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Asian Medical Theory - Yin Yang
Origins and Approach   |   Yin and Yang   |   Five Elements  |   Vital Substances   |   Zang-Fu Organs

           "If becoming is yang, being is yin.
                 Sacrifice not the inner being to achieve the outer becoming.
                        Find the place of duality and dwell there a moment.
                               Can you see - nothing in life is absolute, or what it seems." - Klaudia Bae

Yin and Yang

yin yang Of the many principles of traditional Asian medical theory, a few fundamental ones will be discussed. These are:
  • Yin and Yang Theory
  • Five Elements Theory
  • Vital Substances Theory
  • Zang-Fu Organ Theory
  • External Causes of Disease
  • Internal Causes of Disease

  • Taiji: Yin and Yang

    The foundational cornerstone of traditional Asian philosophy - both medical and social - is the theory of Yin and Yang. Yin and Yang as a philosophy is best enumerated in a book called 'Book of Changes' (Yi Jing or I Ching) written around 700 BC. The same philosophical school that developed the theory of Yin-Yang is credited to have developed the Five Element theory. This school was called the 'Yin-Yang School' or the 'Naturalist School'. The birth of the Yin-Yang and Five Element theories, and their application to medicine, signify a movement away from the shamanistic view of supernatural causes of disease to the empirically scientific approach based on observable, inductive and deductive methods of patterns differentiation.

    Four Stages and Eight Trigrams

    In the Yi Jing, Yin and Yang are represented by a pair of broken and unbroken lines. The combination of broken and unbroken lines in pairs form four stages representing Yin and Yang along their continuum of transformation. At each pole are Yin and Yang, and in-between are intermediary stages known as Yang within Yin, and Yin within Yang:

    four stages of yin yang
    Four Stages of Yin-Yang

    Later in the development of the theory, an additional line was added to the above four stages making eight Trigrams. A Trigram is called 'Gua', and eight is 'Ba'. Hence, the Eight Trigrams are known as Ba Gua. Each Gua (Trigram) represented what the ancient philosophers saw as eight basic universal images or phenomenon:

    eight trigrams
    Eight Trigrams (Ba Gua)

    The number 8 is significant in that it, multiplied by itself (8x8), results in 64 trigrams. The 64 are said to symbolize all the possible phenomenon of the universe. The Ba Gua is usually arranged in a circle with the Taiji symbol of Yin-Yang at the center. The arrangement in a circle is symbolic of the cyclic changes of nature and their fundamental relationship to the two poles of Yin and Yang.

    All Things Yin and Yang

    Yin and Yang represent opposite but complementary qualities. Each thing or phenomenon could be itself and its complement. For example, Yin contains the seed of Yang so that Yin can transform into Yang, and vice versa. The relationship and interdependence of Yin-Yang are represented in the Taiji symbol, above.

    The concept is simple yet complex and profound. All things and phenomenon can be categorized as either Yin or Yang. All things can be, in their simplest states, reduced to Yin or Yang. These same things can be Yin in one context but Yang in another. Their states are defined in relation to other things that are within their sphere of being.

    This philosophy of the ever-changing nature of all things, in relation to one another, is distinctly different from Western logic based on the Aristotelian principles of contraries rather than mutability and change. For example, Aristotle says that a thing that is square cannot be both square and not-square.

    Yin-Yang, on the other hand, is based on the cyclical alternation of natural phenomenon. This includes the ebb and flow of day to night and night to day, the cyclical changing of the seasons, the vaporization of water by heat during the day, the condensation of vapor into water at night, the changes in states of matter from solid to liquid and then to gas when heated, and the reverse when cooled, and so on.

    The qualities of Yin and Yang apply to all levels of the cosmos through a system of correspondences. Some of the general and medical correspondences are listed as follows:

    General Correspondences
    Yin Yang
    Earth Heaven
    Water Fire
    Female Male
    Night Day
    Moon Sun
    Rest Movement
    Movement inward Movement outward
    Dense, Substantial Airy, Immaterial
    Material Immaterial
    Heaviness Lightness
    Low High
    Falling tendency Rising tendency

    Anatomical & Medical Correspondences
    Yin Yang
    Interior Exterior
    Front & Right Back & Left
    Lower section Upper section
    Bones Skin
    Internal Yin Organs Outer Yang Organs
    Blood & Body Fluids Qi
    Cold Heat, Fire
    Dampness Dryness
    Deficiency Excess
    Structure Function

    For example, Qi being an energetic and immaterial form is Yang, compared to Blood which is more material and substantial. Blood being material and substantial is Yin. As the energetic (Yang) component, Qi helps move blood. As the material (Yin) component, Blood nourishes and provides the material basis for Qi.

    In applying the Yin-Yang theory to traditional Asian medicine, every part of the human body can be characterized as predominantly Yin or predominantly Yang depending on their structure, function and anatomical location such as exterior-interior, above-below, front-back and left-right. Again these characterizations are relative not absolute, and their Yin-Yang characterizations are always in relationship to each other.

    For example, the abdomen is Yang in relation to the legs because the abdomen is located above the legs. But it is Yin in relation to the head because the abdomen is below the head. Muscles are Yin in relation to skin because muscles are more internal than skin. But muscles are Yang compared to visceral organs because muscles are more external than viscera.

    Similarly, organs have Yin-Yang correspondences making up one aspect of their organ system classification. This applies to the 12 primary organs which make up 6 Yin-Yang pairs, but does not apply to the additional 6 extraordinary Yang organs which are not paired.

    Yang organs are defined by their functions while Yin organs are defined by their structures. Yang organs transform, digest and excrete impure products of digestion. Yin organs store pure essences resulting from the transformational functions of the Yang organs.

