Foundations Yin Yang and Five Elements

Yin Yang & 5 Elements Basic Theory


We’ve begun a weekly series of talks on subjects surrounding health and traditional Chinese medicine.


In case you missed our talk this week, here is the first installment in which Beth talks about the concepts of Yin and Yang and the 5 elements according to Chinese medicine.

O kay so we’re going to get started today welcome to everybody who is joining us and i just wanted to

talk to you a little bit this evening about the fundamental theory of chinese

medicine one of the things that drew me to this medicine in the first place was that i really

believed it was the most elegant way anybody had ever explained to me the way the body worked

and there are some really key principles that we’re going to cover tonight that

play into that model and it’s the thing that i love about it is it’s

it’s so simple and yet it encompasses so much so there is a depth and complexity

to what it can accommodate and yet on its very surface level the the

concepts are very simple and so today we’re going to talk a little bit about those fundamental theories of how we

look at the body and so much in chinese medicine that you’ll notice

is that we look at the body within the context of the greater

natural world so that is something else to keep in mind is that we’re often

hearkening back to how does the systems how does the system that we see

operating around us in nature apply to what is going on our body and vice versa

so the theory itself the the basics of them anyway are broken

down into these kind of five five areas uh the first one being the concepts of

yin and yang i’m sure you’re all familiar with that that symbol we’ll look at it a little bit more in a moment

um and then once we get to yin and yang we further classify things or we can classify them by their five elements the

five elements school of acupuncture is actually widely practiced in the uk

it’s one of the predominant teaching modalities that they use in terms of

constitutional diagnosis as opposed to what my education was based on in California

which is what’s called the zhong fu school and um you’ll see i can talk to you a little

bit about that particular difference there but you’ll get a little bit of both in

different educational settings and and i quite like five

elements for a lot of different reasons and i’ll go into that more later on so we categorize things by yin

and yang we categorize things according to their element and we’ll talk about how those elements work together

and then you might have seen my model of the person with all of the lines on

their body these are the meridians or the channels um you’ll hear them called that in

chinese the word is my that is used um but commonly we’ll look at them as

meridians channels collaterals is another word that you might hear them called but um there are there are

basically pathways that run along your body on both the outside and inside

and they connect pieces of your body to your organ systems

to each other and so this system of meridians is sort of a

core fundamental

representation of how your body works holistically

and um we can talk a little bit about that more later on as well but um the

meridian theory all by itself has its own place and i’m only going to touch on

that briefly but i do want you to understand that that every organ in your body is connected to every other organ

in your body based on this either meridian system or element system or any other ways and this is how we get

that beautiful richness and complexity that i love about chinese medicine and yet still are

able to sort of very simply categorize things and take a look at the syndromes and and

that’s kind of how you get down to those nuts and bolts after the meridians we’re going to talk

a little bit about the substances you may or may not have heard your acupuncturist discuss concepts like chi

blood yin yang phlegm those kinds of things

flood is actually evil associated with damp but there’s a lot of words that you’ll hear

with substances and evils and those might mean something to you in english

and and of course they are translations from chinese into english but they sometimes mean something different

within the context of chinese medicine which happens a lot and we’ll try to tackle the concept of chi although

to attempt is again thousands of year old question that we’re trying to deal with there so

we’ll see what we can get to and if you have any questions at any time feel free to take a moment and and uh jot it down and

raise your hand and suddenly i’m back in the evils

hold on there we go i’ll get to the evils later so

the yin yang theory or the yin yang theory depending on how you’re you’re

talking about it is one of the core basics of chinese philosophy you’ll see it in all kinds of

representations and it is essentially it is the the chinese

version of i think duality that we all sort of see in our world you know

um the computers we operate are based in binary code you know we’ve got day we’ve

got night got light we’ve got dark we’ve got um we’ve got male and we got female

although i will say that um you might think that the yin yang theory is a bit binary for your

needs in terms of that one of the things i love about the young young theory is is that you can always go deeper so

there’s always yin with and young and yan yin and that is part of the interdependence of yin and yang is that

