Yang Sheng – the ancient practice of cultivating health and nourishing life
Yang Sheng is the ancient Chinese practice of nourishing life that is grounded in the ideals of balance and harmony, living life in accord with the rhythms of nature, as well as the fundamental laws of the universe. It is based in Taoist traditions that believe vitality and longevity can be nurtured through various, holistic self-cultivation practices and self-healing choices that include physical movement, sleep, diet, bathing and meditation. More than merely a prescription for healthy living, Yang Sheng is also a philosophy of life centered around the ideal of integrity that insists we honestly re-examine how we live: where do our thoughts dwell, who do we spend our precious time with, what beliefs are we guided by, and what actions do we take. Seeking the seamless integration of mind, body and spirit, Yang Sheng asks us to develop a conscious, ethical approach towards our self and the world we live in. Embracing insights from the fields of Chinese medicine, martial arts, moral philosophy and religious meditative practices, Yang Sheng is a blueprint for the “art of living” that is as relevant to our modern world as is was to the ancients who first developed it.
The ultimate aim of Yang Sheng is to achieve wu wei – a Taoist principle of “effortless action” that reflects state of conflict-free harmony and free-flowing naturalness. Indeed, the simplest and easiest way to incorporate Yang Sheng in our life is to become more aware of, and attuned to, our environment – the ancient Taoists taught that living in harmony with nature is the single best way to support our health, wellbeing and longevity. Wu wei is deeply connected to the Taoist reverence for the natural world – striving to make our behavior as spontaneous and inevitable as certain natural processes – like bamboo that bends in the wind or water that flows over and around rocks. This means letting go of trying to “make” things happen, putting aside ego-driven plans, and abandoning overly aggressive or rigid actions and thoughts. Instead, wu wei asks us to cultivate of a state of being where our actions are effortlessly aligned with the ebb and flow of the elemental cycles of the natural world. It is characterized by great ease and awareness that lets us respond perfectly to whatever situations arise, without even trying.
An ancient form of self-care
Yang Sheng is an approach to self-care that is rooted in thousands of years of wisdom. Indeed, texts on preserving health, extending life, and cultivating well-being have been part of the Chinese tradition since the 4th century BCE. Asking that we each take proactive responsibility for our own self-care and self-nurturing, Yang Sheng is a self-empowering concept that teaches us not to become dependent on other people or things for our wellbeing or happiness. Indeed, most Yang Sheng practices can be done by ourselves and cost little-to-nothing. Importantly, Yang Sheng is not about radical interventions or quick fix solutions. Rather, it is “slow medicine” – an ongoing process of health maintenance that we apply over the course of our life, emphasizing the idea that small, consistent actions and lifestyle choices can, over time, add up to produce larger benefits for our health.
Prevention rather than cure
One key focus of Chinese Medicine – and Yang Sheng – is the idea that preventing disease and illness is the superior form of medicine. The Huangdi Neijing (The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine), an ancient Chinese medical text that has been a fundamental doctrinal source for more than two millennia, states: “The superior physician treats a patient before he is sick.” This meant that in ancient China, people would pay the medical doctor when they were well (with produce from their gardens), but stopped paying him when they fell ill. A doctor would routinely “prescribe” a healthcare regime that included herbal formulas, acupuncture, meditation, and Qigong exercises to support the health and longevity of local villagers.
The Chinese emphasis on prevention and self-care is in stark contrast to traditional Western medicine, where we tend to neglect wellness and typically only visit the doctor when we are sick. Too many of us take our good health for granted and assume that disease is inevitable. And then when we fall ill, we treat the symptoms of disease rather than finding the root cause. Instead, Yang Sheng focuses on discovering subtle energy imbalances long before they turn into overt disease. By taking affirmative and regular steps to support and balance the energy of our mind-body-spirit – through an awareness of our connection to nature, our own bodies, and the spirit – we can help prevent the development of ill health and ‘dis-ease’ as we age. The cultivation of health through prevention – rather than simply the treatment of illness and disease – underpins the ethos of all forms of traditional Chinese medicine and Yang Sheng.
