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The basic idea of Yin and Yang is simple, and the concept is old, very old. It was developed in ancient China to help them make sense of life, the universe and everything.
First written references to it were in the Book of Change (Yi Jing or I Ching) around 700BC, the origins of which go back much further: Chinese mythology attributes the Book of Change to Emperor Fu Hsi (around 3000BCE).
Such commentators included King Wen whose sons, Wu Wang and Tan, the Duke of Zhou, went on to create the Zhou dynasty. They also include Confucius, (551-479BCE) whom we all like to quote.
Below is the translation of the Book of Change that I read first - and still prefer, particularly for its introduction.
Don't roll your eyes! The Zhou dynasty lasted longer than any other in Chinese history (1046–256 BCE). Let us know how many other royal dynasties you know of, North, South, West or East, with anything like such longevity!
These great sages didn't just sit around pontificating on their meditations. Just as, today, we have highly respected individuals who after distinguished service in the Armed Forces progress to illustrious careers in other fields such as music, literature or politics, so too then in China.
China in those days was an unhappy kingdom. Its Emperor King Choe was a tyrant, whose wife's demands and cruelty led him into bad ways, and he was the last emperor in the Shang dynasty (1766 - 1122 BC). He dissipated the nation's wealth, his people were terrified and robbery and villainy were rife. (Read more about this via John Keay's book on the left.)
China was a rough, tough place, lacking anything approaching the rule of law some modern countries take for granted.
King Wen, ruler of one of Choe's principalities, was by all accounts a remarkable man, much loved by his subjects in what is now Shensi province, but Emperor Choe threw him into jail for a year. (Why? The usual reason: fear that Wen might usurp his power.)
While in prison, King Wen had good reason to consider his future. He studied the Yi Jing and wrote the first major commentary on it.
Terse and cogent, King Wen's observations describe situations in life and suggest, given certain actions, how they turn out.
Later, after King Wen's son Wu Wang had overthrown Choe and set up the
Zhou dynasty, Wen's son Tan, hurt by the hurly-burly of political life
and accusations that he intended to seize power, resigned office and
retired for a while. He spent much of his life making further
interpretations of the texts.
Later, Confucius and his disciples added further major commentaries. (By the way, if you are particularly interested in how modern China arose, read the book on the right by Prof Jonathan Spence.)
All these various explanations, annotations and clarifications make up what are called the Ten Wings which together with the hexagrams constitute the 'Yi Jing' or 'I Ching'.
These 64 hexagrams look pretty dull unless you're a mathematician. It is what they symbolize that matters.
The first two, Ch'ien and K'un, represent Yang and Yin respectively.
More has been written about the Yin and Yang hexagrams than any of the other 62.
Ch'ien, the first hexagram, (image above) symbolizes Yang, the symbol for Heaven, the creative principle.
K'un, the second hexagram, (image above) symbolizes Yin, the symbol for Earth or the Passive principle.
If we create, first we imagine then we give form to our imagination. The idea comes first, followed by a more concrete reality. As our idea improves, we work on the creation.
(For a Western philosophical approach to this, read Douglas Fawcett's 'Divine Imagining' - see right. Warning: this is not an easy read.)
With this website, the idea (yang) came first, followed by a lot of work (yin) and you see the product which, however, is constantly under improvement. Yin is mold-able, adaptable and requires ingenuity (yang) to produce something new.
You can change your mind in a moment. Suppose you want to buy a car. First there is a yang phase, during which you enjoy looking at all the magazines, reading up the car reviews and going for test drives. Most people love this phase: it's called window shopping. But after you've chosen and now bought your nice new shiny car, you can't change it! You're stuck with it: the idea has become reality.
So Yang is changeable and creative and fast, while Yin is adaptable and slow. It usually takes time and work to change Yin.
Yin is something that is moved or heated, and Yang is the force or energetic means that moves or heats it. In us, yin is the body, yang the life in it. When we are formed (sperm and ovum), the two come together as yin and yang.
Yin and yang lose contact with one another when we die.
Yin and Yang mean something only in relation to each other, in the same way we say something is hot only compared with something less hot. The freezing point of water may be cold to most of us, but is warm to a penguin in the Antarctic winter.
In our bodies, the parts that are more stable, that last longer, that are more hard to the touch, are generally more Yin - for example our bones, as compared with those parts that are more quickly changed, such as the skin which is being shed and re-formed daily so is, relatively-speaking, yang. The skin is also on the outside, defending us (yang) against the elements, whereas our organs are deep inside (yin).
Between these two extremes lie the muscles, organs, nerves, circulatory vessels, our brain and spinal tissue.
Our blood is much more yang in nature than our bones, because it moves all the time around within our bodies.
However, our blood is a fluid (yin) compared to the energy (qi) of the pulse (yang) which pushes it.
The upper parts of our body are defined as being more yang, because although our legs carry us around, we do more constant movement with our hands and minds.
Equally, from this logic, being further away from the Earth, which is relatively Yin, our heads and the upper portions of our bodies are nearer the sky - the Heavens - which is Yang in nature. Warm air rises towards the yang, whereas cold air sinks towards the earth (yin).
Consequently cold is more yin, as compared with heat, which is more yang.
In good health, yin and yang work together, neither being uppermost: they interact to each other's benefit. When we work, the intention is yang, and what does the work is yin, the body.
Nowadays, in modern Western society, much work is done sitting, using the mind and the hands and the voice. These are relatively yang activities, at least compared with manual work such as making beds, or lifting, carrying, digging, pulling, pushing, hoeing etc.
Illness can arise from many causes. One of them is overuse of any particular activity. Modern office work that stops us moving and makes us use only one part of our bodies can easily lead to illness, because health is maintained when energy flows around and between the different parts of us.
Does it matter? Short-term, not much, because every moment of your life the amount of Yin relative to Yang changes in your body and mind, even as you breathe in and out.
Long term? Yes. It leads to disease if either Yin or Yang is deficient - or excess.
If you're interested in the long-term effects of sitting when you work, read the following pages:
This interchange is the flow of Qi. If Qi doesn't flow, you get pain.
Office workers often suffer from tension, caused by a build-up of Yang. This affects our more Yang areas, being the upper part of the body, the head (headaches), the neck and shoulders (tight), the chest (breathing, respiration and circulation) all of which can trap Yang as tension.
People who sit too much end up with congestion and heaviness in the lower part of the body: hemorrhoid, sore back, varicose veins, painful periods, which are often due to yin energy not being moved around by yang.
Very active people who don't look after themselves are relatively yang: unless they eat and rest adequately (yin activities) they risk running out of yin qualities, which will make them over-tired, over-wrought, irritable, tense, not able to sleep well.
This can seem like hyperthyroidism, but gradually as they exhaust their resources they become hypo. However, yin and yang don't directly relate to your thyroid: each individual has to be considered separately.
However, if they've exhausted their yin resources you get someone with symptoms that are yin-deficient.
I wrote a book about it! - Yin Deficiency is not uncommon and there is lots that can be done to help.
Cooks and stokers work close to ovens and furnaces: the heat (yang) eventually leads to skin rashes as their bodies try to keep the yang heat away from the more important inner yin organs.
Those who spend all their time working with computer or television screens are using up the energy needed by their eyes. The Chinese medical attitude to this is that the yin-like nutritional energy for their eyes, (technically called 'Liver Blood'), gets depleted, leading to either tiredness (lack of qi) or inflammation (excess of yang because of too little yin) or both.
Why would one person get tired and another get an inflammation? This usually depends on the intensity with which they work, the brightness of the light, and their basic health. A robust person tends to get inflammation, a more depleted person gets tired, unless the latter is deficient in Yin, in which case they might get inflammation (the inflammation being yang, but derived from a deficiency of yin).
Not to confuse you ... but in martial combat, your soft inner parts (like those in your chest and abdomen such as your heart, liver, kidney and spleen organs) are yin. Your sides and back are yang.
Because yang is initiating but also defensive and controlling. The martial artist trains for speed but uses his hard parts, his elbows, head, hands and feet, to attack (yang). If you are defending, you protect your abdomen (yin) as best you can by turning your back, curling up or defending yourself with hands and arms.
Did we say this was easy?
So acupuncture practitioners spend part of the interview discovering, amongst other things, what ratios of yin and yang, qi and blood, the patient's health consists of.
Simplifying, problems at the top of the body are more likely to be yang or yang excess in nature: those down below are more yin or yin-excess in nature.
Yin and Yang relate to everything you can think of, see, touch, feel, do or live with.
With your car, the car itself is yin compared to the fuel you put in it to make it move. But if you use petrol or diesel, that fuel is yin compared to electricity, because electricity moves much faster and has less 'substance' than liquid fuel.
If you run out of fuel, your car becomes just a lump of metal: inert. The engine(yin) has lost its fuel (yang) so yin and yang are not in contact and the vehicle lacks life.
If you enjoy book-keeping (some people do), your creditors are yang - because they supply what you need to run the business and, from the business' viewpoint, are outside it. Your stocks and debtors are yin because they are your assets and represent the work you've done.
But if you sell your product, you become yang in relation to your customer, who is yin.
If it's your business, you are the creative force and your employees are the means to create money. They are the yin, and the yang, provided by you, creates the impetus.
Decided to get fit and beautiful for the summer?
First you have the inspiration (yang).
Next comes the time and work at the gym or in training (yin).
Put yin and yang together and you get observable change:
- if you wish to lose weight, you must control your diet and exercise more to burn the calories. You could also read our page on acupuncture for weight loss.
- if you wish to bulk up, you must eat more and exercise with weights.
In both cases your ideas (yang) together with determination, food and
work (yin) mold your body (yin) into shape.
Actually, many who wish to lose weight should use weights too! Lifting weights burns calories while toning muscles. By working on yin (resistant weights) you can create yang (the body get's better at creating energy which burns the fat off). Here too, yin and yang work together.
From all this, you'll realise that yin and yang are relative concepts:
Sperm and ovum, head and tail, male and female, day and night, life and death, yang and yin, yin and yang.
Yin and Yang work best when there is a constant inter-flow between them, giving change and transformation.
Most unhappiness and illness arise when Yin and Yang aren't able to interchange or interact properly.
Our page yin and or yang shows how the concepts may apply to life, politics, the economy and why you have chocolate on your face.
But do read the book mentioned above, by John Blofeld. It is easy to read and helped me to understand many of the basic ideas behind what I do. I particularly recommend the Foreward and first three explanatory chapters. Here's another link to it:
In Chinese medicine these concepts of Yin and Yang are an important part of the 8 Principles.
If you wish to learn more about China, life there and its civilization, consider membership of the Scottish China Association which publishes a journal 'SINE', has an informative website and meets regularly in Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Alternatively, ring him on 07950 012501 or freephone (only free to telephone within the UK) 0800 298 7015.
Please note! The Kindle editions are less easy to read! Although the paper editions cost more, they are much easier to read and to refer back and forth to the contents and index.
Here are some of the books Jonathan has written:
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