I was fortunate a couple years ago to live in an area of the Catskills where the yarrow grew wild and free, and finally had the opportunity to read the I Ching oracle in the traditional manner. I had used three coins to count the lines for years so it took me a few tries to figure out how to use the yarrow stalks.
This method puts you into a meditative and receptive state of mind. Yarrow encourages this because it is a plant that collects energies and sends them spiraling down through it’s hollow stems. The counting becomes a mystical experience with the sound of the stalks clicking and resonating together as they are thrown down, or collected together. Then, when the hexagram is formed, taking time to understand what the I Ching is saying and how it relates to our situations. The whole practice is a wonderful exercise that gets the whole body, soul and mind( on both individual and collective levels) involved.
Most of the following instructions can be found at the back of the translation of the I Ching (or Book of Changes) by Richard Wilhelm. I highly recommend this book for understanding the hexagrams.
It is a little difficult to show all of the possible alternatives in one instructable but I hope that this will help to demonstrate how a reading is done using wild yarrow stalks.
Step 1: Begin the Counting
Have on hand a notebook to write your hexagrams in, a pen and of course your yarrow stalks. Yarrow is a plant that has naturalized all over the world and so in many places it will be quite easy to go and forage your own set of yarrow stalks. Once you have a good bundle of stalks, hang them upside down to dry for about a month and then trim and polish them to lengths of about 6 to 7 inches.
"The oracle is consulted with the help of yarrow stalks. Fifty stalks are used for this purpose. One is put aside and plays no further part." - I Ching
It is a good idea to count your stalks before you begin to make sure you have exactly fifty stalks. As you do this focus on the question you have in mind or the issue you would like advice on. One stalk is then set aside as mentioned in the quote above.
For each line or stage there are three Countings.
Step 2: First Counting - A
Each counting takes three steps and the results are added together to form the first line.
Divide the remaining 49 stalks into two heaps [randomly]. Then take one stalk from the right-hand heap and hold it between the ring finger and the little finger of the left hand.
Step 3: First Counting - B
Place the left hand heap in the left hand. The right hand now takes from it bundles of 4, and puts them in a pile, until there are 4 or fewer stalks remaining. This remainder is placed between the ring finger and the middle finger of the left hand.
Step 4: First Counting - C
Next the right-hand heap is counted off by fours, and the remainder held between the middle finger and the forefinger of the left hand.
The sum of the stalks now between the fingers of the left hand is either 9 or 5. (The various possibilities are 1+4+4, or 1+3+1, or 1+2+2, or 1+1+3; the number 5 is easier to get than the number 9.)
At this first counting off of the stalks, the first stalk—held between the little finger and the ring finger—is disregarded as super-numerary, hence one reckons as follows: 9=8, or 5=4.
The number 4 is regarded as a complete unit, to which the numerical value 3 is assigned. The number 8, on the other hand, is regarded as a double unit and is reckoned as having only the numerical value 2.
Therefore; if at the first count 9 stalks are left over, they count as 2; if 5 are left, they count as 3. These stalks are now laid aside for the time being.
Step 5: Second Counting
Now that we know how to count the yarrow stalks off by fours the rest is easy, the repetition of motion and the small sounds of the yarrow stalks chiming together as they are thrown down into the pile all work together to create a dynamic meditative atmosphere.
"The remaining stalks are gathered together again and divided anew. Once more one takes a stalk from the pile on the right and places it between the ring finger and the little finger of the left hand; then one counts off the stalks as before."
This time the sum of the remainders is either 8 or 4, the possible combinations being 1+4+3, or 1+3+4, or 1+1+2, or 1+2+1, so that this time the chances of obtaining 8 or 4 are equal. The 8 counts as 2, the 4 counts as 3.
Step 6: Third Counting
The procedure is carried out a third time with the remaining stalks, and again the sum of the remainders is 8 or 4.
Now, by adding the numerical values assigned to each of the three countings, a line is formed.
Step 7: Building the Hexagram
This procedure is repeated six times, and thus a hexagram of six lines (or stages/levels) is built up.
Step 8: Old Yang - 9
If the sum is 5 (= 4, value 3) + 4 (value 3) + 4 (value 3), the resulting numerical value is 9, the so-called old yang. This becomes a positive line that moves and must therefore be taken into account in the interpretation of the individual lines. It is designated by the symbol 0 or 0.
Step 9: Old Yin - 8
If the sum of the three countings is 9 (=8, value 2) + 8 (value 2), + 8 (value 2), the final value is 6, the so-called old yin. This becomes a negative line that moves and is therefore to be taken into account in the interpretation of the individual lines. It is designated by the symbol – x – or x.
Step 10: Young Yang - 7
If the sum is:
9 (2)+ 8 (2) + 4 (3)
or 5 (3)+ 8 (2) + 8 (2) =7
or 9 (2)+ 4 (3) +8 (2)
the value 7 results, the so-called young yang. This becomes a positive line that is at rest and therefore not taken into account in the interpretation of the individual lines. It is designated by the symbol ____ .
Step 11: Young Yin - 8
If the sum is:
9(2)+ 4(3) + 4(3)
or 5(3)+ 4(3) + 8(2) =8
or 5(3) +8(2) + 4(3)
the value 8 results, the so-called young yin. This becomes a negative line that is at rest and therefore not taken into account in the interpretation of the individual lines. It is designated by the symbol __ __
Step 12: Moving Lines - Further Reading
If there are one or more moving lines in the hexagram thus obtained, the words appended by the Duke of Chou to the given line or lines are also to be considered. His words therefore carry the superscription, “Nine in the Xth place,” or “Six in the Xth place.”
Furthermore, the movement, i.e. change in the lines, gives rise to a new hexagram, the meaning of which must also be taken into account.