I remember when I was about 15 or 16 years old I saw for the first time a strange, black and white symbol similar to the one in this posting’s picture. I knew vaguely that it was Asian, but otherwise it seemed exotic and unknowable so I filed it away with all the other new things that a 15-year-old experiences. It continued to pop up in various versions on and off for the next 15 years but it always remained a mystery. Until that is, I went to acupuncture school where I learned three things: the name of the symbol is the Taijitu (often pronounced tie gee too), that it is a succinct symbol representing the five rules of yin and yang, and lastly, that the concept of yin and yang is a theoretical way of observing and explaining everything from the smallest spaces of the smallest atoms, to the human body and its functions, to the energetic movements of the universe. Although that sounds complicated and still mysterious, it really isn’t. Once you know the 5 basic rules, there are some very practical uses for knowing about yin and yang.
Before starting on the five “laws” of yin and yang, however, we should first talk about pennies. Pennies? Yep, pennies. As one of my illustrious teachers once pointed out, typically when a westerner thinks of the face side of a penny that’s what we’re thinking about: the face side of the penny. Pretty straight forward right? Well, for anyone familiar with the yin and the yang of things you can’t think of the face side of the penny without also thinking of the tail side. In fact, the face side cannot exist without the tail side and vice versa. Stated in another way, the ancient Chinese came to see in the course of their everyday lives that everything around them had a dual aspect. There is both night AND day. There is no brightness without dimness. Movement is tied to stillness. There is no upward without downward. Heat is the companion of cold. All of these pairs are listed in the classic textbook: Chinese Acupuncture and Moxibustion. This is the first law of yin and yang: Relative Opposites. You can entertain yourself for hours thinking of all things yang and all things yin. (Disclaimer- maybe only acupuncture geeks can spend hours but try it out anyway!)
From the above examples: day, brightness, movement, upward and heat are all yang. Night, dimness, stillness, downward and cold are yin. The following are some fun yin yang pairs I thought of while in school:
The Rolling Stones The Beatles
Here are some others:
12:01pm to 11:59pm 12:01am to 11:59am
spring and summer fall and winter
male energy female energy
youth elder age
This opposition between the yin and yang members of a pair sets up a struggle between, and a control of, each other. A good example of a practical application of this law is when you apply a cold pack to an inflamed muscle. When something is inflamed there is always heat. By applying its opposite, cold, you bring the body back into a more balanced state. It works in other ways too. If you suffer from Seasonal affective disorder (i.e. too much darkness), it is usually therapeutic to expose yourself to more light. The taijitu symbol shows this first law by dividing the circle of everything into equal sections of black and white.
The second law states that yin and yang can further be divided into yin and yang. Seasons are a great example of this idea. We’ve already stated that spring and summer are yang and that fall and winter are yin. Within the yangs and yins are further delineations of yangs and yins. Looking at all four of the seasons, there is a general warm time of the year and a cold time of the year. But spring isn’t summer and fall isn’t winter. We can say that winter is the yin-ist of the yin time of year. When spring begins, yang energy begins to grow within yin winter. At first, there is more winter than spring. Gradually, the signs of spring increase until it becomes more spring than winter. This is called the yang within yin time of year. Spring then transforms into summer when yang has grown until it reaches the zenith of summer or yang within yang time. Summer then slides toward autumn when yang energy is becoming less and yin energy is growing. This is the yin within yang time. Eventually autumn becomes winter and we reach the lowest levels of yang but the strongest yin before yang once again grows in a pattern followed year after year. Also, think of a clock. Midnight is the most yin time while noon is the most yang. 12:01pm starts the growth of yin energy but still, 12:01pm has much more yang than 9pm and 9pm has more yang than 11pm. The “S” curve of the taijitu represents this idea. It’s meant to suggest movement. That is, yin and yang are never static. There is a constant ebb and flow, growing and diminishing of yin and yang both occurring together.
Thirdly, yin and yang are interdependent. They cannot be separated. A good practical way to explain this law is to say that the yin of the human body equals substance. In other words, things that are tangible like body fluids and organs. The yang of the body is its functional aspects like metabolism. Without metabolism nothing happens to organs or body fluids. Without organs and body fluids metabolic function would not be necessary. In the taijitu, there is nothing separating the black from the white parts.
The fourth law states that yin and yang inter-transform. You have probably experienced this when you’ve caught a cold. You may start with an aversion to cold with achy muscles and clear or white nasal discharge (a yin presentation) that either gradually or suddenly changes to yellow or green nasal discharge with a feverish feeling and an aversion to heat (a yang presentation). The yin “dot” within the yang and the yang “dot” within the yin of the taijitu shows this idea.
Lastly, Yin and yang are inter-consuming. Let’s look at the body again for practical application. For a functional activity to take place, or yang energy to activate, there must be a certain amount of yin used. For example, for digestion to work there must be a presence of yin to be consumed. In this case food is the substance of yin. Conversely, if there is a yin substance, such as the water of edema, there must be a yang function to consume the yin e.g. the lymphatic return process. Again the “dots” of yin and yang within their opposites illustrates this fifth law.
Although it can take a lengthy explanation, the concept of yin and yang is simple at its core. Yin and yang are at the base of understanding the dynamics of literally everything under the sun. (and further!) It is also the basis of traditional Chinese medicine. Health is a harmonious balance of yin and yang within the body. Disease is an imbalance of yin and yang. Death is the separation of yin and yang and traditional Chinese medicine is meant to adjust your yin and yang to restore relative balance.
Here’s to balance for everyone’s yin and yang!