Sickness and the Balance of Yin and Yang
By John J Dixon
One of the key concepts of traditional acupuncture theory is of the balance of yin and yang in the body. Yin and yang seems like one of those strange esoteric expressions not out of place in a 1970’s cheese-ball Chinese kung fu movie. But it is at its very heart a very simple expression of the balance of energy in the universe and within ourselves. An understanding of which can deepen the Chinese medicine practitioner’s understanding of disharmony in the body.
We are probably familiar with the yin yang symbol. The classical yin yang diagram is of a circle made up of black and white with two dots within each part. The symbol is found on the South Korean flag and occasionally turns up tattooed on someone’s arm and sometimes their butt. The black represents yin. The white represents yang. Within yin, there is an element of yang and within yang there is an element of yin. Yin and yang may be described as complementary opposites that comprise everything in the universe and the human body.
Yang is attributed with the qualities of expansion, light, heat, fire, growth, activity, the sun, the outer, the male, the sky or heavens. Yin is attributed with qualities of darkness, cold, water, rest, rejuvenation, the moon, the inner, the female, the earth. Yin and yang are present in everything and are relative to each other. Within yin, there are elements of yang and within yang there is yin. For example, the daytime is considered yang and yet different times of the day may be considered to be more yin then yang. The afternoon when the sun is at its brightest is said to be most yang, but the evening just before dusk as it starts to become darker can be said to be the most yin within the yang.
Yin and yang are not meant to be concrete qualities or polar opposites. They are simple human expressions to describe a universe that is in constant fluidic motion. A primitive yet elegant expression.
In relation to the human body, the concept of yin and yang can be applied to the parts of the human body. Generally, the normal functioning body is divided between yin and yang area. For example, the skin is considered yang compared to the deeper internal organs, which are yin. The upper body is considered yang as it is close to the heavens and the lower body is yin as it is closer to the earth. The blood and body fluids is considered yin as it is thick and full of precious substances, whereas the oxygen and breath is yang. The front is considered yin and the back is yang for if you consider that man evolved to walk in an upright state, the back would have been exposed to the sun in prehistoric man, who may have walked hunched over in a manner closer to walking on all fours. The internal organs are also divided into yin and yang. The organs which are classed as holding vessels (the stomach, large and small intestines, bladder and gallbladder) are considered yang. The organs which hold the precious substances and bodily fluids like the kidney, heart and liver are considered yin. The lungs are also classed as yin although they are the most yang of the yin organs.
Along with this is the meridian system. The meridians are often described as a network of energy pathways which traverse the entire body from the tips of the fingers and the toes through the torso and to the head. It is a diverse serious of connecting channels like the motorway of a country. For the sake of simplifying and learning the pathways, the meridians are compartmentalised and divided into 12 main pathways. These pathways are named after the particular internal organ they pass through and have a strong influence over. There are also an 8 extra or ‘special’ meridians pathways. Along these meridian pathways are the acupuncture points which when needled or heated with herbs can affect the energy flow of that meridian.
The meridians are also divided into yin and yang. The meridians that pass through the ‘yin’ organs – the heart, kidney, spleen, lungs and liver are classed as yin meridians. Meridians that pass through the yang organs – stomach, intestines, gallbladder and bladder are classed as yang organs. On observation, the yang meridians tend to be on yang areas of the body such as the back and on the outer part of the limbs, whereas the yin meridians are on yin areas of the body such as the front and inner part of the limbs although there are a few exceptions to the rule. All of the yang meridians meet in the head which is the most yang area of the body.
When it comes to sickness in the body, what the acupuncturist will often discover will be various imbalances of yin and yang in the body. Distortions may well occur to a lesser or major degree which are severe enough to manifest symptoms. One way to understand the problem is to look at the balance of yin and yang in the body.
Yin and yang can become imbalanced in various ways. For example, yang energy has a tendency to rise in the body. In some cases there may be too much yang in the upper part and not enough below. This can manifest itself as recurrent headaches or chronically stiff shoulders where the energy gets stuck above. At the same time, a person may suffer from cold hands and feet or a weakness in the limbs.
