The Ancient Practice of Acupuncture
The ancient practice of acupuncture is deeply rooted in the mysticism of eastern philosophy and spirituality. Much of the power of this healing system does in fact stem from the elegant intertwining of art and poetry with anatomical fact and medical science. Many of the concepts used to explain how acupuncture works, such as the dynamic interplay of the “feminine” and “masculine” forces of Yin and Yang, or the movement of vital energy known as Qi (pronounce “chee”), can be difficult to comprehend at first. However, with a little time and patience it is possible to delve below the surface and discover a deeper understanding of acupuncture in practice. In a series of articles we will discuss acupuncture from several perspectives to gain insight into how it can help each of us attain and maintain optimal health, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.
The Two Primary Forces in Nature
One of the most fundamental concepts in ancient Chinese philosophy is the balance of Yin and Yang, the two primary forces found in nature and within our bodies as well. Originally, these two terms referred to the shady (Yin) and sunny (Yang) sides of a hill. The classic symbol for Yin and Yang is the familiar circle comprised of half black and half white, separated by a sinuous line, with each half containing a small dot of the opposite color (the black side contains a small white dot and visa-versa). Essentially, Yin and Yang are two sides of the same thing, and such are equal yet opposite. For example, Yin represents nighttime, cold, rest, water, while Yang represents daytime, heat, activity, fire. The key point here is that Yin and Yang are not absolute states, but rather represent a relationship between different states of being. Just as nighttime turns into daytime, and back again, Yin turns into Yang and returns to Yin in an ongoing, endless cycle. This process occurs in our bodies as well: we eat food (substance, or Yin), which we digest and assimilate (activity, or Yang) to build muscles, bone, nerves and other tissues (Yin) that enable us to perform activities such as thinking, walking, talking (Yang).
Restoring the Inherent Physiological Balance of Yin and Yang
When the twin forces of Yin and Yang are in balance, then nature follows its course and we experience good health. One of the fundamental applications of acupuncture is to help restore and maintain the inherent balance of Yin and Yang so that all aspects of our body/mind/spirit continue to operate at an optimal level. As you are most likely aware from your own experience, the body has an intrinsic ability to restore the balance of Yin and Yang. Returning to the previous example, when our stomach is empty (lack of Yin), eventually it starts to rumble (Yang) and we, becoming hungry, go search for food (Yin). Once we eat, the Yang (activity) of the stomach is satisfied as it digests and moves the food down to the intestines for absorption. As another example, when we exercise and generate heat (a Yang phenomenon), our body cools itself by mobilizing water (Yin, through perspiration). One of the principles evident in this last example is that Yin and Yang also consume each other; in this case, the Yang heat consumes the Yin fluids. Assuming we eventually drink more fluid, the balance is restored and our body functions normally, maintaining the Yin/Yang balance.
The Mental, Emotional, and Psychological Function of Yin and Yang
Thus far we have explored a few examples of Yin and Yang in terms of normal, healthy physiological function. We can also discuss these forces in terms of mental/emotional/psychological activity. As noted previously, thinking in general is considered more Yang in nature, while sleeping or some forms of quiet meditation would be more Yin in nature, although as one can see everything happens on a continuum, with Yang phenomena being defined relative to a more Yin phenomena. In the above example, thinking and meditating both involve mental activity, with the former being relatively more “active” than the latter. Certain emotional states show more Yang or Yin characteristics as well. We can all remember times of intense anger, which can be a very Yang, outward-directed emotional state, as compared to sadness or perhaps depression, where our spirit deflates or submerges, moving in an inward or Yin orientation. In a healthy person the Yin and Yang return to a balanced state, which doesn’t mean that the person never feels emotions, but rather that they avoid painful or dangerous extremes, much like a swing that moves in a gentle arc instead of careening from the highs of one emotion to the lows of its opposite.
