TCM 101

Understanding The Basis of Traditional Chinese Medicine

Wellness is about seeking alignment. When we live life in balance, all-systems-go, and they go well.  However perfect balance all the time is an impractical expectation, which is why Traditional Chinese Medicine, a 2,500+ year-old practice, remains eternally relevant. It’s a way of life, not a one-stop solution.


TCM is one of the oldest modes of healing treatment which acupuncture and herbal remedies take center stage. The focus of TCM isn’t solely to treat symptoms and ailments, which is how most of us view modern Western medicine. The word medicine itself offers that new-age connotation— we only need it when we are sick. 

However, TCM holds fast to medicinal elements in nature for treating the body and the spirit as a whole. They are for nurturing, fortifying, and averting disease by avoiding and identifying deficiencies and working to maintain optimal health, rather than treating negative symptoms after-the-fact. In this practice, instead of going to the doctor on the rare occasion that something is terribly wrong, one may visit their TCM practitioner more often, or a few times per season to check in and evaluate possibilities of imbalance. 

Because of this approach, TCM is centered around the concept of healing, much of which is prevention-based. It’s about tuning into your body, feeling around for the unexpected, and treating ourselves as a radiating, energetic unit rather than a sum of separate parts. This is the ultimate concept of achieving balance, or total harmony, which is how we perceive the modern notion of wellness— TCM arrived there first, holistically.

The Breakdown of YIN and YANG

yin yang waves

Traditional Chinese Medicine is the very definition of the word holistic. It does this by understanding that the body and all of its organs, systems, fluids, and reactions to lifestyle and outside stimuli are influenced and powered by Qi — which one may see sometimes spelled phonetically like “chi”— otherwise known as our energetic force. This vital energy is responsible for the way we move, operate, function, heal, feel, act, and see the world, and is ultimately depicted in contrasting energies, hence the overarching theme of balance.

These opposing energies are known as yin and yang. While yin and yang may literally translate into lightness and darkness, it is not so easily defined that way. Were that true, one might conclude that we want more light than dark, assuming that the dark side is negative. This is not so. Through TCM, we strive to achieve an equal balance of both energies for an ideal state of harmonized being.

Yin, the dark side on the classic symbol, the shady side of the mountain, is known as a feminine energy. It’s slower, more peaceful and passive, cool, restful, interior, heavy, and nurturing. Meanwhile, yang is our masculine qi. It’s bright, very active, warm, expansive, aggressive, and light. 

This is not a comparison of qi preference. While opposite, yin and yang do not exist independently of one another. Day cannot exist without the night, rest cannot exist without a period of wakefulness. These complementary forces pervade not only the human body, but our physical and spiritual realms, as well. We embody both energies at any and all times, however, we can experience a breakdown of our yin and yang equilibrium. This is where TCM comes in.

We are holistically energetic beings

Energetic Qi

Understanding the body as an energetic unit is the basis for mapping healing modalities. This energy, this qi, flows through us in channels or pathways known as meridians. When there is a blockage within a meridian, this is when we experience an imbalance of energy, and illness or other stressors can occur; think digestive issues, insomnia, anxiety, and muscle tension, just to name a few more common problems. Of course, if imbalances remain unchecked and untreated for long periods of time, much more serious diseases can befall our bodies and minds.

Our meridians of qi are directly connected to systems that affect certain organs and states of being. In TCM, because nothing is considered separate, all parts of the body are connected via this energy, and different organs or ailments can be stimulated from different key points along meridians using acupuncture and acupressure, respectively.

Just how do we encounter these imbalances? They are a part of life. They can come to us from external factors, such as extreme cold or heat, high winds, damp weather, stressful situations. They can also come from within, like anger, anxiety, fear, and sadness. Our choices can also play a large role, like when we enjoy too much alcohol, overindulge, don’t get adequate sleep, or eat a poor diet. 

This isn’t to say we need to avoid external factors, make exclusively healthy choices, and avoid all of life’s temptations. It’s about moderation, and awareness in order to counteract, or act preventatively. When we know we have partaken in an activity that can create imbalance, in Chinese Medicine, we then counteract that imbalance with proper treatment, like healthy foods and medicinal herbs, or a visit to our practitioner. 

The 5 Energetic Elements

Five Element Stone

Another way that TCM understands and breaks down qi in order to draw a direct correlation between us and that of our natural world, is the five element theory. This draws on different elements in nature and the life force that likewise flows through them. While these elements are individual, we embody them all, and that is what creates this earthly balance.

Ancient Chinese philosophers looked to nature to find ways of understanding how we as natural beings are all similar to each other as well as the earth, and it was broken down into these five basic elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. These elements play a vital role in much of Eastern thought, especially TCM, because they can help determine where we are out of balance. 

The 5 elements apply to foods, herbal remedies, and other treatment plans, as they are used to diagnose specific components of imbalance. These elements can correlate to specific organs, or even specific mental states to help dictate a treatment plan that can strengthen a weak element, or sedate an excessive element in order to restore balance in the body, mind, and skin.

These elements also help to determine the way that TCM may diagnose a disease or imbalance. We may experience an overwhelming excess of “damp” or “heat,” meaning we need to reduce our elements of fire or water in order to regain equilibrium. This could mean we need to keep warm and consume or apply warming herbs, or it could mean we need to slow down physically, rest, and consume cooling foods. 

Because of this elemental understanding, our imbalances can vary season to season. In TCM, there is much emphasis on respecting each season, and the botanical gifts that they give to us. When we align with seasonal herbs and foods as a mode of treatment and prevention, we align with the shifting phases of nature, rather than work against it.  

As seasons transition and weather changes, we should in turn adapt our diets, our treatments, rituals, and skincare routines. YiNA embraces this philosophy with rotating ingredients in face oils and other products formulated for each season with correlative herbs and botanical material. This is just one of the ways we recognize and respect nature as a guiding force of adaptation and harmony. When we adapt, it’s easier to remain in balance, rather than tipping the scales. 

Yin Water

While it sounds complex, the basis for Traditional Chinese Medicine is quite simple. It’s about grounding in nature, honoring and embracing what each different season offers us. We don’t let ourselves go, allowing problems to befall us so that we can correct them with medicine and invasive treatment afterwards. We tune inward to connect deeply with our bodies and our energy, and thus, be aware of our lifestyle choices. Prevention is an act of intentional maintenance, a simple act of self love and mindfulness.