    For example, the Kidneys are paired with the Bladder as an organ system. The Kidneys are the Yin organs in this pairing because they store Essence and do not have a direct path to the exterior body. The Bladder transforms fluids, excretes the impure products as urine and does have a direct path to the exterior of the body. Yin-Yang characterizations of organs are also relational, not absolute. For example, the Kidneys have a Yin aspect and Yang aspect. Kidney Yin nourishes all the Yin fluids of the body while Kidney Yang supplies all the Qi and Yang energies of the body.

    Pathogens responsible for producing an imbalance in Yin-Yang also have Yin-Yang characterizations. For example, Cold and Damp are Yin pathogens in relation to Heat and Dryness which are Yang pathogens. Cold consumes Yang resulting in cold-related Yin symptoms such as chilliness, loose stool and pale complexion. Heat consumes Yin resulting in heat-related Yang symptoms such as irritability, constipation and a ruddy reddish complexion.

    Four Principles of Yin-Yang

    In all cases, Yin or Yang characterization is relative to some other thing being compared. Their interaction and behavior are governed by the following four principles of Yin-Yang interrelationships:

    1. Opposition of Yin and Yang
    Yin and Yang are opposite stages of a cycle but the opposition is relative, not absolute. For example, vegetables are generally Yin and meat generally Yang. But within each category there are degrees of Yin or Yang. For example, chicken is Yang compared with fish but chicken is Yin compared with lamb. Similarly, in traditional Asian medical (TAM) pathology the character of clinical symptoms also can be reduced to their basic character of Yin or Yang.

    Chief among this opposing relationship is that existing between the elements of Fire (Yang) and Water (Yin). The balance between Fire and Water is essential to all physiological processes.

    Physiological Fire, also called the Fire of the Gate of Life (Ming Men), derives from the Yang aspect of the Kidneys.  Ming Men provides the warmth and energy to all the organs and the physiological processes to carry on their respective functions. Whereas, Physiological Water derives from the Yin aspect of the Kidneys and its function is to moisten and cool the body to balance the warming and drying actions of the physiological Fire.

    If Fire is excessive it easily flows upward to the Yang aspect of the body and the symptoms of excess Fire manifests on the head as headaches, red face, red eyes, thirst, and on the exterior skin as a sensation of heat and sweat. If Water is excessive it may flow downward to the Yin aspect of the body manifesting as edema below the waist, excessive urination, and inward to produce a sensation of cold.

    2. Interdependence of Yin and Yang
    Yin cannot exist without Yang, and Yang cannot exist without Yin. Although opposites, they are mutually dependent on each other. For example, day cannot exist without night, and matter cannot exist without energy. In TAM physiology Yin organs depend on Yang organs to produce Qi and Blood from the transformation and transportation of food. Similarly the Yang organs depend on the Yin ones for their nourishment. This nourishment is via the Blood and Essences stored by the Yin organs.

    3. Mutual Consumption of Ying and Yang
    Yin and Yang are in a constant state of relative adjustment in an effort to maintain a dynamic balance. This balance is never 50:50 but rather, it is a fluctuating balance confined to a small range of acceptable variations. If Yin is out of balance and becomes excessive it consumes Yang and vice versa. This is witnessed in the ebb and flow of night and day. As day ends to night, Yang decreases and Yin increases. As night ends to day, Yin decreases and Yang increases.

    There are five possible states of balance-imbalance between Yin and Yang:

    Relative Balance
    yin yang State: This is a state of relative balance of Yin and Yang. Yin and Yang are not at a 50:50 ratio for more than a short period of time. Rather, it is a fluctuating balance within a small range of variation.

    Treatment: This reflects a healthy, balanced Mind and Body. Continued adherence to a healthy lifestyle and proper nutrition is required to maintain this balance.

    Preponderance (excess) of Yin
    yin yang State: This is an excess Yin condition. Here, an excess Yin pathogen consumes normal Yang.

    Treatment: Treatment requires expelling the excess Yin pathogen.

    Preponderance (excess) of Yang
    yin yang State: This is an excess Yang condition. Here, an excess Yang pathogen consumes normal Yin.

    Treatment: Treatment requires expelling the excess Yang pathogen.

    Weakness (deficiency) of Yin
    yin yang State: This is a deficiency of Yin condition. When Yin is weak, Yang is in apparent excess in relation to the deficient Yin.

    Treatment: Treatment requires nourishing (strengthening) Yin of the body.

    Weakness (deficiency) of Yang
    yin yang State: This is a deficiency of Yang condition. When Yang is weak, Yin is in apparent excess in relation to the deficient Yang.

    Treatment: Treatment requires tonifying (strengthening) Yang of the body.

    4. Inter-transformation of Yin and Yang
    Yin can transform into Yang and vice versa at a certain stage of development and time. For example, day changes into night, water can vaporize to gas and vapor can condense into water.

    In TAM pathology a Cold pathogen is Yin while a Heat pathogen is Yang. However, Cold that accumulates and causes stagnation (blockage) in the body generates Heat. And after some time, the heat will consume the cold and the pathogen, which began as a Cold (Yin) pathogen, will later completely transform into a Heat (Yang) pathogen.

    Yin-Yang theory as summarized here is extremely simplified and generalized. In the practice of traditional Asian medicine there are many intricacies and complexities the practitioner must take into consideration. Because of the many complexities involved, non-practitioners should not try to apply self-healing methodologies using traditional Asian medicine modalities. When properly used by a trained practitioner it is a powerful and safe medicine. When improperly used there can be considerable damage.

    Origins and Approach   |   Yin and Yang   |   Five Elements  |   Vital Substances   |   Zang-Fu Organs

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