Nurturing the components of life
According to Chinese medicine, a person’s life (Sheng) is sustained by the “three treasures”: Jing, Qi and Shen. Generally, Jing is understood to mean essence, and is associated with reproductive energy. Qi – our vital breath or life force – is a complex concept related to the primordial matter-energy that constitutes everything in the universe and sustains all living things. Finally, Shen equates to the spirit – our spiritual and mental vitality. We are all born with Jing and Qi, which decline over time as we age. Longevity requires maintaining or restoring our original allotment of Qi. Qi can be converted into Jing, which in turn facilitates the circulation of Qi throughout the body. Shen, unlike Jing and Qi, is not allotted at birth but must be cultivated throughout life. As the three treasures dissipate or become imbalanced, our health will suffer. Movement and meditation, herbal medicine and acupuncture, and dietary practices that integrate body and mind all help to enhance the circulation of Qi, replenish the three treasures, and extend and nourish (Yang) life.
Qi is a multi-faceted concept that cannot be objectively (clinically) measured. While it may seem improbable to many of us in the West, the reality of Qi is taken for granted in Asia. And it is as real and self-evident as the blueness of a clear sunny sky. According to Chinese medicine, Qi is the energy that flows through the body. It aids the movement of blood and lymph, nerve conduction, energy production, and cognitive awareness. According to Chinese Medicine, the free flow of Qi is fundamental to our well-being and those with a strong and abundant Qi enjoy robust health and vitality. Imbalance or blockages weakens our Qi, which eventually manifests as disease, pain, poor energy, and premature aging. Because Qi and Blood are intimately related – the two are intertwined and circulate together – the balanced free-flow of Qi helps ensure the body stays well-nourished. Alternately, poor Qi and blood circulation leave the body malnourished and waste will start to build up, leading to stagnation of energy and disease. Yang Sheng encourages many practices that focus on improving Qi circulation to keep it strong and flowing smoothly.
Cultivating the true foundation of health
Since Yang Sheng practices are designed to cultivate health and harmony through daily activities that concentrate on well-being rather than treating sickness, we must understand the Chinese concept of “health” before we can understand the key to Yang Sheng. According to the Huangdi Neijing, good health is a state of “harmony” — where a healthy life “takes harmony as ultimate, and takes peace as expectation.” This ancient text also states that “a peaceful man will not get sick,” whereby peaceful is defined as “not excessive and not insufficient.” In other words, the key to good health is a state of moderation and harmony.
But what are we meant to be harmonious with? What will happen if harmony is broken? These are the broad questions addressed by the entire TCM system – good health is the result of harmony with the heaven, earth and humanity. To be harmonious with the heaven, we need to live in accordance with the changing seasons; otherwise, our body may be invaded by wind, damp, cold or heat qi and become sick. To be harmonious with the earth, we need have a balanced diet, and restrain ourselves from excessive consumption of the five tastes (sour, sweet, salty, bitter and spicy); otherwise, our body will lose balance, and develop illnesses such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes. To be harmonious with our fellow humans, we need to adjust or constrain the five poisoning (negative) emotions – complaining (blame), hate, sorrow, anger, anxiety (worry or fear) so that we can get along with others peacefully. According to TCM, many sicknesses are the consequences of excessive emotions. Complaining hurts the spleen, hate exhausts the heart, sorrow depletes the lung, anger hurts the liver and fear/worry affects the kidney.
Here are three Yang Sheng practices to incorporate into your daily life to cultivate vibrant well-being and longevity.
QIGONG BODY-MIND CULTIVATION
The branch of TCM knowledge called Qigong provides us with a large number of internal and external practices that were developed over centuries to promote physical, emotional and spiritual health. When practiced regularly and consistently, Qigong techniques allow for increased energy, more robust health, and graceful aging. Qigong is the practice and skill (Gong) of working with the vital breath (Qi). It is actually an umbrella term for a variety of body and mind cultivation techniques that combine posture, mindful breathing, and visualization.
Qigong literally means to nurture Qi, the energetic intermediary between physical essence (Jing) and spirit (Shen). But this simple literal interpretation of the word Qigong is insufficient to convey its full meaning. Qigong is mind-body-spirit integrative exercise — indeed, any mind-body-spirit integrative exercise is Qigong. Yoga or even simple exercises such as walking, riding a bicycle, or even many daily life activities, if done in awareness, can be Qigong.