you almost never approach an absolute yin or yang in whatever you’re doing or looking at and

so while it does hold within it the construct of the binary model it is very

fluid and forgiving and i think the way that really matches beautifully the natural world

um so there’s the duality of being there’s the interdependence which really is that they need each other there’s

always a little bit of one in the other that’s what those little dots in the in the yin yang symbol mean you’ve got the

lightness of the yarn with a little dark dot to represent the yin within the yarn and then you’ve got the darkness of the

yang or the yin with a little right dot in the center which is the yang within the yin and so that

dependence on one another they really do require each other to to flourish

the inter-transformation is something that oftentimes will kind of confuse people a little bit

where you will oftentimes have like that yin can turn into yang or that yang can turn into yin and that’s when you see

those those tails right um kind of wrapping around each other

that’s the tail of that little paisley i guess this is the best word to describe it uh figured that you see on the yin

yang and um and that is that you know they lead into one another you know uh

night becomes day and day becomes night and the tide comes in and the tide comes

out and there are these pieces at the beginning and the end of these cycles where they are really leading into one another

um and so it’s another hallmark characteristic of the yin and the young

and how they work together and the last four is mutual consumption which means that if either of them

come to excess too much yin too much young they will eventually consume each other

so it is is part of how they keep themselves in balance so

there’s always that place in the middle where they transform one into the other and within that is and of course if we

get beyond that balance where they become out of balance for some reason um you will one will consume the other so

um let’s say we’re talking about um rains for instance

rain would be considered very yin and uh an excess of yin would cause erosion ultimately because

the rain will wash away the soil the soil will not be as lush will not be able to maintain life and the soil will

become very young in nature because it won’t be able to hold because of the excess of yin so the excess yin will

consume um uh so those are

the hallmarks of the yin yang theory um i’m just going to go into a little bit more talk about the duality again

the yin and the young they are polar opposites right and you can walk throughout your life

and categorize everything you see as either yin or young you’ll do that for a few days at least i did when i first

started learning about this you know that tree branch right there what is that tree branch is it in or is it young

and you say okay well is it lighter is it darker is it wetter or is it drier where are those opposites within

everything that i’m looking at and sometimes you’ll challenge yourself but i guarantee you everything

can can fall within something that’s either more yet or more young and the

the beauty of this is of course um this duality offers a structure and i

think it’s actually one of the reasons we struggle as a culture with binary um

or rather honoring and acknowledging the spectrum

of the world is because when we feel unsure of ourselves we really hold to this duality because that polarization

actually gives us the tension that we need to feel stable right oh it’s either yin or it’s young that feels stable it

gives us a tense structure from which to work and find stability um which is useful but it is only part of the

picture because in the next piece of the picture you recognize that

they are in fact interdependent you cannot have yin without yang everything around you

even if it is able to be categorized into yin are young they all have both yin and yang

they exist together and in fact more to the point their definitions exist in relation to each other so it’s not that

that thing over there is yin or that thing over there is yang but rather that

compared to the thing on the left the thing on the right is more young or

more yin and so we have to keep that in mind when we are going through and

looking and as an acupuncturist i go through when i look at the body i use that heavily to say when i’m looking at

the body right um i’m always looking at the yin and the young in relationship to each other and

then the the beauty of course is that

the flexibility within this interdependence is what is what brings that absolute yin and

yang to life into form you know when things are black and white not that there’s not beauty in black and white i

think there can be but even in the black and white the beauty really isn’t the gradients it’s the gray that makes it

gives it depth gives it life gives it movement and so um

you know i think about that interdependence and the flexibility that you find within that system that brings

life to the absolute black and whiteness of the yin and yang the other thing is is this inter the

concept of inter transformation right um speaking of movement right so not only

do you get the depth from the interdependence but the inter transformation brings you deeper into the concept of movement right things are

always shifting if as we like to say if you don’t like the weather right now wait an hour it’ll

change for you this is the very core fundamental of the inter-transformation characteristics of

yin and yang they are always shifting back and forth and they rarely stay in their absolute form for very long so

