Working in the Bastyr Herbal Dispensary, while fun, involved a lot of repetitive weighing, measuring and parceling of herbs. While we put orders together my classmates and I wouldchat and it just so happened that one day we were talking about Yoda—the diminutive green Jedi master from Star Wars. If I recall correctly, one person there thought that Yoda was 800 years old and someone else pointed out that that’s only how long he had been training Jedi and quoted, “When 900 years old you reach look as good you will not.”
“Wow,” someone else commented, “he must have so much Qi.”
“Actually,” the shift supervisor said, “it’s not how much Qi you have, it’s how fast you burn up your yin.”
In Chinese medical theory, yin refers to both the physical substance of the body’s organs and the body’s ability to nourish and replenish itself. Yang, by contrast is the active functions of the organs as well as the body’s ability to move itself through space. Being alive is seen as the continuous process of converting yin into yang.
We all begin life with a certain amount of “pre-natal yin” that we inherit from our parents which we then replenish with “post-natal yin” from the food we consume. This may seem like a rather obtuse theory, but put in western physiological terms it makes a great deal of sense. “Pre-natal yin” is our genetic make-up. It determines how our bodies develop and the strengths and weaknesses of our own unique constitutions. The “post-natal yin” is, naturally, the nutrients we derive from our food. It provides us with the raw materials we need to repair and maintain our body and can even greatly influence genetic expression (that is, which genes are active and which stay dormant). The reason our bodies deteriorate as we age is that replenishing yin is an imperfect process. We always use up more than we spend and the more we run over, the faster we run into problems.
So, what burns up yin? Since yin is both the physical substance of our organs and the body’s capacity to repair and maintain itself anything that damages our physical substance or strains the body’s ability to regulate itself uses up yin. This can be either external damage such as traumatic injuries, sunburns or over-exertion; or internal damage caused by habits such as excessive alcohol consumption, smoking or eating too much salt or sugar.
Let’s look at an extreme example—something that, from a TCM perspective, absolutely devastates yin—crystal meth. The physical effects of meth include excessive sweating, high body temperature (body temperature regulation disturbed), high blood pressure or low blood pressure (regulation of bp disrupted); accelerated, slowed or irregular heartbeat (regulation of heart rate disrupted); diarrhea or constipation (natural bowel movements disrupted), twitching or tremors (neuromuscular regulation disrupted), rapid breathing (respiration disrupted), insomnia (sleep cycle disrupted). This is far from a complete list, but it’s easy to see the enormous strain this substance puts on the body’s ability to keep itself in balance. Just like a muscle, the harder the body’s regulatory capacity has to work the sooner it wears out.
Now, hopefully few to none of my readers here are currently on meth, or likely to begin in the near future. But there are a number of ways we tax our body’s regulatory ability every day without thinking about it. Our body is wonderfully adapted to handle regular, gradual changes—the kinds one most often encounters in nature. As one season slowly turns into another the temperature grows steadily warmer or cooler. As the day ends the light slowly fades before turning into night. Today, however, we live in a very binary world. It’s possible to go from an air-conditioned building being held at 72 degrees to a sunny day outside where the temperature is 95. A jump of 23 degrees in few seconds. It’s also and even common to go from a noonday-bright room to pitch dark with the flip of a switch and expect the body to be instantly ready for sleep. We often eat on the go, consuming an entire days’ worth of calories in a few minutes. To us this is all completely normal, to our bodies it’s not.
The good news is that it’s very easy to ameliorate most of these shocks with a simple realization—the body needs more time than your mind does. Give it that time and you’ll see enormous benefits in your overall health.
At the end of the day, schedule some time to relax with lower lighting before hitting the hay.
During meals, slow down and enjoy your food. Not only will this give your body time to move from “doing things mode” to “eating mode” but you’ll be less likely to over-eat and enjoy your food more.
During the summer and winter especially, pausing near the door when you get ready to enter or leave a building can make the temperature transition much less dramatic.
When exercising be sure to give yourself adequate time to warm up first.
Avoid large, un-buffered amounts of substances that have a significant physiological impact: sugar, salt and calcium are the biggies here (researchers have recently found that regular use of oral calcium supplements can raise heart-attack risk by up to 27%)
Protecting and nourishing our yin—our body’s adapting and regulating ability may not let us be 900-year-old Jedi masters but, “look and feel fantastic at any age we can, yes.”