Wu Ji Grounding
Wu Ji is a very simple yet powerful Qigong standing position that is both energizing and relaxing. Stand with your shoulders relaxed, arms lose at your sides, palms facing backwards, knees slightly bent, feet hip-width apart. Push the earth down and feel as if your feet are deeply rooted in the ground. Relax. Do not lean back. Soften your knees – unlocking the knees is the secret to unlocking the back. Visualize a stream of energy (Earth Qi) flowing unimpeded upward through both legs through the center of your body. Continually soften and relax, noticing any areas of tension or discomfort in your body. Imagine breathing deeply into these areas and softening the muscles in these areas.
This stance reminds us of our fundamental human relationship to the earth. Grounding in this way establishes a proper foundation and forms the basis for every successful energy practice. According to Qigong theory, man’s existence depends upon a constant blending of Earth Qi, Heaven Qi and Human Qi. Man provides the human element and serves as the go-between heaven and earth – he arises from the earth and grows upwards towards the heavens just like the trees that surround us.
In order to reach our true potential, we must first become firmly rooted to the ground. When you practice, imagine that your feet send strong roots deep down into the earth in all directions. Become grounded, rooted, and centered. Feel the earth energy flowing up from the sole of your feet (KD 1) through the meridians of both legs until they feel like columns of Qi. Allow these waves of energy to pulsate upwards and nourish you from deep beneath the surface of the earth.
Taijiquan, or taiji for short, is one of the primary internal martial arts of China that was first developed during the early 1600s. As one of the internal martial arts, it incorporates methods of fighting (both with and without weapons) and breathing or meditation techniques to create an art that is useful for both self-defense and health preservation. Recently, taiji has been the object of modern research that reveals regular practice has numerous health benefits. Studies show that taiji improves balance and diminishes the risk of falls in elderly patients, in addition to improving cardiovascular function, bone density, knee pain, and even mood.
Regardless of the style of taijiquan you practice, the basic taiji principles apply universally. Ideally, you will learn to integrate these principles in all aspects of your life, not just when you are not practicing taijiquan. If you are walking down the street according to taiji principles, then you are practicing taiji as you walk. Apply these principles to your taijiquan practice – and everyday living – may take a lifetime. Core taiji principles to enhance your practice and your life include:
Be mindful of what you are doing throughout your practice
Stay centered and focus on the dan tian (your body’s energy center and also its center of gravity – 1.3 inches below the navel and about half way between your front and your spine) throughout practice
Move slowly and learn to integrate all principles into your movement
Continuous flow of movement throughout practice from first movement to last – as if gently pulling a thread of silk so as to keep even tension on the thread and not break it
Use the mind, not force, to make movements – the mind leads the body – your intentions lead your movements
Connection requires that the whole body moves as one unit with all parts connected; when one part moves, all parts move together
Sink your weight so that your lower body is heavier and your upper body lighter; root yourself into the ground through your feet as your weight naturally sinks with gravity.
Breathe naturally through the nose. Ideally, let your exhales be longer than your inhales, to make room for new fresh air, and ideas
Be soft and adapt, yield and flow like water; soft overcomes hard
According to Chinese Medicine, the world is a harmonious and holistic entity where all living beings are viewed in relation to their surrounding environment. Man is part of this holistic entity, and should take his cues from nature. One of the most effective ways to stay healthy is to adopt a lifestyle that harmonizes with the changing seasons. This includes consuming different foods according to the season: the Chinese widely believe that we are what we eat, and most dietary guidelines follow nature’s cycles. According to TCM, if we enjoy seasonal foods that are similar in nature to the external environment, we will remain in harmony with the environment, adapt better to changes in season, and stay healthy. The basic principle calls for "nourishing yang in spring and summer time, and nourishing yin in autumn and winter time." Likewise, as the seasons and weather change, so too should our sleep patterns and daily activities.
True health and happiness cannot be found outside of us. Rather, a strong connection to nature, a meaningful sense of purpose, and a sense of belonging to network of family and community are fundamental to feeling comfort and peace. When we are in balance with ourselves and each other, we can turn our energies toward achieving our dreams in a healthy, harmonious way.
Yang Sheng is a philosophical approach to life and good health rather than a prescriptive “therapy.” While there are numerous ways you can apply Yang Sheng in your daily life and there is no one “best practice.” Rather, it is about finding a range of healthy habits that appeal to you and fit comfortably with your lifestyle. The beauty of Yang Sheng nourishing life principles is their simplicity and obvious nature.