What is Yin Yang?

yin yang
A starting definition: The nature of change, balanced as two halves of a whole.

Yin Yang is perhaps the most known and documented concept used within Taoism.

Yin Yang is the concept of duality forming a whole. We encounter examples of Yin and Yang every day. As examples: night (Yin) and day (Yang), female (Yin) and male (Yang). Over thousands of years quite a bit has been sorted and grouped under various Yin Yang classification systems.

Yin Yang illustrated from the Tao Te Ching [2]

When people see things as beautiful,
ugliness is created.
When people see things as good,
evil is created.

Being and non-being produce each other.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low oppose each other.
Fore and aft follow each other.

Diving Deeper into Yin Yang

A few basic concepts which define the nature of Yin Yang are:

  1. Neither Yin nor Yang are absolute.

    Nothing is completely Yin or completely Yang. Each aspect contains the beginning point for the other aspect. For example: day becomes night and then night becomes day…

    Yin and Yang are interdependent upon each other so that the definition of one requires the definition for the other to be complete.

  2. Yin Yang is not static.

    The nature of Yin and Yang flows and changes with time. A simple example is thinking about how the day gradually flows into night. However, the length of day and night are changing. As the earth ages, its spin is slowing causing the length of day and night to get longer. Day and night are not static entities.

    Sometimes changes in the relationship between Yin and Yang can be dramatic where one aspect can literally just transform into the other. As an example: some species of fish have females that transform quickly into males when the population of males aren’t enough.

  3. The summation of Yin and Yang form a whole.

    One effect of this is: as one aspect increases the other decreases to maintain overall balance of the whole.

  4. The balance of Yin Yang can be skewed due to outside influences.

    Four possible imbalances exist:

    • Deficiency Yang
    • Deficiency Yin
    • Excess Yang
    • Excess Yin

    These imbalances can be paired: so an excess of Yin can also simulate a Yang deficiency and vice versa.

    As an example this concept is especially important for Chinese healing practices. So an excess of Yang results in a fever. An excess of Yin could mean the accumulation of fluids in the body. Chinese healing examines a person’s health is in terms of the eight principles: Internal and External stimuli, Deficiency and Excesses, Cold and Heat and Yin and Yang.

  5. Yin Yang can be subdivided into additional Yin and Yang aspects.

    For example a Yang aspect of Heat: can be further subdivided into a Yin warm or Yang burning.

  6. Additional principles defining Yin and Yang qualities exist. The concepts listed here are merely a starting point to illustrate the nature of Yin and Yang. Usually as a practice Taoism does a good job of not codifying life. Which is ironic since many Taoist’s can happily list out what is Yin and what is Yang. Typically Taoist texts will list a few examples of Yin and Yang and then meander off to the next topic. Which makes sense as from a Taoist perspective it’s for the reader to reveal life from their own perspective. As an example go back to the Taoist passage quoted above from the Tao Te Ching. You will discover a few additional aspects to Yin and Yang, but the passage isn’t a complete definition either. The author of this passage fully expects you as the reader to go out and to explore the ideas on your own.
  7. Additional material for Yin Yang can be read here:

    Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Yin Yang

Now forget everything you have learned about Yin and Yang for a moment. Step back from all the descriptions and classifications of Yin and Yang to consider the following passage from the Tao Te Ching:

The Way begot one,
And the one, two;
Then the two begot three
And three, all else.

A clearer understanding of Yin Yang requires looking back into the Tao. The Tao can be considered as the fundamental absolute. Upon examination: the nature of the Tao expands out. This process of expansion defines a pattern, splitting apart into finer and finer patterns. Yin and Yang is the point where perception demarks the Tao’s expansion into one and then one into two.

Taoism as a practice enjoys examining patterns. Over the years countless sects of Taoism have formed and quite a bit of literature written over the delineation and description of these patterns. Often times Taoists use the concept of Yin Yang as a familiar starting template to work with patterns.

For example Qigong is based upon the patterns of breath and physical movement. Knowledge of bodily patterns forms the basis of this Taoist practice to keep a body healthy. The human body and its movements are divided according to Yin and Yang categories. So the upper body corresponds to the Yang, while the lower body roots into the Yin. The body’s center is where the Yin and Yang meet. Qigong exercises are grouped and explained in terms of Yin and Yang to help classify the body’s harmonies into a working practice. Knowledge of Yin or Yang isn’t required to perform Qigong, instead it’s an additional filter which helps people connect to the practice.

Another example is Taoist divination within the Book of Changes / I Ching. Divination in Taoism is a practice of examining human interactions based on well known psychological patterns. To generate a result either coins or yarrow stalks are tossed down to form a pattern. The patterns generated correspond to Yin and Yang defined qualities. The nature of the Yin and Yang pattern are applied against the psychology of the moment to return advice for the person asking the question.

Yin Yang is a fundamental aspect of Taoist thought. We always naturally apply human based values over naturally occurring patterns. However, remember it’s also important not to chase finer and finer descriptions of these patterns, to do so would be to chase down infinity.

Yin Yang is a system of recognizing how to separate out patterns in our life while also relaxing to accept the overall whole and complete nature of the Tao.


28 Responses to What is Yin Yang?

  1. Lili says:

    This has helped me with my homework. One qu/estion though, why is the yin-yang symbol important to taoists? I don’t understand that bit…


  2. @Lili: The Taoist Taijitu Yin Yang symbol is important on several fronts.

    First aesthetically… Its very graceful and in the graceful design reminds us of many lessons of life.

    Secondly Lessons: It is designed to remind us of the nature of duality, As a symbol it is simple to meditate upon and to rediscover deeper meanings

    Thirdly: The Taijitu represents a simple interface to non Taoists, a simple symbol which non Taoists can appreciate and understand.

    Fourthly: History… It has been part of Taoism for a very long time now, as such people tend to get attached to familiarity … even Taoists.. we are human after all.

  3. Caroline says:

    I’ve never spiritually had my mind blown like this. Thanks for the fantastic site. What are some other common symbols for taoists besides the third eye, Casey?

  4. seba says:

    For me, Yin-Yang is a symbol of unity, symbol of how we see and label the world instead of two different aspects.

  5. Erika says:

    I am a grade 11 Student in the International Baccalaureate Program, and I selected the topic of Yin and Yang for my internal assessment. My research question is How does Yin and Yang define Taoists rituals, practices or philosophies. I have a few questions, if you would be able to answer them.
    Does the Yin and Yang symbol define any practices or rituals in a Taoist’s everyday life? Does Taoists use it in their everyday lives? How seriously do Taoists take the concept of Yin and Yang?

  6. @Erika: Yin / Yang are a fundamental aspect used in Taoist language and thought. There is much material on this in print and around the web, or you could find on various Taoist forums and with a little searching you will find what you need for a paper.

    At times the search itself is the Taoist path.

  7. entropy says:

    Can one say that two becomes three in for instance the circle of the symbol of Yin Yang? That it (Tao) is the ‘third’ way of balance between the Yin and the Yang?

  8. lucia says:

    My acupuncturist said my yin and yang has become separate – the yin became yang and the yang became yin – what does this mean?

  9. Lucia: It could mean several different things. I would get clarification from your acupuncturist.

    Simply put, your body is out of balance.

    Various process of life are also categorized in terms of Yin / Yang. When Yin / Yang balances shift, then that causes illness or issues. To solve it you re-balance the Yin and Yang aspects with various techniques.

  10. Stephanie says:

    It’s basically the balance of life and accepting the fact that life isn’t comepletely black or white.

  11. Yang says:

    Very sufficient data! This will go along well with the information I have already obtained in regards to the yin and yang. Btw, what exactly are some other Taoist symbols?

  12. Victor says:

    What seem simple can be difficult of o e does not realize that all ways are born from one way and the one way is born from no way, but no way is also a way. Be as one with nature and ther will beno conflict in handling human affairs.

  13. brian says:

    For me the reason the yin & yang symbol is at the forefront of Daoism is that once you really start to look deeper into the symbol you’ll find that it gos very,very deep,for me this is the only symbol you need to understand what has always been & always will be,everyone talks about the yin & yang but very few understand it,the key,look behind the curtain.

  14. noble coleman says:

    please clarify me about what is yin and yang in a simple way that i can fathom what you mean.give me answer with simple example.

  15. Noble: Yin / Yang is duality.

    The concept that many things in life can be seen with two distinct aspects.

    So Human -> Male/Female

    These pairings are not absolute, rather relative and more of a guideline for spotting patterns.

    You can use these patterns to predict and work with life, again not forcing everything to be one thing.. but understanding the relative aspect of life.

    The simple answer is this: Yin / Yang is a teaching tool to remember associations. So if a person is in heat use the Yin Herbs to cool them down. If a person is heat deficient then use Yang Herbs to heat them up. If a women is having fertility problems then use Yin herbs to help overcome the issue… ETC

    Yin / Yang evolved in an age of verbal traditions and is used as a way to more simply categorize information to work with. In many respects since we have access to so much more information than what a verbal society can contain in memory lists, the concept of yin/yang isn’t as useful today since people tend to get literal and try to make it absolute which breaks it. But is a very powerful memorization tool.

    But when learning traditional Chinese medicine or Qi Gong it is still used as a teaching tool to help people remember various teachings a bit easier.

  16. Trey says:

    Well, I guess I can put my two cents in also. I have been interested in the Yin Yang theory for quite a few years now. It was something my father used to refer to on occasion. He would say ” Son, everything contains the seed of it’s opposite.” or ” The bigger the front side, the bigger the back side.”
    When I asked what he meant for the first time, he said something along the line of ” Well son, every a coin has two sides, dose it not? One side isn’t smaller is it?” or ” From the modest Acorn, the mighty Oak.”

  17. @Trey: Nicely added, thanks!

  18. Trey says:

    @Cacey: Thank you. I enjoy the topic. It’s nice to meet someone else dwelling in it.

  19. breanna says:

    hey, I’m doing a project on yin and yang and I need to know if there’s more then just one meaning for the yin yang and if there is what would at least 3 different meanings be I would appreciate it if you could help

  20. Hi Breanna: I think there is enough information here for you to complete your exercise. And it wouldn’t be too hard to look up several more sites to get some additional variations on Yin Yang.

  21. Heta says:

    Thank you for details it is really informative.
    Can you explain (in simple english plz) the significance of white spot in black & vice-varsa? if with example it will be helpful. Also do let me know if there is any perticular terminology to refere the spots.

    I was reading few online articles on yin-yang.. and found that
    Yin refered as Evil, white
    Yang refered as Good, Black
    and if combine it with the example given here then,

    Yin – Night, Evil, White
    Yang – Day, Good, Black

    For someone like me who is completly new for the concept, this is confusing.. What i understood is..
    The Black part of circle is called Yang (which strangly Good part) and White part is Yin (which starangly Evil part)
    Am I correct?

  22. Kaitlyn says:

    What is the relationship between the tao and the yin yang?

  23. Kaitlyn: Tao itself is not dualistic. So the yin yang concept doesn’t apply to the Tao directly, rather yin/yang applies to anything that divides itself from a larger whole.

    Tao as a concept stands outside of definition. To define it, is to lose it or to then shape part into something definable and disconnected from full potential.

  24. Heta: the meaning of the smaller dots is to show, that everything contains aspects of everything else within it.

    So within a woman, there are seeds and aspects of also being a man.

    Nothing is 100% independent of the whole.

  25. melvin says:

    @casey: does my partner in life considered to be an outside influence on my ying-yang balance? Take a look at my case. In my 8 year professional career i still cant feel success. Aside from not fairly compensated, I also tried business start-ups but failed. On the other hand my wife enjoys her career with timely promotions and well-paid compensation. I can say that she is successful in her career while i am not, no matter hard how i integrate hardwork and perserverance in every career that went on my way.

    It seemed like this external influence somehow takes a toll on my personal success. I hope you can enlighten me with this one. Thanks

  26. @Melvin: No.

    That’s a trap of yin and yang… to force everything into a duality. Even when one shouldn’t.

    Many things add up to what people define as success. Yes partners do impact each other. But to force it as the main reason will only hurt you.

    It would be more graceful to understand you haven’t found the career that matches to your nature yet.

  27. santoshi says:

    Would like to knw more about yin and yang on relationships..

  28. kimmy says:

    The principle is very useful for yoga practice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>