health and chronic illness. Originally from the UK and now residing in Canada, she is a writer, speaker, and event organizer, focusing on health, sustainable living and community. Her lifelong passion for making the world a happier, healthier place has led her through many adventures, including off-grid sustainable living, disaster relief, and various community health projects. She currently lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with her partner and two cats.

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