Tips from the holistic lifestyle of Ancient China: How to Balance Yin and Yang in all Your Meals
Protein, carb, vegetable. To most of us in the West that’s what a ‘balanced’ meal is, isn’t it? We base it on composition and portions, and we focus on foods that have quantifiable nutritive value (read: 1 banana= 89 calories). Our experience of food and nutrition is completely detached from any spiritual or transcendental experience. For us, it’s just simply ‘what we eat’. But what if we considered each meal as a key part to achieving ultimate wellness– physically, emotionally and spiritually? And we chose what we ate based not on the number of carbs or the percentage of cholesterol, but on the ‘characteristics’ of each ingredient? According to the ancient Chinese holistic lifestyle philosophy of yin and yang, food is a means to total equilibrium. If done properly, it can be the answer to all of life’s difficulties.
We tend to focus on the physical benefits of eastern practices– which are great– but this means we’re losing out on their spiritual and emotional benefits
The holistic lifestyle philosophies of the East have poured quite heavily into mainstream Western culture. It has become essential to how we construct our understanding of wellness: acupuncture-therapy centres are all over London and accomplishing the ten-day macrobiotic diet is an ultimate goal. Yet, our understanding and practise of Eastern wellness is superficial; it stops after the acupuncture session is over and ends after we’ve finished the meal plan. We tend to focus on the physical benefits of eastern practices– which are great– but this means we’re losing out on their spiritual and emotional benefits.
George Ohsawa, an American-Chinese philosopher who brought knowledge of Eastern wellness to the West, believed that a holistic lifestyle approach to yin and yang foods cured him of tuberculosis when he was nineteen. For him, the spiritual aspects were just as important as the physical benefits. It wasn’t just a physical cure. He wrote that it was ‘a teaching that goes to the source of pain and eradicates it’.
Through darkness there is light
Yin and yang, a fundamental belief in Chinese philosophy, emphasises that supposedly opposite forces are actually interdependent and complementary. Each contradictory force cannot exist without the other because they work together to create a unified, balanced whole. Take for example the idea that “through darkness there is light”. These opposing forces are represented by many dualities– yin is the feminine, cold, dark, the moon and the passive whilst and yang is the masculine, warm, light, active and represented by the sun. Plainly, the holistic lifestyle philosophy can be applied to almost everything– from food to the very organs in our bodies.
However, if either ‘yin’ or ‘yang’ qualities becomes more prominent than the other, the Chinese believe the imbalance can lead to illness and an overall lack of wellness (read: feeling ‘meh’). When Chinese practitioners set out to diagnose patients, they explore the disharmony between yin and yang and how it plays out within the body through various symptoms. An excess of yang is associated with a ‘red face, fever, hot feeling, and agitation’ whilst too much yin is linked to a ‘pale face, low spirit, chills, cold limbs, tiredness and weakness’. Vegetarians tend to be more yin, and those with a sweet-tooth are generally more yang.
The balance of the yin (hot foods), and yang (cold foods) is essential to every meal. But keep in mind that yin and yang foods have less to do with actual temperature, but more with the characteristics associated with each particular ingredient. Think of each food as having a ‘personality’ and accompanying qualities that make it either yin or yang. Tofu, fruits, and vegetables such as cucumber, watercress and cabbage are considered yin because of their high water content. And foods with a higher energy content such as duck, beef, eggs, rice and warm spices like cinnamon and ginger and rice are considered yang. Yin foods are usually sour or bitter whilst yang foods tend to be sweeter, fattier, and have more robust flavours. In Chinese cooking, yin and yang are a harmonious pair. So finding the perfect balance between the two is the ultimate aim when thinking up, or cooking up a meal.
The guides for creating your own yin and yang balanced meals at home are simple. Start by thinking about whether you’re currently more yin or yang. You can do this by considering the symptoms you may occasionally experience (weakness, feeling cold as yin; sweating, agitation as yang). Also examine if what you regularly eat is more aligned to one of the forces and make a note of which one. Next, ask yourself if there’s a balance of ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ in your ingredients, or if you’re trying to foster more yin or yang qualities, make sure your ingredients reflect that. Lastly, you want to think about the methods of cooking you’ll use. How you prepare your foods alters the yin and yang qualities of the dish. Yin qualities increase with boiling, poaching and steaming and yang qualities increase with deep-frying, roasting and stir-frying.
Edwina Clark, MS, RD, APD (Aus), CSSD