um in order to to maintain that shift it’s really all about the timing and the

conditions right so depending on how how the time shifts whether it’s you

know long short right um when it’s happening and what’s happening around it that you begin to see that

shift change and and morph and so we find we use this a lot in chinese medicine because again if what

we’re looking for is trying to shift into young or yanto yin we will um we’ll take a look at the

timing right like what interval of treatment are we looking at what time of day are the symptoms happening under what conditions

are we currently operating and what conditions can we shift to encourage the natural shift that happens in the

inter-transformation of yin and yang and it is truly through this that you then begin to appreciate the beauty and the

subtlety that this binary construct brings to the world around you in the natural

world i love this image of the waves shifting i mean it’s just there’s power

there’s beauty there’s movement you know things are nice when they settle for a period

but as we all know like you’re not going to sit on the porch for 24 hours a day like you have to you know take that

moment that it comes to you but recognize that it is forever changing and that it’s that change in fact that

brings us the great beauty um the final concept of the

young theory is is mutual consumption where we begin to talk about um the yin

yang that is out of balance and that is that too much of either will cause depletion of the opposite

um and in this case what you do is as again we’re continuing to talk about

them in relation to each other so you will have circumstances when you’re looking at the yin and the

yang within each thing because if you’ve established there is yin and yang in all things

and you will say okay so if i’m looking at what balanced yin and yang look like

are we looking at the yin and yang as excess meaning too much or deficient meaning not enough right are we looking

them at absolutes so the yang is it is the yin

adequate but the youngest excess or deficient or is it only in relation to the yin is the

yin relatively low and therefore the normal young looks excess and we use that a lot

diagnostically in chinese medicine too when we’re looking at a person we need to know like am i treating the yin or am

i trying to be young happens all the time and so um being able to identify

um similar symptoms in a body you would see heat is the best example that i have of

that right there there’s heat true heat which could be categorized as an excess of young sometimes it is sometimes it

not we’ll get into heat there’s other reasons for the heat sometimes you get heat in a body signs

of heat that are actually due to deficiency yin deficiency will cause heat not

enough moisture to keep the temperature even and so in the absence of moisture

you will build up heat but it’s not an excess heat it’s a deficiency heat um and so you’ll see that a lot and trying

to balance how you look at that and um and again these words excess and deficiency

um we use them clinically in chinese medicine but it doesn’t mean that that anybody is too much or too little i mean

the first person to say that i’m a bit too much but i’m at peace with that so um but i do i want you always to

consider when you’re looking at these things when you hear someone say things these things about you or your body that

we’re talking in comparative terms and more importantly the other thing that i love about this

medicine too is that these are unique to you so again much in the same way that

we would compare yin and yang to each other we are always comparing what is

typical for you in your unique body to what is currently out of balance for you

in your unique body and so those are important concepts to keep in mind and

then of course really this function of yin and yang is designed to

to create balance when it has fallen out of balance and to correct

disharmony which is how we talk about um things in chinese medicine when

something in the body is not operating at its optimal level we call that a

condition of disharmony and of course our goal is always harmony within your body

so those are just things to keep in mind um

the next bit of chinese medicine theory and i think we’re only going to go into yin and yang and the five elements

tonight because i it’s a lot of material to cover and i want to keep these short so that you enjoy them

but um the next thing that we will talk about this evening is is a five element theory

and um and this again as i said is a predominant um

way that we categorize things in chinese medicine and in fact both what we call the five element school of acupuncture

and the zhong fu school of acupuncture actually use these elements so it’s not that they’re different it’s

just that they use them in different ways and so we talk about

categorizing the different organ systems of the body they each have an element we talk about

how the elements work together um you know and and whether they’re they’re

encouraging each other to grow or whether they’re encouraging each other to to deplete to sort of to control so

there’s this two cycles that you see in five element theory where you’ve got elements working together to generate

and nourish each other and elements working together to control and correct imbalances

and we’ll talk about that some more but again in in so much of this

medicine you’ll find that we can categorize almost anything in our world to the five elements so

um depending on the symptoms that you’re presenting with we will oftentimes use those symptoms um and attribute them to

