The ancient Chinese philosophy of Yin and Yang is perhaps the oldest and most profound model of understanding the universe which we inhabit and all its manifestations.  Its very simplicity acknowledges ancient teachings from multiple cultures that true “understanding” of the nature of life, lies in viewing with a “child’s mind” – to see clearly at a very simple level. Yet, for all its simplicity, the model can accommodate anything of which we can conceive or experience, however, complex that might be.

Had they considered the concept of Yin/Yang, western astronomers would not have been surprised to find a black hole at the centre of every galaxy; quantum physicists might have easily anticipated the wave/particle dichotomy; research biologists might understand that cloning would not have a long term future.

It is thought that Yin/Yang theory developed during the Yin and Chou dynasties, i.e. between
1500 and 221 BC. The earliest known reference to Yin/Yang is in the I Ching, the Book of Changes, around 800 BC.

Chapter 42 of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching (6th century BC)* states:

“The Tao begot one;
One begot two;
Two begot three;
And three begot the ten thousand things.

The ten thousand things carry yin and embrace yang.
They achieve harmony by combining these forces.”

An interpretation of these words might be that the one (Wu Ji) gave rise to the two polarities of Yin and Yang, the third could be understood as Qi (the movement between Yin and Yang), the combination of which ultimately gives rise to everything (ten thousand in ancient China was the biggest number of which one could or needed to conceive…!). [The interpretations could be many and varied as the concept of three is a significant number in many philosophies, e.g.: Heaven, Earth and mankind; Father, Son and Holy Ghost; mind, body and spirit; Jing, Qi and Shen – although all ultimately embracing similar ideas.]

Life, the universe and everything, according to this model, is the result of the interplay between the two polarities of Yin and Yang. These two polarities are not absolutes and cannot exist independently of each other. They are relative states and are in a constant dynamic interchange, never stopping, never reaching an end point, like the stuff of life itself, always moving, always changing, always transforming.

The empty circle represents emptiness, the Void, the Tao, Wu Ji. This potential can then be divided into the familiar Tai Chi symbol, which epitomises the interplay and encapsulates the multiple dynamics of the Yin/Yang relationship.

“Tai Chi evolves from Wu Chi, the mother of Yin and Yang.”

Within the circle, the darkened areas represent Yin and the white areas represent Yang. They are of equal size and, within each area is the seed of the other. As one increases in volume, so the other decreases in a proportionate amount. Nowhere is there a state of absolute Yin or absolute Yang. As a critical point is reached, one turns into the other.

“These complementary opposites are neither forces nor material entities. Nor are they mythical concepts that transcend rationality. Rather they are convenient labels used to describe how things function in relation to each other and to the universe. They are used to explain the continuous process of natural change. But Yin and Yang are not only a set of correspondences; they also represent a way of thinking. In this system of thought, all things are seen as parts of a whole. No entity can ever be isolated from its relationship to other entities; no thing can exist in and of itself. There are no absolutes. Yin and Yang must necessarily, contain within themselves the possibility of opposition and change.”
Ted Kaptchuk

Yin /Yang Characters and Symbolism

The character for Yin originally meant the shady side of a mountain. It is associated with coolness, moisture, darkness, rest and lack of activity. The original meaning of Yang was the sunny side of the mountain, implying warmth, dryness, brightness, activity and movement.

How might we interpret these polarities within everyday experience? The table below gives some examples of ways these manifest.

__  __              YIN     
____              YANG
Examples in the environment
Dark
Light
Night
Day
Earth
Heaven
Moon
Sun
Cold
Hot
Water
Fire
Damp
Dry
Stillness
Activity
Substance
Function
Centripetal force
Centrifugal force
Examples in the body
Female
Male
Interior (organs)
Exterior (surface)
Front
Back
Medial (nearer to the centre line)
Lateral (towards the sides)
Lower body (below the waist)
Upper body (above the waist)
Left
Right
Nourishment (Nutritive Qi)
Protection (Defensive Qi)
Blood
Qi
Storage (of nutrients)
Excretion or transformation
Structure
Function
Zang organs: Lung, Spleen, Heart, Kidney, Liver, Pericardium
Fu organs: Large Intestine, Stomach, Small Intestine, Bladder, Gall Bladder, Triple Burner
Structure of the body
Functioning of the body
Examples in Tai Chi practice
Stillness
Movement
Contracting
Expanding
Backwards
Forwards
Down
Up
Substantial
Insubstantial
Lower
Upper
Negative
Positive
Softness
Hardness
External (physical)
Internal (energetic)
Calmness
Agitation
Coiling
Uncoiling
Receiving
Giving
Decrease
Increase
Adhering
Fleeing

Coming together Yin (ovum) and Yang (sperm) create life. At the moment of conception, when Yin and Yang fuse, the fertilised ovum immediately starts to spin – the continuous movement of life has begun. At the stillness of death they separate, when the Spirit leaves and goes towards the Heavens (Yang) and the body returns to the Earth (Yin).Assessing your Yin/Yang tendencies

As we’ve seen above, a state of health and harmony is achieved when the Yin/Yang balance is available to us. There is, of course, no perfect state where that balance is held without change, but we need to have both options and directions available depending on which activities we are engaged in, time of day, season, temperature control, etc. We all have particular predispositions to err more towards one polarity than another and it’s helpful to develop one’s awareness of this in order to bring about rebalancing and adjustments.

As a broad generalisation, males tend more towards the Yang and females towards the Yin (although, of course, we are all a continuing blend and exchange of both). Biologically this can be accounted for in the location of the reproductive organs: male externally (Yang) and female internally (Yin).

All Liz’s classes begin with developing awareness of our Yin/Yang balance in that moment, whether we’re feeling busier or quieter, whether our focus is more upwards or downwards, forward or backward or favouring one side or the other.

In other articles, we will look in more depth at finding the balance of Yin and Yang with Tai Chi practice.

* Quote from: “Tao Te Ching” by Lao Tzu – translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English.

© Liz Welch 2023