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Religion & Culture | Yin & Yang: - Applying a key Chinese teaching for good health and happiness

Published:Sunday | April 23, 2017 | 12:00 AMDr Glenville Ashby
The concept of sleeping or death with the yin & yang symbol

As a teenager, I marvelled at the fighting skills of the legendary Bruce Lee. His reflexes and on-screen presence captivated the attention of millions of admirers.

It has been more than five decades since his untimely passing and I am still bewitched by the man, but in a renewed way, not for his martial skills prowess but for his philosophy.

I recently listened to an interview in which he was featured and it dawned on me that his uniqueness and brilliance were due to his understanding and application of Yin and Yang - an age-old Chinese philosophical teaching.

When asked by the interviewer to identify his fighting technique, Lee answered. "I have no technique."

He then said repeatedly that we should "learn the art of dying". It was an admonition he repeated several times.

I listened to Lee's words, trying to grasp their meaning. Then his philosophy began to make sense. Lee was saying that to embrace a single technique limits our potential for growth. We are boxed in, stagnated.

To learn the art of dying signifies that we should never be attached to any one pursuit but always embrace new ideas. Lee taught that our thoughts and all we do must flow. We must not overthink, nor must we abandon deliberation. His was the middle path, walking the fine line between yin and yang. How then do we define this eastern concept?

According to Chinese teaching, yin and yang are opposing but complementary forces or energies that sustain life.

For example: feminine and masculine; detachment and attachment; contraction and expansion; stillness and movement; stagnation and fluidity; hot and cold; darkness and light; the moon and the sun; death and life.

Yin and yang are inseparable forces that create homoeostasis or stability. These forces are the engine behind nature and manifest themselves as a cosmic dance, a rhythm that establishes balance.

The seasons and the movement of the constellations are all subject to this principle. Notable is that preponderance of one of these forces at the expense of the other disrupts the cosmic rhythm, interrupts stability and creates disharmony.

The website dedicates substantive space to this eastern philosophy. It states: "The original concept of yin and yang came from the observation of nature and the environment. 'Yin' originally referred to the shady side of a slope while 'yang' referred to the sunny side.

"Usually, yang is associated with functional aspect of an object and has more energetic qualities, for example, moving, ascending, expanding, heat, bright, progressing, active and hyper-functioning states. Yin, on the other hand, is associated with the physical form of an object and has less energetic qualities such as stillness, descending, contracting, cold, dark, degenerating, and latent ..."


Principle of duality


Interestingly, this principle of duality (yin and yang) is present in the Christian Bible.

In Genesis, we read: "(God) separated light from darkness ... He separated heaven from earth ... He called the dry land earth, and the gathering of the waters He called seas ... Let there be lights in the heavens to separate day from night ... In his image he created male and female."

Now, how can we apply this principle to specific areas in our lives, such as health and spirituality?

First, let's look at our diet and its relation to our physical health. On dieting, Lee said: "Just be ordinary and nothing special. Eat your food, move your bowels, pass water, and when you're tired, go and lie down. The ignorant will laugh at me, but the wise will understand."

By this interpretative statement he meant that our eating habits should be effortless and not weighed down by excessive planning and regimentation. We should be balanced in our regimen, not depriving ourselves of what we like, while at the same time exercising some control.

According to traditional Chinese medicine, yin applies to cold foods, such as lettuce and other greens, bananas, pears, strawberries, broccoli and cabbage. Fish is also a yin food.

Yang foods are warm and apply to meats and foods that are grown in the earth, such as root vegetables that include yam, turnip, carrots, onion, garlic and ginger.

Notably, some foods will hold both yin and yang properties when they are cooked or spiced. More important, eating too much of either yin or yang foods makes for an unhealthy diet.


we are what we eat


The dictum "We are what we eat" holds true on multiple levels. An improper diet leads to lethargy, lack of mental clarity, physical weakness, and in extreme cases, malnutrition. We must strive for a balanced diet that includes a proportional serving of yin and yang foods.

Second, let's apply yin and yang teachings to improve our faith and the efficacy of our prayers. We can all attest to praying and waiting for our desires to bear fruit, only to be disappointed.

Too many times we apply only the yin aspect of prayer, meaning that we contemplate, visualise and recite orations without adding its yang component or the physical work to complement our mental work. There is an art, if not science, to effective prayer.

Prayer must be activated, empowered with action. We must complete our efforts by adding the yang element for success.

It is clear that we must understand the mechanics of yin and yang in all daily lives. They impact our every thought, word and deed. We must conform to their flow and rhythm, failure of which will reap aimlessness, chaos and unpredictability.

- Dr Glenville Ashby is the author of 'Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend' and 'Bridge to Creativity and Enlightenment', now in audio book format. Feedback: or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby