What are Yin and Yang in Chinese medicine? Part 1

I think immersion is the best way to learn a language, and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) often seems like a foreign language — so, let's immerse ourselves now!

What are Yin and Yang?

The foundation of TCM is the concept of Yin and Yang, two opposing yet balancing forces. You've probably seen this image before:

Yin and Yang can apply to any opposing yet balancing forces: light & dark, left & right, male & female. But how do they relate to medicine and the body? Instead of explaining how these forces work in TCM, let's imagine they're people!

The Yang Force

Meet Yang. Now, Yang has low back pain and describes it as "really bad, not just achey." In a rather loud, full voice he tells us that he also loves cold weather, exercises a lot, and tends to have a restless sort of nature. He has a healthy — well, very healthy — appetite and doesn't gain weight. He seems to have endless energy (sometimes to his detriment!). He sometimes gets headaches and when he does, they are blasting. His tongue is reddish and his pulse is full and strong. Can you picture Yang?

The Yin Force

Now, meet Yin. Yin reports low back pain too and softly describes it as being "an ache that I feel in the morning." It's worse with exercise. He enjoys heat and can't get enough of it. He's a peaceful person to be around and has a strong focus. His appetite is ok, but he feels bloated if he eats even a moderate amount. Sometimes he gets headaches which he described as "dull". His tongue is pale and his pulse is slow. It feels like an empty bubble popping. Can you picture Yin?

Yin vs Yang in the Body

Although Yang and Yin both have low back pain, their presentations are very different. One has many "yang" qualities:

  • runs on the warm side, so he loves the cold
  • burns food rapidly, so he's hungry but without gaining weight
  • reports in a booming voice he has a headache when there is one
  • describes his headache as a "blast", not a dull ache

These are Yang qualities — big, hot, loud, moving, severe. Yin, on the other hand, looks very different:

  • wants more heat as he tends to function on the colder side
  • is more subdued energetically
  • complains of a dull headache
  • speaks in a softer voice
  • is more focused

Now, you're probably thinking "Well, I see how aspects of the body can be divided into Yin and Yang. But can everything else about the body also be Yin or Yang?"

The answer is yes! For example, Yin is Xue, or Blood, (we will discuss this later). It is fluids and the female gender. Yang is Qi, or life force, (another discussion) and "moving" and the male gender. But, there are Yin aspects of males and Yang aspects of females. In fact, there are Yin and Yang aspects of everything. 

How do Yin and Yang relate to medicine?

Perhaps now you're thinking, "I see how everything has Yin and Yang. But what does Chinese medicine do with this information?"

The answer is that Yin and Yang always must be kept in balanceSo, now let's help our patients feel better! They both have back pain so our treatment will be the same for them, right? Not so fast. Because our patients are completely different in nature and in their presentation, we must treat the back pain differently. 

To do this, there are a few key concepts important to understand. We'll dive into this in our next post!


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