The earliest writing of YinYang was found in Chinese carvings on animal bones. These bones have been carbon dated to earlier than 2000bc and were used for divination. The bones include YinYang combined with the Five Elements.
The practice of combining YinYang with the 5 Elements is found in Chinese divination, astrology, medicine, feng shui and an understanding of nature. We see it for example, in the meridians and in the classification of the organs. According to author Joseph Needham, the two are inseparable and need to be studied and understood together.
For instance, the earliest known calendars, dated from more than 1000bc, were a combination of YinYang with the Five Elements, along with the 12 animals. These are known as the ten heavenly stems and twelve earthly branches.
Essentially, these calendars would follow the sequence of Yang Wood, Yin Wood, Yang Fire, Yin Fire, Yang Earth, Yin Earth, Yang Metal, Yin Metal, Yang Water, Yin Water. Meanwhile these would be matched with the twelve animals in the order of Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Boar.
All this suggests that from the earliest known use of YinYang or Five Elements, they were used together.
Since 2005 I have been teaching the Chinese YinYang combined with the Five Elements, rather than the Centrifugal / Centripetal version George Ohsawa created and used in macrobiotics. Ohsawa’s version, which is often described as expansion and contraction, does not apply to time and does not easily work with the Five Elements, as Fire is already expansion and Metal contraction. Also, using Ohsawa’s approach, students often confuse being more Yang with a more Metal chi and being more Yin with a more Fire chi.
For me, the essential benefit of using the Chinese approach is that together, YinYang and the Five Elements, give us a much fuller expression of the way energy or chi flows. In a clear, simple description we can say that the Five Elements describe the direction chi flows and YinYang describes how the chi flows.
Wood moves up, Fire outward, Earth down, Metal inward and Water flows without direction. But chi can go in any of these directions in a slower, Yin, or quicker, Yang, form. In its most simple form, YinYang describe the speed and temperature of chi – Yin chi flows more slowly and is cooler, while Yang chi moves faster and is hotter.
So, for instance, when we combine YinYang and the Five Elements we can, write that for Yang Wood, the chi move up, quickly and with the activity of the sun, whereas Yin Wood meanders up slowly, with a cooler more shady chi. Here Yang Wood might describe where someone reacts to a situation and his Yang Wood chi rises up quickly to his head and before thinking, speaks out. Conversely, Yin Wood would allow the chi to meander its way slowly to the brain, giving more time to consider the response. This understanding can be applied to each YinYang pair of Five Elements. Also, it allows YinYang and the Five Elements to be explained using simpler examples from the nature, that everyone can understand and relates to.
Another issue is that, often, when practitioners use the Five Elements on their own, words like unbalanced are used to describe a condition. For example, if someone is depressed, it might be said that their Metal chi is unbalanced. If so, does this person need more Metal or less Metal? Should we encourage more inward chi or less? Do we encourage the opposites of Wood and Fire?
Further, is anything is really balanced in nature? We are always in a more Yin or Yang state or having more of one Element than the others. For me, the aim is to use the Five Elements as a combined whole, where all the Elements constantly work together, influencing each other. This happens in space and time, where YinYang and the Five Elements also apply to the day, lunar cycles and seasons.
If we relate YinYang with the Five Elements, we can then explore a more integrated approach, compared with using both separately.
If for a particular person depression is leading to isolation, being introverted, loneliness, staying at home… these would indicate greater inward Metal chi. At the same time if this person claims to be low in energy, tired and feeling cold, then we could also deduce that she is more Yin. So combining the two, we would describe her chi as being more Yin Metal.
With this description we might reason that we feed the Metal chi with more Yang Earth, whilst letting the Yin Metal chi transform to Yang Water and Wood. We might even feed the Earth chi with Fire.
In practice, we could start with Yang Earth. This might be warming sweet soups and stews, using root vegetables and pumpkin. Hugs, massage and warm comfortable environments would add further Earth qualities. Talking with close friends or a therapist would be also an example of further Earth.
Next, we could apply Yang Water chi using foods, such as miso soups, bean and sea vegetable stews and teas. Swimming would also be an example of Yang Water chi.
Once the person was ready, we could apply the Yang Wood chi in the form of exercise, movement, positive thinking, self-help books and becoming more active. More Yang Wood foods would include cooked green vegetables, such as steamed or blanched greens. Finally, when ready, our friend might take on more Fire chi in the form of being more social, taking dance classes, introducing more bright summer colours to her home and clothing, as well as more Yang Fire foods in the form of garlic, ginger, herbs, spices and fried foods. We might use this process of helping a person gently move from Yin to Yang over a period of weeks.
Notably, the research suggests that exercise, being social and reading self-help books, are more effective for mild to moderate depression than medication.
Another example would be of someone feeling very stressed. This person might claim he has a lot of Yang Fire chi. So we look to the Wood Element that feeds it and apply a Yin version of Wood. For example, raw green salads, singing, being less active, more gentle exercise, filling our home with plants and so on. As Fire feeds Earth, we can apply more Yin Earth to help calm the Fire. This could include apple kuzu drinks, carrot and beetroot juices, sweet vegetable tea, along with slowing down, connecting to the Earth through gardening or walking barefoot and being in nature. Eventually we could include more Yin Metal and Water practices, such as meditation, exploring philosophy, good sleep practices, etc. Many of these practices have been shown to reduce stress, blood pressure and inflammation, all typical symptoms of excessive Yang Fire.
We can apply the same principles exploring time. If someone has difficulty sleeping at night, we can start by exploring Water as the night and sleep relate to Water chi. If the issue is from being too Yang at night, then we look to the element that feeds it, Metal. Metal relates to the evening, so we consider ways to make the evening routine more Yin. This would suggest a more Yin evening meal, perhaps lighter with easy to digest grains, less stimulating activities, less exposure to blue light from computers, TV, LEDs and phones, more meditation, qigong, reading and listening to music. Next, we can consider the following Element to Water, which is Wood. Here we can try to get up early, exercise during the day, expose ourselves to the morning light, get out into nature and be with the trees, tall grasses and bushes. We might bring more plants into our home. Again, research on circadian rhythms and sleep would confirm these practices as being effective for better sleep.
According to my experience, this system of applying YinYang with the Five Elements appears to work for every common situation we might apply these principles to. It creates a logical method for students to learn, so they can apply reason when using these essential macrobiotic principles.
Simon Brown teaches online macrobiotic courses with Melanie Waxman Brown and Filipa Silva. His next annual macrobiotic health coach training starts on the 2 November 2021.
Simon is the author of Modern Day Macrobiotics and Macrobiotics For Life.
He is an international teacher, studied with Michio and Aveline Kushi, as well as with Shizuko Yamamoto. He has over 40 experience in macrobiotics.