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What are yin and yang?

Yin and yang are the basic tenets of traditional Chinese medicine, yet when I am asked in clinic what they are I find myself fumbling to explain them. They are so basic and underlie almost everything I do, so much so that I don’t often question how to describe them. I wanted to give an idea of what they are and an illustration of how they work together, especially since this time of year provides such a good example.

At both their most simple and most complex, yin and yang are opposites. Everything and anything you can think of can be described as either very yin, very yang, or more commonly some degree of a mix between the two. Things which are more yin are hidden, darker, quieter, perhaps wetter. Yang types of things are bright, energetic, growing, moving, and changing. Yin is a feminine energy and yang is more masculine. Picture a hillside in the early morning: the side being warmed and brightened by the sun is more yang, and the side still dark and covered with dew is more yin.

You never have yin or yang alone–they always work as a pair. Now, sometimes you’ll have a situation where something is skewed so strongly in one direction or the other that imbalance starts to occur (and you need to visit your acupuncturist!). But one of the more interesting aspects of yin and yang is that at their extremes they begin to transform into one another. This can be explained using the example of the solstice.

The winter solstice, which we will experience on December 21, is a time of ultimate yin. We are deepest into our journey away from the sun. The days are shortest and the night is longest. We’re inspired to hibernate. But I always like to take note of the solstice because it is then, even if we can’t sense it at first, that the days begin to lengthen toward spring. Like a pendulum beginning to swing in the opposite direction, yang is returning to our lives. I find it comforting to note the couple of extra minute of sunlight we begin to receive, even as it gets colder here in Chicago. If you’re feeling the winter blues, I invite you to join me in finding and celebrating yang elements in this cold, yin-predominant season.

Cupping and Gua Sha–what are they?

In response to popular demand, I recently added cupping and gua sha only appointments to my list of services! As of now it is a half hour appointment for $40 at my treatment space on Friday or Saturday mornings.

But what does this mean? In general terms, cupping and gua sha are great for musculoskeletal issues such as sore muscles, tightness from over or under-use, and recover from injury. Both techniques physically break up stagnation and allow freer movement. For issues that go beyond the muscle layer, such as phlegm in the chest or an incipient cold or flu, these modalities can open the surface and allow the body to better return itself to health. If you’d like to learn more about each technique, keep reading!


In Chinese, gua sha translates literally to “sand scraping”.  This name more or less describes the action of gua sha.  It is a technique practiced in many traditional cultures.  The form I have learned from my studies in school uses a curved object which may be a tool designed specifically for gua sha, or may be a spoon, a small metal lid, or any other object that has the curve the practitioner wants.  A lubricant such as lotion or oil is spread over the skin that is to be scraped to protect the surface of the skin from abrasion, and the curved implement is then scraped over the skin with some degree of pressure.  The desired effect is usually some skin coloration, whether it be pale pink, red, or even darker purple tones.  It looks like a bruise, but should clear up quicker.

 Gua sha is commonly used to treat muscular soreness or tension.  The discoloration of the skin means that stagnant blood is being broken up.  Therefore it’s important to drink plenty of fluids after a treatment involving gua sha (just as with a treatment involving massage or cupping).  Gua sha can also be used to prevent or treat a cold: if you get that stiff neck that means you’re about to get sick, see your acupuncturist and they may gua sha the back of your neck to release the pathogen and relieve the discomfort.


Cupping is an ancient form of bodywork practiced in many cultures. In China, cups were once made of bamboo, and suction was created by heating the insides of the cups and pressing them to the skin. These days, most cups used are clear glass. Suction may be created by using a pump or heating the cup with a flame, and blood and qi is moved to help reduce muscle tightness and alleviate pain. Cupping may be quick and fast or cups can be left on the body longer. They can remain in one place or be slid back and forth.

Marks left by cupping may resemble bruising, but should disappear faster than a bruise, and should not cause pain. Your results will be unique—you may leave your treatment with round marks that vary in color from pale red to dark purple. The color and intensity of the marks indicate to your practitioner how long you have had the condition being treated, and other information such as your relative excess or deficient status.

Cupping should not be administered if you plan to wear clothing such as a backless dress that will expose the marks soon after your treatment, due to their sometimes unsightly nature. Family or friends might ask you about your marks—let them know they are part of a treatment that helped relieve pain, create relaxation, and improved mobility.

After your treatment, you should drink plenty of water. Just like with gua sha, avoid exposing the treated area to cold air or water at least until the end of the day.