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Chinese Medicine and The Power of Yin
Yin and Yang are convenient labels used to describe how things function in relation to each other and to the universe.
Yin and Yang
The ancient Chinese recognized that life and health depend on the dynamic balance of opposing yet complementary forces. The terms yin and yang are used to represent this relationship. Yin and yang can never be completely isolated or separated as there is no purely yin or purely yang phenomenon; they are always interdependent. Yin supports yang and yang protects yin when harmony prevails.
The ancient Taoists sought to understand the proper place of humans in relation to heaven and earth, to each other and to ourselves. They studied the cycles of nature and looked to see their reflections within us. They realized that even though our behavior is voluntary, nature has definite laws and boundaries which cannot be transgressed for long without creating disharmony.
A fundamental tenet of Taoist thought and practices is the proper respect for and use of the yin aspects of life. In our culture, many of the yin aspects are feared. Darkness is often equated with evil and death, passivity and receptivity with incompetence and failure, femininity with weakness and dependency.
Our culture particularly values and rewards manifestations of yang nature. Yang nature is revealed in that which is hot, outgoing, active, brilliant, growing, expanding, spending, consuming, displaying, aggressive, light, conscious, rational, thinking and focused. Yang manifestations depend on yin for fuel and support. Without yin, there will be no yang.
Know that you possess the strong
masculine principle [yang], yet abide
by the meek feminine principle [yin].
Thus, become the flowing stream
of the world.
As the flowing stream of the world,
never swerve from your true nature.
In this way, you return to the absolute
integrity of a newborn babe.
Know the bright, yet keep to the dark.
Never wavering from truth, you will
conform to the pattern of an absolute
In this way, you return again to the
Know how to be honored and glorified,
yet maintain unadorned plainness.
Thus become the abundant valley of the
As the abundant valley of the world,
you realize the sufficiency of the
constant virtue of the universe.
In this way, you return to the original
simplicity of an uncarved block.
When the uncarved block is shaped
into useful tools and vessels, its
original qualities are destroyed.
An absolute being, by preserving the
original qualities, becomes the
This is called the great Oneness
cannot be divided.
Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu (translation by Master Ni, Hua Ching)
The nature of yang is fiery, active and hot. Yin provides the counterbalance to activity, for recovery and refueling. If we praise and encourage the activity without understanding or knowing its source, we are in danger of neglecting or over-consuming the elements we are unconscious of.
To properly balance the yang with the yin in our own life, we must know how to do, how to assert, to take action, yet abide in being and remain true to our self. When we try to conform to outward standards and appearances, we lose touch with our inner needs or despise them if they conflict with the outer ideal.
We lose our integrity and our ability to know what the right path for us is. Once that has happened, we substitute the demands of others and current fashions for our own inner knowledge and trust. If we follow external demands with no reference to inner needs, eventually imbalance, illness and unhappiness are the result.
Our culture, in general, is unconscious of the value of yin, except as fuel for yang. This easily creates an imbalance because excessive yang consumes the yin. One example of this attitude is the over-consumption of resources and the damaging of the earth. Each one of us reflects and contributes to the whole. On an individual basis, the cultural pressure toward overvaluing yang and undervaluing yin has certain consequences, both physically and mentally.
So, what is it we are overlooking when we undervalue yin? Yin has the qualities of earth and water. Yin is substantial, cohesive and gives depth and weight. It is passive, open, yielding and hidden. Its only resistance is its own nature: weight and inactivity. Left to itself, yin is static, or will flow downward with gravity. Yet it holds and contains, collects and stores and therefore, nourishes and sustains. It is the abundant valley of the world. Yin endures.
If we are over-consuming our yin (whether due to over-activity, or because it was deficient to begin with), we begin to lose our endurance and reserves. We become over-reactive and hypersensitive. Growth slows or even stops (this is more physical in children and more psychological and spiritual in adults). We lose the dimension of depth and life becomes more and more superficial. The sense of flow, the feeling of support and having what we need fades.
"Yin-Yang theory is based on the philosophical construct of two polar complements, called Yin and Yang. These complementary opposites are neither forces nor material entities. Nor are they mythical concepts that transcend rationality. Rather, they are convenient labels used to describe how things function in relation to each other and to the universe. They are used to explain the continuous process of natural change. But Yin and Yang are not only a set of correspondences; they also represent a way of thinking. In this system of thought, all things are seen as parts of a whole. No entity can ever be isolated from its relationship to other entities; no thing can exist in and of itself. Fixed essences are abstractions; there are no absolutes. Yin and Yang must, necessarily, contain within themselves the possibility of opposition and change.
