What is Yin and Yang?

While we’re on the topic of Chinese medicine and of balance, we have a good opportunity to discuss the concepts of Yin and Yang. Yin and yang is a system of complementary opposites; although they are antitheses of each other, they are not in conflict like, for example, good and evil. Rather, both are necessary in a healthy existence. The value of this concept is using it to balance your own life. Yin and yang can be applied to nature, lifestyle, and diet. The original terms mean essentially “shady” (yin) and “sunny” (yang). While it’s hard to define them any more than that, yin is associated with darkness, nighttime, passivity, femininity, the moon, winter, negativity, coldness, receptivity, softness, grace, etc. Yang is the opposite—light, daytime, heat, summer, masculinity, positivity, aggression, growth, objectivity, hardness, etc. These distinctions apply to human activity as well. Most kinds of work, physical activity, and creation are considered yang. Sleep, rest, reading, and other passive behaviors are considered yin. Men and women are not exclusively yin or yang but contain some balance of each. The whole point of yin and yang is that one is not better than the other, but that they are perfectly equal and mutually dependent. Any time there is too much of one or the other, an imbalanced and unsustainable situation is created.

In American society, yang is emphasized much more than yin. Americans work long hours and take few vacations, and they usually work during their vacations. Our economy is based on constant growth and fears recession. In politics, an aggressive attitude is generally seen as the best. Sleeping, relaxing, reading, mediating, praying, and other passive or submissive activities are seen as ones that we “don’t have time for.” Since yang cannot exist without yin, though, yin still shows up where it can: in television or movie–watching, internet surfing, and drugs: cigarettes, alcohol, coffee, and hard drugs. Drugs are probably the most extreme of all yin substances—they help us to release all the tension built up during the day. However, because they are so extreme, they leave us worse off than before. They exhaust the body rather than soothe it. Not as serious as drugs, but similar to them, are very yin foods, especially sugar and sugary foods like candy, doughnuts, cookies, and ice cream. These foods relax us for the moment by flooding us with energy, but they mess up our blood sugar and put us on a yin–yang pendulum swing. To be healthy, you need to be in the middle of yin and yang—not swinging back and forth.

Many people who have uncontrollable cravings for sugar, snacks, coffee, and so on, would probably find those cravings reduced if they slept more, meditated more, and found other ways to relax. Another strategy is to try moderately yin foods like the aforementioned sweet vegetables and natural sweeteners. Note that one source of yin cravings can be too much yang food (highly salty snacks, deep–fried foods, excessive red meat). Simply observing and acknowledging your cravings and behavior as being guided by a need to create yin–yang balance can be very helpful in all areas of your life.