When all is said and done, health and illness are essentially a question of balance. There are numerous factors that affect our health…exercise, diet, stress, the amount of rest we get, lifestyle choices, environmental factors, relationships and interactions with others…but in every case, not only getting too little of what we need, but also having too much of it, can lead to problems with our health. An appropriate balance is healthy, and imbalance is unhealthy. This is where the ancient science and art that we call Chinese Medicine begins.
Chinese Medicine describes this approach to wellness through the concept of Yin and Yang. What do these terms mean?
I find a common misconception that many people have is that “some things are yin and other things are yang.” This is not the way it works. Everything in the Universe contains both Yin and Yang aspects. Within everything you can name can be found a part which is relatively more stable, more quiet, more solid/substantial, perhaps more cool, or fluid…more Yin. And other parts will be more active, more dynamic, more expansive, perhaps more hot, or dry…more Yang. These are some examples of characteristics that can be either properly or improperly imbalanced in our bodies’ internal environments, leading to either good or poor health.
Another way to simplify the differentiation between Yin and Yang that I find helpful is to think of Yin as corresponding to energy which is moving inward, and Yang to energy which is moving outward. Like our breath, or the movement of blood into and out of our hearts, or the intake of food and subsequent outflow of energy produced and excretion of waste, this constant interplay and endless dance of Yin and Yang is what defines us as alive from the time of birth to death.
Simply stated, a balance of Yin and Yang equals harmony and a state of good health; an imbalance of Yin and Yang equals disharmony and the potential for illness.
Yin/Yang imbalances can take many forms. Sometimes we can identify a systemic imbalance – a case where, for example, there is simply too much heat (i.e., a Yang excess) built up in one’s body from excessive consumption of spicy foods and alcohol, an accumulation of stress, spending too much time rushing around, etc., and not balanced by enough Yin influences like getting enough sleep and relaxation, drinking plenty of water, and eating nourishing food. Or, more commonly, imbalances of Yin and Yang can be identified that affect specific areas of the body, or within specific organs. For example, stress and poor dietary habits might lead to a depletion of the “Stomach Yin” specifically (which includes enzymes and fluids needed for digestion), causing various digestive disorders. If this depletion of Yin persists for long enough, the evidence of heat will become apparent in the form of burning-type stomach pain, “heartburn,” or even gastric ulcers. Any imbalance within an organ will compromise its ability to function optimally, and subsequently optimal health of the individual will be compromised in any number of ways.
So, where does acupuncture fit into all this? What does sticking needles into the body have to do with balancing Yin and Yang? I will address this question in detail in the weeks to come, but for now, know this: Acupuncture needles manipulate the flow of energy (primarily the energy we call “Qi”) in the body, and depending on which way they influence that energy to move, they will move more of it in to the organs or areas of the body where it’s needed, and drain it away (out) from places where there is too much. Again, a question of restoring balance.