The character for Yin originally meant the shady side of a slope. It is associated with such qualities as cold, rest, responsiveness, passivity, darkness, interiority, downwardness, inwardness, decrease, satiation, tranquility, and quiescence. It is the end, completion, and realized fruition.
The original meaning of Yang was the sunny side of a slope. The term implies brightness and is part of one common Chinese expression for the sun. Yang is associated with qualities such as heat, stimulation, movement, activity, excitement, vigor, light, exteriority, upwardness, outwardness, and increase. It is arousal, beginning, and dynamic potential.
Working with these ideas, Chinese thought, and Chinese medical tradition have developed five principles of Yin and Yang.
All things have two facets: a Yin aspect and a Yang aspect.
Any Yin or Yang aspect can be further divided into Yin and Yang.
Yin and Yang mutually produce each other.
Yin and Yang control each other.
Yin and Yang transform into each other."
The Web That Has No Weaver, by Ted J. Kaptchuk, OMD
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Signs of Yin Deficiency
Physically, it becomes difficult to relax and rest, even to the point of insomnia. We start to dry up inside which causes dry skin, hair, eyes, lips, nose, throat and mouth. Aging is accelerated, causing gray hair and deterioration of the skin. Vision and hearing become less acute. Low grade fever or flushing of the cheeks, unusually warm hands and feet (or they may switch from warm to freezing and back again), sweating at night, fatigue, knee or back pain and weakness, bone deterioration, anxiety, poor memory and restlessness are all indications of serious yin depletion. The physical signs are usually more advanced, the early signs are more emotional and psychological.
The way we use our mind and emotions has a strong effect on our store of yin. If we habitually use anger, worry and anxiety as methods of action, the hot, yang, hyperactive nature of these emotions will over-consume yin. Forced use of the intellect, especially at night, will eventually drain the yin. The use of stimulants or will power to force the energy up and out of the body, drains our reserves. At first, forcing our yin outward feels great and exciting, fueling the yang, but as our reserves dwindle, we will need stimulants just to get out of bed in the morning.
The less yin we have, the more easily agitated and disturbed we become. Minor inconveniences can become quite painful as we lose our shock absorbers. Fun is more and more difficult to find. Constant tension, feeling burned-out, being easily hurt or offended, a constant sense of dissatisfaction, feeling like your nerves are raw, are early signs of yin depletion. They continue to worsen as the physical signs emerge.
For most of us, the simplest way to conserve yin is to refrain from certain activities. In fact, we will naturally do so as yin is consumed because we lose our support for yang activity. However, because of our cultural biases, we have a strong tendency to over-ride our natural warnings and inclinations. Most of us will push ourselves beyond our natural level of activity without also promoting the extra yin reserves to support it. Activity under those conditions invariably becomes less and less satisfying and our normal response is to lose our desire to do it.
A subtle sign of gradual depletion is that you feel pretty good in general except that there are a number of activities you no longer engage in due to pain or weakness. You have settled into a definitely curtailed range of activities as a way of balancing the deficiency. An opposite sign is dependence on stimulants and willpower to maintain a level of activity you originally engaged in because it was rewarding. It becomes a chore instead.
Being and non-being produce each other;
Difficult and easy complete each other;
Long and short contrast each other;
High and low distinguish each other;
Sound and voice harmonize each other;
Front and back follow each other
In order to contract,
It is necessary first to expand.
In order to weaken,
It is necessary first to strengthen.
In order to destroy,
It is necessary first to promote.
In order to grasp,
It is necessary first to give.
--Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Yin Deficiency and Aging
You may have noticed that a lot of this sounds like getting old. It is. Most of the typical problems of aging are due to the fact that eventually, our yin reserves are depleted by living. So, to some extent, it is inevitable. But we do accelerate the process unnecessarily, or at least in ways which can be minimized or prevented and with some effort even reversed. The physical deterioration that has become so common at such surprisingly young ages, is not inevitable.
The ancient Chinese in observing and recognizing the dependence of yang on yin and yin on yang, developed methods to supplement and build the body's reserves. Exercises and movement such as Tai Chi and Chi Gong gather and move the chi or vital energy in the body, invigorating the yang aspect. The primary methods for restoring or preserving the yin reserves are conservation, proper diet and nutrition, and Chinese Herbal Therapy, particularly tonic herbal therapy. Since the nature of yin is substantial, it requires actual physical supplementation.
