The five elements in action: “I yin, you yang. Interpreting Relationships the Chinese Way”

Let’s face it: most books skim the surface of the five elements. You get lists of colours, smells, seasons corresponding to an element. What to do in summer. What to avoid in winter. The only readworthy exceptions I know are Nora Franglen and Kiiko Matsumoto. But from now on we can also add shiatsu therapist Mike Mandl to this shortlist.

Five elements

The five elements is a way of describing the world. Written down by the ancient Chinese. It is a more detailed, richer view of the world than you can achieve with the pure black and white image of the yin and yang polarities. Ying-Yang are binary states. Something is yin or yang. Which one is chosen by the interpreter is always relative and arbitrary. We do know that yin and yang are not steady states, but interacting forces. These dynamics get shaped by the five elements. It’s a process-based view of the energy in the world, in nature and in people.


Five Elements Theory is not science. I am not even sure if it is an accepted part of Traditional Chinese Medicine. But it sure is a part of the Chinese culture, and when using it in daily practice it makes sense, because it’s easy to recognize the five element-cycle in the seasons, the behaviour of nature, and in the lifecycles of yourself or, for example, your parents.

You need a guide

It’s a bit harder to transpose the five elements to people. To personality traits. That takes a deeper knowledge of the system, imagination and above all, experience. So you need a guide. To enlighten you. To show you the archetypes of the five elements. This book turned out to be a pleasurable starting point for this journey ‘of a 1000 miles’.


So what’s it about? Mike Mandl describes the constitution of the five element types. First of all, he asks the reader to undress. To take a look at their body in front of the mirror. To see if their body resembles that of a Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal of Water-type. Then he dives deeper into personality and behaviour. Like:

  • What is the biggest strength of a Metal-type?
  • Why are Water-types so fond of being home (alone) ?
  • How to get a Wood-type in a Zen-state?


In 250 pages each element type is dissected into smaller parts. Let’s, for example, take the Wood type. Wood belongs to spring. The start of a new cycle. The forces of nature are awakening after a cold, inward-turned, winter. At last there is action! The Wood-man and Wood-woman like action. That’s an understatement. They need action or they explode.

Let’s get some more details about this type (quotes from the book of course  😉 ):

  • A Wood-body: “lean, angular, strong hands, big feet, dark complexion”
  • Some Wood traits: “Active, flexible, ambitious, restless, creative, driven, aggressive, explosive, forceful”
  • Wood complaints: “Since movement is an import feature of the wood element, stagnant Wood energy also leads to musculoskeletal problems. This includes hip and shoulder problems as well as rheumatic spectrum disorders”.
  • What Wood-types should do: “Exercise is the elixir of Wood…if you do not exercise enough, your system will eventually reach red alert”.
  • Some food advice for Woodies: “For Wood-types it’s not so important what they eat but how they eat. Being fidgety by nature they struggle with one thing: eating quietly and mindfully…it’s all about chewing, chewing, chewing”.

In short

Read this book if you really want to dive deeper into the five elements. Use it to learn more about your own element-type, that of your partner or your clients. It’s written fluidly, with detail and humour.

I suspect Mandl to be a Woody too, so I suppose we can expect many more books soon!

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Translation support of this article is done by Tamsin Grainger. Thank you Tamsin  😀