Yin and Yang: Basic Concepts in Traditional Chinese Medicine


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TCM views illness as a lack of balance. Image by Mareklug.

TCM’s Holistic Approach

TCM assumes that any part of the body can be understood only in its relation to the whole. Thus TCM is less concerned than Western medicine with the causes of a disease, and more concerned with discovering a pattern of disharmony or imbalance between and within the various elements of the individual patient’s body.

Psychology is considered a part of physiology, and the Chinese doctor treats the “bodymind” rather than distinguishing between mind and body.

Yin and Yang as Used in Traditional Chinese Medicine

TCM divides the human body into Yin and Yang organs.  Within each organ, there is “substance” (Yin) and “activity” (Yang). Yin is associated with the qualities of cold, rest, passivity, darkness, and hypoactivity. It nourishes, sustains, and supports growth and development. TCM considers blood (which nourishes the body) and bones (which support the body) Yin.

In contrast, TCM associates Yang with the qualities of heat, stimulation, movement, activity, excitement, vigor, light, and hyperactivity. Yang is creative, dynamic, and generates growth. Qi (which can be roughly translated as “energy”) is considered Yang, as is the skin.

Traditional Chinese Medicine: Yin and Yang in Diagnosis and Treatment of Disease

TCM defines disease as an imbalance which leads to the hyperactivity or hypoactivity of Yin and Yang, acknowledging that the human body is never in a perfect state of balance, but rather there is a healthy range of dynamic equilibrium. Disease occurs when that range is exceeded. The treatment of diseases by Traditional Chinese Medicine, therefore is based on the rebalancing of Yin and Yang elements. TCM Practitioners believe that when the body is properly balanced, it is able to maintain its own health and ward off illness.

TCM treatment procedures include the use of herbal medicines, acupuncture, moxibustion (a stick of dried herbs that is burned and used to heat a specific body area), and diet. Herbal medicines, as well as foods and spices, are themselves classified into Yin and Yang categories, based on the “warming” or “cooling” effect they have on the body. They are prescribed to restore Yin-Yang balance.

Foods and spices that TCM calls Yin include lettuce, grapefruit, bananas, and salt, while Yang foods and spices include beef products, chili peppers, black pepper, dried ginger, and cinnamon bark.

Bananas are considered a ‘yin’ fruit. Image by abcdz2000

Chili peppers-a yang spice-image by saavem

TCM Definitions and Terminology

The concepts used in TCM originated in China thousands of years ago; practitioners based them on the observation of natural phenomena.


TCM vs. Western Medicine

When translated into English, many of the terms used in TCM may sound “quaint” or “spiritual,” but interestingly, they represent relationships between material and energy which modern science also recognizes.

For example, the Yin-Yang theory accounts for bodily changes, such as modern geneticists explain by the natural mutation rate. We can also see that the ancient Chinese way of describing dynamic equilibrium via Yin-Yang predates modern physics by thousands of years. All in all, TCM may sound very different from Western ideas, but the two meet in more ways than you’d think.


Kaptchuk, Ted J. The Web that Has No Weaver. (1983). New York. Congdon and Weed, Inc.

Ryan, Marc. Yin andYang: A Basic Introduction.  Accessed August 18, 2013.

TCMPage. The Theory of Yin-Yang. Accessed August 18, 2013.

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