Yin and Yang operate at every level of the body. The root of all yin and yang is called Jing, or Essence. The essence of the body is the most powerful source of life energy. This includes the endocrine system and all of the hormones, bone marrow, spinal cord and brain. The depletion of Jing which is the deepest yin of the body, results in aging. Jing is one of the Three Treasures: Shen (spirit), Qi or chi (energy) and Jing (Essence). Guarding the Three Treasures and replenishing them whenever possible is the way to build the yin and keep the yang strong. The Chinese search for longevity is based on this.
Yin/Yang and Macrobiotics
Unfortunately, various practitioners who have not been trained in Chinese Medicine are using the terminology created by the practitioners of Macrobiotics, a group which originated in Japan in the early 1900's. Their usage of yin and yang is exclusive to them and in my learned opinion it is a serious distortion of those terms.
It is hard to clarify the difference in usage without a fairly technical discussion of its usage in both Chinese Medicine and in Taoist philosophy and classic texts such as the Tao Te Ching and the I Ching. The Macrobiotic definitions are internally contradictory.
Opposite qualities are being defined as one entity. For example, Yang is called both fire and solid. Yang is never solid, it is heaven. Yin is earth. Yet in Macrobiotics, Yin is defined as hollow and expanding. Suffice it to say that the Macrobiotic definitions are not the same at all and cannot be reconciled with the true meaning of these terms.
Supplements, herbal therapy and foods all work on the various aspects of yin, yang, blood and chi. But the yin aspect and the Jing are always where the reserves are stored and collected. Draining our reserves is always creating a kind of yin deficiency. The yang substances are the more activating supplements and foods. Over consumption of those can deplete the yin.
In Macrobiotics, the definition given to yin is entirely negative and weak, and the definition given to yang is entirely positive and strong. But this is not the nature of the Tao. A wholeness has been split into a duality in the Macrobiotic system. Every aspect of reality has its strengths and its weaknesses, its positive and its negative. Yin and yang arise together and create each other. The goal is always balance.
"Radiant health, the highest level of health a person can attain, is defined as health beyond danger. In other words, the person is so internally strong and adaptive as to be able to adapt to virtually all normal stresses, as well as many extreme stresses, and is thus capable of overcoming most serious dangers. ...protection is one of the primary characteristics of health, and the higher the level of protection the better. When one's protection has reached the stage of health beyond danger, then one has achieved radiant health.
The tonic herbs were considered by Taoist and Zen Buddhist masters, who contributed heavily to the development of the art of tonic herbalism and to the art of radiant health, to be spiritual growth herbs. The tonic herbs have been used for thousands of years by wise men and women and spiritual seekers to aid in their spiritual development. The herbs are not psychoactive substances like drugs. They are beyond that. Because they have profound regulatory functions that help the body-mind maintain its equilibrium even under extremely stressful circumstances, they are enormously useful in supporting our ability to overcome intense challenges and to learn from our experiences and thus to attain wisdom that might elude those less fortunate.
The psychic power bestowed upon us by taking these herbs need not be the exclusive possession of the spiritually minded. The adaptive energy provided by the tonic herbs helps those who are not specifically on a spiritual path in a similar way. For one thing, the tonics help people handle stress much more easily. Success in the modern world can often be measured by how well we can handle stress. ...The ability to adapt to the stresses of life is fundamental to life itself. Adaptability is the root of evolution and the secret to biological success...
Adaptability is the very measure by which an Oriental master would judge the true health of an individual. The more adaptive an individual, and the more vigor with which one can meet the challenges of life, the greater that person’s degree of health. The Taoist sages of China have taught that each of us is born with an intrinsic energy that determines our fundamental, constitutional strength. It is called Primal Essence, or jing. Jing is said to determine our potential life expectancy as well as the vitality of our life while we are living it."
Radiant Health: The Ancient Wisdom of the Chinese Tonic Herbs, by Ron Teeguarden:
Herbs that build yin are usually moist, oily or otherwise heavy and substantial. This is true of foods that build yin as well. The effect is similar to the effect of compost on the soil. Yin tonics promote flesh and fluids, plumping up the tissues and moistening and soothing the mucus membranes. They engender fullness to the tissues and skin, and promote healthy blood, bones and brain.
The tonic herbs are a concentrated form of nutrition. They retain the biological complexity and synergy of food yet exceed the ability of food to build reserve energy beyond our everyday energy needs. The yin tonics are not at all stimulating.
The herbal tonics can be employed along with other herbal formulas to relieve specific symptoms such as chronic pain, poor digestion, elimination problems, skin disorders or other specific organ malfunctions. There are tonic herbs which promote chi (energy), blood, shen (spirit), yin and yang, as well as Jing.
These herbs are often combined into formulas to address the specific imbalances and deficiencies that are present. It is important to consult a trained herbalist when using the tonic herbs, as depending on the type of imbalance, taking an incorrect formula can definitely make the condition feel worse, or it may simply be ineffective.