elements and we’ll use them to diagnose the root cause of the system pathology the thing that’s lovely about the five

elements is that um you get a little bit more complexity so whereas there’s young there’s yin

there’s vietnamese and yang there’s young within yin the five element theory you’ve got you’ve got mother elements and sun

elements and you’ve got generating elements and controlling elements and insulting elements and so they work

together and you almost always when you’re working in five elements have at least three predominant elements um

so there’s usually like your three primary elements you might have a fourth that gets in the picture and then there’s one element that just has

nothing to do with what you’re talking about but um that we use that a lot and so it allows

us to to give a level of complexity to diagnosis that a straight yin young

wouldn’t allow us otherwise um the other thing that’s great about the five elements is is a lot of study

has been put into the concept of constitutional diagnosis that you know every person is born into this world

with a predominant constitutional element right and that there are things

about the way we are uniquely as human beings that would lead us to those appropriate diagnoses and then of course

every element has their own you know classical pathologies or disharmonies that they are prone to because of their

constitutional element that’s not to say that we don’t have syndromes that happen outside of your constitutional element

but it’s a good place to start and it can be fun and then we also use it in conjunction with pulp taking

and the four needle techniques so there’s different ways where we would use your pulses to figure out those predominant

organ involvements um associating them with their elements and then using those elements to

identify the appropriate needles to use and um we use that a lot called a four

needle technique so it’s possible for you to walk into an acupuncturist’s office and have four needles and be done happens all the

time so um it’s just one way to treat but it’s one way to treat that is heavily

rooted in the five elements because as we’ll talk a little bit not only are each of the organs associated with the

elements there’s also points on each channel that are associated with the elements so the elements are very

heavily rooted in chinese medicine and um the diagnosis and the systems that have

built up around it the other thing you might have noticed from the last slide with the image was

that there are five elements which might be something that you are not used to seeing you’ll see here in chinese

medicine that we have wood fire earth metal and water there is no air present

and we have the inclusion of of metal and

and so and and wood so it’s a bit different from what you might see in a western model of

elements but i i really like it mostly because i’m familiar with it but i i like the way

that they work together and i’ll have a chance to explain that more to you as we move on so

um again all of the elements have their own qualities and we will sometimes use these qualities to make constitutional

diagnoses wood it can be bent and straightened fire flares upward

earth permits selling growing and reaping metal can be molded and can

harden and water moistens downward so when you’re trying to have an idea of how these elements operate within the

natural world and within your body these are concepts that you can always kind of keep in mind um

and they’re helpful both in diagnosing but also and just knowing yourself a little bit more you know if you’re you

tend toward fire then you’re more likely going to be experiencing symptoms that are flaring upwards you know you’re

going to get hot flashes in the face you’re going to get um you know you’re going to get headaches you know like a

lot of those upward symptoms have to do with with fire the fire element palpitation is another one you know a

kind of upward feeling in your chest that you get um you know wood is a fascinating one

people think that like you know wood would be hard and rigid but the best thing about what is it it’s flexible it

will bend it will shift it will move i mean when it breaks it breaks and there’s very little you can do to repair

it unlike metal which can be molded and hardened even though it is rigid but you know

the the wood element as we’ll see later is associated with the liver and the gallbladder and there’s something very beautiful about

you know thinking about that bent and straightened aspect the resilience of that associated with the liver organ which is

one of our few major organs that actually regenerates itself um

earth permits sowing growing and reaping in chinese medicine this is associated with your digestive system very heavily

but it is what what grounds us for lack of a better word and so you know

it’s what allows us to to have those those roots and that like the nourishment that we need and so a lot of

nourishment comes from that earth element um it’s also um it’s also heavily

associated with motherhood because of the reproductive faculties now reproductive systems in general are

associated with several different organ systems but you will find that um many women tend to go through an earthy

period when they’re when they’re procreating and that’s it’s an interesting um bit of how we shift through our five

elements as we move through life um metal again very rigid but it can be molded and can