Over thinking and worry, pensiveness or anger causes energy to go upwards and can also lead to disturbed sleep and nightmares. Insomnia is another example of too much energy above. A person finds that they just cannot fall asleep – their minds are too active and they think excessively. At worst, a person starts to worry that if they can’t sleep they won’t be productive the next day, which becomes almost a vicious circle because as you think more and more, it becomes difficult to sleep. In this situation, it is almost impossible to think yourself to sleep, because what needs to be done is to bring the energy back into the body and away from the head and there are various exercises you can try to do this.
In some people, the lower energy centres are weak because all the yang energy is directed away from them which can show itself up as dull low back pain, poor digestive function or excessive urination. Painful swollen joints as in rheumatoid arthritis or various inflammatory conditions like colitis, hepatitis or ulcers also indicate an excess of yang energy in the sick part of the body. Fire is yang. However, in people with these conditions, there may well be another part of the body or organ system which is too yin or deficient and which may need to be addressed in order to rebalance the yin yang energy.
There is an old expression in traditional oriental medicine. To be healthy we should have fire below, water above and a cool head. The lower abdomen, at an area two finger breaths below the bellybutton corresponds to our lower energy field, which is called the dantian. This is the main power centre of the body and in a healthy person, it should be warm. The water above refers to the heart energy centre where the heart chakra is and means that it should be calm and not agitated by fire (such as excessive desires or worries). A cool head means we should have a calm head without too much brain activity or thoughts. A traditional Chinese exercise is to meditate on the lower dantian area. Because where the mind goes, the energy flows. If our mind is focused heavily in our brains, the energy flows upwards, but if our minds are focused in our lower belly, the energy flows there and helps keep our energies centred.
Another aspect is the yin and yang conditions of the meridians. Typically, if energy is excessive in one meridian, there will be a weakness in another meridian or another part of the same meridian. The trained acupuncturist can assess if this is the case simply by palpating the meridians. In the case of stiff shoulders, the meridians in the upper part of the body will be excessively yang. They will be hard and painful to the touch. However, if he feels the meridians on the lower part of the body, they may feel quite weak and also painful but in a dull kind of way. As the acupuncture points lay on these meridians, the acupuncturist can correct the imbalance by needling the most reactive points and realign the energy flow so it releases from the shoulders and flows back to where it is weak. These are just simple examples, but the concept holds true for many types of conditions. It is up to the practitioner to assess and treat accordingly. In this way, no two cases of people with the same condition will manifest the disease exactly the same.
There are various ways we can help ourselves if we feel we have an imbalance of yin and yang. Firstly, we need to be aware of our lifestyle and its possible influence on our health. If we are office workers and spend a huge amount of time sitting and using the eyes and brain looking at a computer screen, it is obvious that the yang energy is stuck in our head for 8 hours a day and our muscles are deprived of a fresh flow of blood and yin energy because we hold them ‘unnaturally’ in a sitting posture. The antidote to this is that when we finish work, we should divert the energy back into the body by walking home or going swimming or to a gym, yoga or tai chi class to counteract the energy flow. Alternatively, if you are a manual worker – a bricklayer or gardener, then the yang energy has been used a lot in the body and to rebalance the yin yang flow, more relaxation exercises – such as seated meditation or a nap or reading a book in the evening can be beneficial. If we notice a part of the body seems excessively cold or weak – for example the lower back or belly, then a hot water bottle held against it can bring the energy back there. If our limbs or back muscles feel stiff in a dull (deficient way) then going for a massage can help as someone else passes on their yang energy to you. These are simple ways to get more in touch with our bodies.
This is a basic introduction to yin and yang in our bodies. But yin and yang is a broad topic and goes deeper to include things like the effect of the changing seasons on the body, the stages of sickness, the stages of growth from childhood to old age, the effects of food on our bodies and much more. If you are interested to learn more, you can visit or contact the author of this article: http://www.johndixonacupuncture.com
John Dixon is an acupuncturist practicing in London. His clinic is located in Angel Islington, North London. John has over 5 years experience in acupuncture and practices a combination of Chinese and Japanese systems of acupuncture.
His website is http://www.johndixonacupuncture.com
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