Yin Yang & Five Elements in Chinese Medicine
by Yosef Pollack, L.Ac.

Yin and Yang theory is the root foundation of Traditional Chinese medicine. What this means is that everything consists of two opposing aspects. These two opposing forces compliment and define each other. They also contain each other in some small aspect. Everything is in a constant state of flux. This concept can be difficult for westerners to understand at first, but it is the guiding principle in Chinese medicine. Traditional Chinese medicine sees the body as a unified whole made up of opposing forces.  Balance of these forces keeps one in good health.

What Are Yin and Yang

The best way to understand these concepts is to look at some examples. Here are some things that yin and yang refer to:

Yin – Female, earth, night, moisture, cold, stillness, receptive, moon, the right side.

Yang – Male, heaven, day, dryness, heat, movement, repels, sun, the left side.

As you can see, these two forces are always polar opposites working together. This list is just the tip of the iceberg. Theoretically, everything in the known universe is either yin or yang. In Chinese medicine, we use these concepts for the body. All our body organs are either yin or yang.  Every part of the body fits into either yin or yang.  Here are just a few examples:

Yin – Interior body, abdomen, your feet, internal organs, muscles, tendons, bones.

Yang – Exterior of the body, back, head, body surface, skin.

This concept comes from Taoism. The idea is that they are opposites, but they define each other.  Whatever is not yin, must be yang, and vice versa. They support and nourish each other, and each contains a little of the other. And get this – They can change into one another! The permutations are vast.

Now that you’re thoroughly confused, let’s look at how this concept is used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM)

How Yin and Yang Are Used In Traditional Chinese Medicine

In TCM, diseases and ailments are an imbalance between yin and yang. You have yin diseases and yang diseases. This helps the doctor assess a diagnosis, where they listen to your pulse, check your color, smell your breath and check your tongue. These outside indicators tell the doctor whether you have too much yin or too much yang.

Treatment focuses on readjusting these two aspects and restoring them to a proper balance. If there is too much yang, the doctor may nourish your yin. They will choose the right herbal medicine or dietary recommendations that will restore this balance. Herbal and medicinal therapies are yin because they go from inside to outside (remember, inside is yin and outside is yang).  Acupuncture is yang because it goes from outside in. Application of acupuncture alters the balance of yin and yang in the body.

The Five Elements

The Chinese believe there are five elements – wood, fire, earth, metal and water.  The relationships between these five elements are the same relationships seen everywhere in the world, as well as everywhere in your body. These elements help interpret these constantly changing relationships.

Ancient practitioners separated everything and classified it by its element. These elements preclude and determine the diagnosis and treatment strategies. Acupuncture uses the same theories. Here are just a few examples:

Wood – Liver, gallbladder, eyes, tendons, anger, sour taste.
Fire – Heart, small intestine, heat, tongue, vessels, joy, bitter taste.
Earth – Moisture, spleen, stomach, mouth, muscles, sweet taste.
Metal – Lungs, large intestine, nose, skin, hair, pungent taste.
Water – Kidney, bladder, salty taste, bones, ears, fear, water.

A system of associations and correlations to see clear patterns of disharmony, it can appear rather complex. The system, when studied and understood, provides the means to establish improved health and wellness to any person, plant or animal. 

This is simply an idea of how yin, yang, and the five elements work, and why they are so important to TCM and acupuncture.

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