The herbal tonic methods were originally developed by the Taoist sages and physicians in their search for immortality, or at the least, healthy longevity, for themselves and for the emperor and his court. Thousands of years of experience and observation have resulted in a well-developed and effective means to retard aging and restore resources to an exhausted body. The traditional time to engage in strong tonification is during the winter.
The Challenge of Winter
With the approach of winter and the receding of the warm, expansive and luxuriant energies of summer, the more hidden and deeper aspects of our being, mentally and physically, begin to emerge. Our skeleton self and shadow selves may step out and command our attention. Just as when the falling leaves reveal the underlying structure of the trees, and as when a receding tide uncovers many things the high tide has hidden, winter brings us face to face with issues or imbalances which the high tide of the summer energies have allowed us skim over.
The power and consciousness which is potentially available to us must often be gained at the price of seeing ourselves perhaps more clearly than we would wish to. When our boat grounds out on the rocks of winter, for many this is seen as pain, illness, depression, despair or fear. If we look closer, we may find the key we have been seeking in our quest for growth and healing.
When we understand the great opportunity, we have to see inside and underneath our own appearances, and to develop and heal on those deeper levels, we can turn apparent adversity and loss to form the seeds of new growth. Winter is the time when all energies return to the roots. It is the best time to build stored reserves and Jing and create a strong foundation.
This process is known as tonification. To tonify means to feed, build up, and strengthen. Tonification in winter is important to give the energy and heat to resist the cold and dark and to store up reserves for the demands of the spring and summer expansion and growth. Failure to guard and nourish the Three Treasures in winter can give rise to pain in spring such as joint pain and headaches, liver or rib pain, dizziness and fatigue.
The first line of defense in strengthening and preserving the body's reserves is to avoid draining what you have or hope to gain. This means curtailing certain activities and increasing others. The main activity to increase is resting and sleeping. Many people feel that there is something wrong with them because they wish to sleep more and lose much of their desire to do many things during the winter. But this is completely normal and right for the season.
Winter's sleep is the deepest and most restful of the year. Get it while you can! Spring will change all of that. The excitement and ambition of spring can take hold as early as February which only gives you two or three months of optimal rest and retreat time. Learning to say no to new projects, classes or other taxing activities during this time can make a huge difference in improving fatigue.
A main activity to avoid is mental work and studying at night. Instead, do it as early in the day as you can. Listen to music, watch movies or do light crafts or artwork at night. It is also best to avoid cold drinks or raw, cold foods. Instead, drink spicy warm herb teas, eat soups and stews and other cooked, warm, substantial foods. Avoid stimulants of all kinds: caffeine, nicotine, sugar, and all drugs legal or illegal. Try to cut back on your projects and work until the end of January when the energies of spring begin to rise.
The strongest Chinese herbal tonics such as ginseng are best tolerated during the winter. Some of the most strengthening and powerful tonics such as ginseng, astragalus, dang gui, deer antler and others can be difficult to take at other times of the year and may cause headaches, insomnia or skin eruptions when taken then or if there is significant yin deficiency.
The Chinese herbal tonics are unique in their variety and sophistication. However, it is best not to take tonics without proper supervision as they are strong enough to aggravate some conditions when taken improperly. Never use tonics when fighting any kind of flu or infection as the tonics can retard full recovery when used at the wrong stage of the illness.
Tonics can take from one to four weeks for the effects to be felt as they are not stimulating but work by giving extra support and nourishment to the internal organs. Often the first noticeable effect will be a desire to sleep more than usual. The more this desire is indulged, the faster the sleepiness will pass to be replaced by more endurance and eventually, greater energy. But do not spend all of your newfound energy or you will not gain the rejuvenating benefits which are possible. Keep some energy for yourself.
Herbal tonification combines extremely well with the Nutritional Balancing protocols as the actions of the two therapies complement each other. The herbal tonification helps rebuild the deep substance of the body, the yin and Jing, and provides a special type of nutrition to the body that is hard to get anywhere else.
Nutritional Balancing is a powerful detoxifier and removes specific blocks in the body chemistry to fully utilize the potential energy being stored up. The herbal tonics and nourishing foods are the yin; the specific nutrients provided in Nutritional Balancing are the spark plugs to release and regulate the yang energy: two approaches to attaining deep balance. The Yin and Yang create each other and wholeness.
Regaining Balance explains the process of adapting to chronic stress and its effects on health. Restoring the yin and yang balance of the autonomic nervous system is essential for entering the healing state and correcting a maladapted stress response.