Yin & Yang, Explained: How To Apply This Ancient Principle To Modern Life

Acupuncturist and Chinese Medicine Practitioner By Tsao-Lin E. Moy, L.Ac., MSOM, LMT, C. SMA
Acupuncturist and Chinese Medicine Practitioner
Tsao-Lin, has over 18 years of experience as an expert in alternative and Chinese medicine.
I'm A Chinese Medicine Practitioner: What I Wish People Knew About Yin & Yang

While you're probably familiar with the symbol for yin and yang, the deeper meaning of yin-yang might be new to you. Once you understand this ancient philosophy, you'll start to see yin-yang in many places—and this awareness can help you live a healthier life.

The story behind the yin & yang symbol.

The theory of yin-yang is a philosophical framework that describes what Chinese people have long observed in nature and the material world.

Yin-yang represents the universe creating itself from chaotic Wuji energy and transmuting it into order, or Tai Ji—the great polarity. So the yin-yang symbol represents creation theory or the "big bang." It begins with nothing and transforms into everything.

the evolution of the yin-yang symbol

Image by Tsao-Lin Moy

The interdependence of yin-yang is demonstrated by the symbol's curved line. The more modern yin-yang symbol has the addition of a white and black dot, which indicates the potential for inner transformation. 

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The true meaning of yin & yang.

Yin-yang represents a dynamic balance of opposing but complementary and interconnected forces, known as chi.

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In short, the ancient yin-yang principle observes that in all aspects of the physical world, there is duality. Therefore, there is also an element of the nonphysical world—that which we do not see but feel and sense—that surrounds us at all times.

It's impossible to know the true origin of yin-yang, though symbols representing yin-yang were present during the Neolithic period (3400 B.C.). Yin-yang is also represented in the I Ching, or The Book of Changes, a Chinese divination text that dates back to 1000–750 B.C. and is still used today.

This theory appears in literature during the Yin and Zhou dynasties (1047–256 B.C.), an influential time period known as the start of Confucianism and Daoism. As such, yin and yang theory is rooted in many schools of thought, and you can find examples of it everywhere.

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What does yin symbolize?

The yin aspect of yin-yang represents grounded Earth energy: It is receptive, cool, and dark and tied to the moon, the oceans, and the shade. It is associated with feminine energy

Women are associated with yin because the menstrual cycle typically lasts 28 days, like the moon cycle. In Chinese, the "essence," or substance, that sparks the menses is called the Tian Gui, or heavenly water, which signals the transformation from a girl to a woman with the ability to bear children. When combined with yang, it bears the potential for life.

Yin is associated with the winter season, while yang is more summer. The autumn is more yin than summer, but more yang than winter.

Yin themes:

  • Contemplation
  • Contraction
  • Softness
  • Stillness
  • Quiet
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What does yang symbolize?

The yang aspect of yin-yang represents the sun: It's light, expansive, and somewhat reckless at times. It is associated with masculine energy.

  • Action
  • Expansion
  • Growth
  • Heat
  • Movement

Examples of yin-yang:

  1. Light and dark: You can apply the concept of yin and yang to cycles of light and dark. The yin character implies shade, while the yang has the sun and horizon.
  2. The elements of nature: The yin-yang theory can be applied to the five elements of the natural world, also known as the "Wu Xing" or five movements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Like yin and yang, these elements exist in a constant cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
  3. Magnets: Magnets are also an example of yin-yang. One side is "north"; the other side is "south." It's only when these two sides are placed next to each other that they can sync.
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What happens when yin and yang are out of balance?

Yin-yang is always a comparative relationship. You can't have one without the other: Something is always more yin in comparison to yang. (It cannot be yin or yang, but yin-yang.) Yin-yang reminds us that there is a natural order to the universe, and productivity comes from harmony. When this harmony is broken, problems and diseases can occur.

Here are a few examples of what can happen when yin and yang are out of balance:

In feng shui:

Yin-yang theory is represented in feng shui, the art and science of placement. Far more than a home decorating scheme, feng shui translates to wind-water, with wind representing yang and water, yin.

When the elements of yin and yang are in balance in your environment, there is a good flow of chi that promotes health, wellness, and longevity. When it is out of balance, your surroundings can feel stale and uninspired.

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In our relationship to nature:

The planet is naturally in a yin-yang balance. However, as humans pollute nature and rev up the temperature of the planet, we are disrupting this balance.

By destroying nature, we are in a sense destroying ourselves. We would be better off adapting our lifestyles to be in alignment with the seasons and cycles of nature, versus resisting or fighting them.

In Chinese medicine:

The yin-yang concept is the philosophical framework of Chinese medicine, and it's discussed in The Yellow Emperor's Inner Classic, the most foundational text in Chinese medicine. All of our organs and meridians are assigned yin and yang energy.

In Chinese medicine, certain illnesses are seen to be more prevalent during different seasons, corresponding with yin-yang imbalances within the body.

How to find balance.

Many facets of Western culture disrupt the balance of yin and yang, tipping the scales toward more active yang energy. Here are some ways to restore balance for the sake of your health:

1. Prioritize rest.

Staying up late and burning the candle at both ends is a very yang-weighted activity. Every time you do so, you stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, which only revs up your energy more and further perpetuates imbalance.

Over time, too much yang activity interferes with the body's biological clock, or circadian rhythm, which can make you more susceptible to illness.

Stop believing the myth that productivity means constantly expanding, increasing your output, pushing your limits, and overriding your natural needs for recovery, rest, and rejuvenation. Never underestimate how important rest is for the body and mind.

2. Exercise—but not at the expense of sleep or downtime.

Exercising is a great way to stay healthy. But problems come when we sacrifice sleep to squeeze in a workout or go straight from sitting in front of a computer for hours to doing a heavy workout.

These more yang approaches to exercise are counterproductive. Ultimately, they're just recipes for injury. Instead, try to work movement into your entire day and check in with what your body needs before choosing an exercise.

3. Eat simply and seasonally.

Fat-free, sugar-free, and carb-free diets can be very extreme and limiting, and they can send some people into crisis or stress mode. A more balanced approach to dieting will look different for everyone, but you really can't go wrong by prioritizing seasonal, minimally processed, whole-food ingredients.

4. Make time for yin activities throughout the day.

We become so focused on getting things done (yang energy) that we don't often allow ourselves to receive and be in the present. 

To find balance, block time on your schedule for activities that are more yin in nature: breaks in the day when you can eat, breathe, meditate, and re-center. 

5. Craft a soothing nighttime routine.

Once the sun goes down, you can prioritize yin activities even more: Plan for quiet, homemade dinners featuring seasonal greens. As the sun sets, turn down the lights and switch off electronics.

Get in the habit of taking relaxing baths and thinking about three things you're grateful for before going to bed (the earlier, the better!). Gratitude is the practice of receiving, and it is therefore very yin. Ending your day with gratitude will also help you stop your mental chatter and encourage restful sleep.

The bottom line.

Yin and yang is an ancient Chinese philosophy that reminds us that balance is the key to prosperity. By balancing out the opposing but complementary forces of yin and yang in our modern lives, we can achieve more vibrant and sustainable health.

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