Treating Yin and Yang Imbalance
With this background information on the nature of Yin and Yang as we experience it in human form in the context of normal health, the next matter is to explore situations where the Yin and Yang forces become imbalanced, creating disease, and to examine how acupuncture can help remedy these dis-harmonies and restore good health. As a first example, consider a person who is overweight; although weight gain may be caused by many factors, in general we can deduce a state of excess Yin. Some ways to approach this matter include: decreasing the consumption of Yin (eating less overall or perhaps eating smaller meals several times a day), promoting the discharge of the excessive Yin (through increased sweating, urination, bowel movements) and increasing the consumption of Yin (by increasing Yang, such as through increased exercise). As you can see from this example, some of the ways to correct the Yin/Yang imbalance involve changes in behavior, such as changing one’s diet or increasing the level of exercise. In general, for almost all imbalances or “diseases,” the first level of intervention should include lifestyle and behavior adjustments. Of course, in many situations other approaches are necessary to correct the Yin/Yang imbalance more fully. Going back to this example of weight reduction, the next level of intervention might include acupuncture treatment, along with further lifestyle counseling and nutritional and/or herbal supplementation. Here we will focus on how acupuncture can be employed to help correct this (and other) Yin/Yang imbalances.
Acupuncture Treatment for Yin and Yang Imbalance
In the above example our goal is to restore the Yin/Yang imbalance by moving and consuming the excess Yin, as well as limiting the generation of additional “excess” Yin. In terms of acupuncture treatment, our selection of treatment points depends on the specific circumstances of the patient in question. If the problem involves an excessive appetite (excessive intake of Yin), we would treat points that reduce appetite, including points on the ear that send messages to the hypothalamus (a control center in the brain) to control cravings. The appetite problem itself might stem from erratic blood sugar (glucose) levels, so in addition to reducing the patient’s dietary intake of simple sugars (refined breads, sweets/candies), we would treat points that help regulate blood sugar, such as points relating to the liver and pancreas. At the same time we would want to determine if the patient is eating excessively due to stress, anxiety, depression or some other mental-emotional imbalance. In that case we will focus the treatment to include points that assist in alleviating these conditions along with appetite control in general. Under conditions of excessive, chronic stress, the adrenal glands can become weak and under-produce hormones relating to water metabolism and stress adaptation. In this circumstance the body starts to move fat deposits into the abdomen, and the patient may appear overweight. The treatment here would need to include points to support the healthy function of the adrenal glands in addition to the other points mentioned above.
Determining a Change of Lifestyle and Plan for Future
After addressing appetite control/food intake, the next objective is to move and eliminate the excess weight/Yin already present. As before, here we need to determine what factors are involved in the inability to decrease the excess Yin. In some cases, the patient may have problems with elimination, such as constipation, that in itself will result in increased weight. Thus the logical treatment is to enhance elimination with acupuncture treatment, perhaps in concert with dietary intake of fiber-rich foods, extra fiber itself, or even gentle laxatives when necessary. Note that constipation can be due to a lack of Yin (such as intestinal dryness) or a lack of Yang (such as weakness in the intestinal musculature), such that our treatment principle changes a little accordingly, even though we are still seeking to eliminate Yin through the bowel movements. We previously discussed utilizing exercise to “burn” the excess Yin by increasing Yang (heat). We can also utilize acupuncture treatment to improve metabolism, such as by enhancing the function of the thyroid gland. In fact, part of our diagnosis should include checking the function of this gland, as a weak thyroid gland (a very Yang organ, since it is involved with metabolism) can lead to weight gain and coldness (another sign of too much Yin).
As you can see from the preceding discussion, the deceptively simple concept of Yin and Yang forces in nature can be the foundation for an elegant, holistic approach to restoring health and promoting wellness. The basic process we used to analyze this sample patient with a weight management problem can be used with almost any condition. In this discussion we examined health and disease exclusively through the lens of Yin and Yang theory, while in practice we usually incorporate additional perspectives, including the concept of Qi and the Five Elements, as well as various hands-on systems of assessment such as Hara (abdominal) diagnosis, which are all explained in separate articles of this series. The Yin/Yang theory is the oldest and most wide-reaching of all the concepts in this ages-old medical system, and thus is a perfect start for our continuing journey of exploration and discovery.