harden it just depends on how you know how you handle it associated with the

lungs actually and the season of autumn so uh we’ll talk a bit more about those

correspondences later and then water it it moistens and it goes downward um and

the water is associated with your kidneys but also you’ll see that you know water whereas up to this point we’ve

really been talking about water and this sort of nourishing yin capacity right but as we were discussing with the rain

metaphor earlier on about rain and erosion water can get out of balance pathologically within the body and even

though your body is made up so much of water predominantly water

we can have too much water and that can also cause problems so it’s interesting to look at all of these

uh elements with their their characteristics and how that works

um moving on each element has a direction that they

go wood expands outward we find a lot of pathology over people like oh i’m loaded and my stomach is so

expanding or like you just feel full all the time and go well it’s very wood you know fire goes up as we were talking

before earth is the center it’s the stability right like earth doesn’t do a lot of moving i it does but like it

doesn’t do a lot of moving it just sort of is there it is that grounding there force

metal contracts it comes inward some people experience

uh metal elements as a literal turning in when you’re dealing with metal pathology that can be one of the ways we

identify it and then water as we said before moves downward often times you’ll find issues that have

to do with your urinary tract or with any other movements where we’re talking about downward or falling sometimes have

to do with the water element and so it’s it’s they’re interesting to look at how they work together but they all have

directions and we can use those directions when we begin to apply the elements to

points on the body and things like that i’ve mentioned now a couple of times that all of the elements are associated

with corresponding organ systems so

wood is the liver and it’s paired organ the gallbladder fire is associated with a heart and it’s

paired or in a small intestine but also two other organs that are

the sem gel which i’m not going to discuss today is also associated with fire but um it’s an organ that

biomedicine has yet to identify what they think this angel is we’ve got theories it would be a fascinating

lecture all on its own but and then the pericardium which we know of is like the external protective shell

around the heart so um it has its own channel in chinese medical theory but it’s still associated with the heart

organ um in that fire element so earth is associated with the spleen

and it’s paired organ the stomach metal is associated with lung and it’s pure organ the large intestine and water

is associated with the kidney and it’s paired organ the urinary bladder so they all have

their organs they also all have their colors so we’ve got the green of wood the red of fire the yellow of earth the

white actually of metal and the blue of water they all have their seasons and tastes

and emotions they all have tissues that they work with as well so you know we’ve got bones and tendons um

and uh and sounds deep sighing crying right um laughter

so it sounds silly to say it but when i’m doing my patient interviews and we begin

talking about different things how you’re feeling what your predominant emotion is what kinds

of sounds i hear coming from me if i have a patient come in and i’m just they’re sighing right we go oh they’re

sighing right we need to look at their water element their kidney element i’ll take more time diagnosing that pulse and

i’ll look at their tongue but these are little guide guide posts along the way right taste or another one what are you

craving salty sweet right craving sweets all the time well we probably should treat your your

earth organs right your spleen in your stomach and so those are different ways that we look through that and then also

time of day so these correspondences end up being really important to our differential

diagnosis in chinese medicine and so don’t ever think that the details you

give your acupuncturist are silly or superfluous there’s so much wonderful wealth of

information that to be had in these five element correspondences and one of my

favorites is the emotion aspect of it and i’ll get to it a bit when we talk about the controlling cycle

um and why different emotions control different things so um

now i’m going to talk a little bit about the cycles i’ve hinted at them before right but essentially what

you need to know is that they work in this the generating cycle works in a circle the controlling cycle works in a star

and then there’s a an insulting cycle that works along the star lines as well only backwards

but the generating cycle is really important because um you know

each of the elements feeds and nourishes the next um you know and much like we

would see in the natural world where water nourishes wood wood feeds fire

and you know each element sort of leading into the next um and it’s kind of a lovely way to take that that

natural movement within the world and apply it to the body um

because one of the things that can happen is if if a mother element the one that is feeding the one

next to it say you know water is feeding wood for instance well if water is depleted

sometimes wood can also be depleted and so often times it might not be like even though the symptoms that are presenting

our depletion of wood you sometimes need to look deeper and say okay well what what in the water element is looking

