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Taoist philosophy, yin and yang, the five elements; and their relationships to tai chi

Yin-Yang Theory and Traditional Chinese Medicine


In tai chi, yin and yang are vital aspects of our attempts to balance ourselves. We understand the concepts of yin and yang in terms of a philosophical treatise of equilibrium: light and dark, up and down, aggressive and passive, and so on. This concept ranges much wider than just that of Taoist dogma or martial arts culture; it is an inherent part of the practice of traditional Chinese medicine. It is used to understand the structures, functions and changes that take place within the human body.

In an article on taichido.com, I explained Chinese medicine in very broad brushes as that the Chinese believe that as well as the body being made up of individual organs, they interact with each other on a global or holistic level - a fundamental interconnectedness of all (Twentieth Century Western physics has a parallel with aspects of quantum physics). Flowing throughout the body is 'Chi' or energy, which runs along a complex series of pathways, known as meridian lines, closely related to the nervous and vascular systems, connecting all parts of the body. The Chi is found at a molecular level, and to find a western parallel, it could be the force that holds the atoms in orbit around each other - electromagnetism. Yin-Yang theory has a role to play in this: there is an interconnectedness between tissues and organs and other structures within the body – and each of these can be subdivided into yin and yang aspects, and overall, the upper body is associated with yang, the lower with yin; the back yang and the front yin, the outside of the body yang, the insides yin.

There are a series of organs which are called the ‘Zangfu’ organs: the yin organs are Zang, and the yang organs are Fu. The Zang (yin) organs are ‘solid’ organs that are transformation organs: heart, lungs, spleen, liver, kidney and pericardium. The Fu (yang) organs are ‘hollow’ and are transportation organs: small intestine, triple warmer (not according to Chinese medicine an organ in itself, but an organ function), stomach, large intestine, gallbladder and urinary bladder. These twelve organs all correspond to the twelve main meridians of the body – the channels that chi energy flows through.

When the body is healthy, it is in balance – there is a natural equilibrium of yin and yang organs, and of yin and yang states of individual or grouped organs – although it should be noted that even when your body is healthy the balance is exact: In the deconstruction of the yin-yang symbol we see constant change represented, so too does the yin-yang of the body change, depending upon internal and external influences. This is a natural state. When the shift in balance becomes more pronounced – when one aspect dominates the other, then we see a compromise of health - a dis-ease (as my acupuncturist rather lucidly put it).

So we see that if an aspect of an organ is diminished or missing, the organ cannot function properly or in some cases at all. The underlying principle behind traditional Chinese medicine practice is to find the imbalance and correct it though the use of a variety of methods, including acupuncture, hydrotherapy, massage, moxibustion, herbs, and other types of health practice such as chi kung. Moxibustion is one that I have experienced in combination with acupuncture: a small wadge of mugwort (Artemisia Moxa) is burned on affected parts of the body and the ash pushed into the blister that forms - although this practise is not considered appropriate nowadays, so a more common practise is to burn the moxi directly above the point wither by hand-holding or by attaching it to an acupuncture needle. The heat is then transferred down the needle to the acupressure point. These targeted parts of the body are identified by their meridian lines and acupressure points. I have had moxibustion and it is quite painless, and smells suspiciously like cannabis!

Acupuncture is very widely used in the west and is perhaps the best-known Chinese medicine practice. Needles are inserted into the skin at acupressure points: specific locations on the body that are situated along the twelve meridian channels. This again is quite painless, and stimulates the chi energy in particular ways. Herbs are used significantly too – again all designed to affect the ying-yang balance/imbalance of organs.

So how is this supposed to work? Ying-yang theory suggests that an imbalance of either within an organ results in overbalance (dominance) of one aspect and diminishing of the other. When a disease develops, the pathogenic factors are balanced by antipathogenic factors ands the body’s resistance. The pathogenic factors themselves are subdivided into yin and yang – yang factors bring about increase of the body’s yang which then leads to an diminishing of the body’s yin and a ‘heat’ nature of disease occurs. Conversely yin pathogens bring about excess of body yin and therefore diminishing of bodily yang, and a ‘cold’ nature occurs. It then starts to get more complicated, and way above my head.

The correct diagnosis or a problem or dis-ease is the classification of whether it is a yin or a yang-based syndrome, and the cure or relief of the dis-ease to use one or more methods discussed above to restore the balance back. For example, in herbal medicine, the use of a herb with a ‘hot’ nature that is known to affect the particular organ in dis-ease is used to address the balance of ‘cold’ symptoms, and vice-versa. Herbs and other drugs with cold or moist properties and/or bitter, sour or salty flavours are yin, and used to treat yang problems. Herbs with hot or dry properties and/or have pungent, sweet or insipid flavours are yang and are used to treat yin problems. This is all a huge generalisation, but it fits. In the case of acupuncture, the needles stimulate the central nervous system, possibly shutting off certain neurological gateways and blocking pain signals from other parts of the body – and therefore allowing the body to relax and be in a much more receptive position to heal.

The last question has to be: does it actually work? There is no doubt that herbal treatment can drastically reduce symptoms and even in some cases be more efficacious than standard western medicine. An added bonus is that because they do not have a high potency, they can be used successfully for long-term treatment with minimal or no side effects. Acupuncture and moxibustion I can personally vouch for, as I have had a great deal of treatment to help my back fight and recover from the effects of ankylosing spondylictus and chronic acute sciatica, where standard western treatment was insufficient. However, I still need to exercise daily in a regime set out for me by standard medicine. In many cases relying solely on traditional Chinese medicine may not be enough (and it may certainly hit your finances hard), but to be a part of the healing process along with standard medicine may well be the answer. All I know is that I have certainly benefited enormously from traditional Chinese medicinal practices and as westerners we should not be throwing away as crackpot the accumulated knowledge of over 4000 years of oriental experience.

See also:
the origins of Yingyang and the symbol deconstructed
Acupuncture & Chi

The Application of Yin-Yang Theory to the Filed of Tradiitonal Chinese Medicine. Traditional Chinese Medicine.com website
Understanding the Yin and Yang by Sherene Gotico
Yin and Yang in Traditional Chinese Medicine A world of Medicine.com


When the body is healthy, it is in balance – there is a natural equilibrium of yin and yang organs, and of yin and yang states of individual or grouped organs – although it should be noted that even when your body is healthy the balance is exact: In the deconstruction of the yin-yang symbol we see constant change represented, so too does the yin-yang of the body change, depending upon internal and external influences.

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