like it needs needs nourishing because because clearly the water is not nourishing the wood and so we could

treat the wood and that would be effective minimally for a period of time but it’s not going to get to the root

cause of what’s actually happening within the body and so knowing you know how they work together

who’s depleting who right sometimes you’ll have a weak water element and you’ll think oh you

know metal is not nourishing water it’s like well no maybe it’s weak because wood is taking more

than it needs maybe the water element is weak because the wood is in excess and

it’s the the mother is nourishing the sun to her own detriment and so um

working within that context of who’s feeding whom who’s taking nourishment from whom and whether or not that cycle

is in balance is part of how we use the generating cycle next cycle that we look at is called the

controlling cycle where each of the elements oh i have a mistake in my slide

each of the elements does feed and nourish the next but it’s not in the controlling cycle that’s the generic cycle but um but it again

each of these elements actually controls the one opposite it and so if you look

at the arrows they make a little five-pointed star so um and again it follows the natural

world water controls fire right metal controls wood think of an

axe chopping down a tree right and so these are very interesting cycles to get into as well because

oftentimes you’ll see you know if if you have like again a deficiency in

your fire element right you have to go back maybe and look at that water element so one of the

things you’d look at is like oh my fire is looking predominantly deficient well is it a liver pathology you know is this

liver not feeding it um is it a you know is it a spleen pathology is the is the

earth element taking too much or is it a water pathology whereas there’s just too much water

um uh and that and so this excess of yin is actually causing the deficiency of the

the fire and the heart um or vice versa happens one of my favorite ways to

explain the controlling cycle is to talk about the predominant emotions

in the cycle so i’m just going to use the elements of of metal and wood

in this particular example the the emotion associated with metal

is grief and the emotion associated with wood is anger

right and so when you look at the controlling cycle you’ll find um i think one of the things

that happens frequently when someone gets angry for instance is anger tends to ultimately dissolve into tears

right and so in that way you find that grief or the sadness associated with the metal element is

able to control the anger right um you find that the emotion associated

with the water elements or the kidneys is fear and the emotion associated with the heart and the fire element is joy

right and so oftentimes if you’re if there there’s an over abundance of joy in your world that

the thing that will kill that faster than anything is of course fear right um

and and so those are those are some of the ways that you’ll find that um

that the uh that the elements work within the concept of of emotions

emotions uh illustrate that example in sort of a an interesting way in the body so um

the insulting cycle is sort of the opposite of that right where you’ll have one insult together and this insulting

relationship actually happens quite frequently between the heart and the and the kidney the fire and the water

elements where you’ll find that that the the the fire is insulting the water right

whereas the water’s job is usually there to control the fire sometimes the fire gets so hot it burns up all the water

and it’s too hot to put the fire out with water and so the fire then begins to insult the water element and the

water element becomes deficient because of this so this is the controlling cycle and

then it’s partner that the insulting cycle and and that’s how we work through

the five elements and a lot of that has to the correspondences and if anybody’s interested

in knowing more about those correspondences i know i find them fascinating i have a wee handout that i

can pass along to you so that you can take a closer look at how we sort of

divide up our world into these five areas um because again it’s it’s these kinds of divisions that i think

are really what make chinese medicine so elegant it’s the simplicity in these categorizations but

that leads to the kind of depth and complexity that happen within

the body so the body is complex but the system is not the system is is

straightforward when you understand some of the underlying principles so um

next we’re going to get into the meridians we’re going to talk about meridians and body fluids and

the substances and the evils hopefully we can get to all three next time if not you know we

might take you know one of those three and split it off um by itself and if you have any questions again feel free to

reach out you know how to find me thank you for joining me this evening it was lovely to speak with you all and i

look forward to to meeting with you all in the future um so again questions email me call me i’m

always here i love to talk about chinese medicine and i look forward to talking with you again thank you so much

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4 thoughts on “Foundations Yin Yang and Five Elements

  1. Barbara Reply

    Your voice is so soothing and coupled with your knowledge of the interconnectedness of the five elements makes me feel that you could unravel any imbalance. 🙂

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