It is man himself, not Heaven, who governs his life, and he who abuses himself dies young, while he who takes good care of himself lives a long life.
Do not take good health as granted. Just as one should not forget danger in times of peace, try to prevent the coming of disease beforehand.
7th century CE
WHAT IS YANG SHENG?
Seal script pictogram for Yang Sheng
The Chinese character for Yang (養) means to nurture or nourish and the character for Sheng (生) signifies life or vitality. Yang Sheng can therefore be translated as nourishing life or the art of nourishing life. It forms the foundation work for Daoist cultivation practice and is the basis of the classical Chinese medical approach to health preservation and disease prevention. It is a tradition of self healing and self cultivation which emphasises taking responsibility for one’s own health and wellbeing by taking one’s life and nourishment into one’s own hands. Yang Sheng practice aims to strengthen the physical constitution, delay ageing and prolong life. It has long been part of popular culture as well as medical, martial and religious traditions throughout China. Whilst principally associated with Daoism, Yang Sheng was also influenced by the teachings of Confucianism, Buddhism, folk wisdom and shamanism.
The principles of Yang Sheng are founded on the natural laws governing the origin, development, changes and transformations of life. Their starting point is the insight that life itself is a continuous process of change. Nothing is immutable; all that takes birth grows, ages, dies and decays, in turn forming the seeds for the birth of something new. The ancient Chinese sages observed that these processes take place according to regular patterns mirrored in the planetary motions and seasonal changes of the year - the movements of Heaven. Health, well-being, prosperity and happiness, as well as the depth of our connection to Spirit, depends on the nature of our relationship to these rhythmic cycles. The flourishing of life in us rests on our capacity to attune ourselves appropriately to their expression in the different developmental stages of our lives, as well as their effects on our body and mind over the course of the day, month and year. Health in classical Chinese medicine is understood as intimately connected with our relationship to the processes of change and the movements of cyclical time which govern life on earth.
The ancient Chinese took a very process oriented view of health. Health, like wisdom, was not seen as something fixed we can possess so much as something we embody as an expression of an integral engagement with the constant flux of life. It is less a state and more a measure of the efficiency of the interconnected processes constituting our unique existence. Life is nourished through dynamic harmonious relationship between the elements of our inner environment and between this inner environment and the outer environment of nature and community.
A healthy and well nourished life is not characterised by never getting sick injured or run down, but by the ability to adapt effectively to changing conditions and circumstances, and respond appropriately to the inevitable ups and downs of life’s rhythms. Everybody gets unwell and injured from time to time and experiences fluctuations in their mental state and well-being; it is an integral part of being a living organism capable of learning and evolving. Living well requires wholehearted engagement with all areas of one’s life and this inevitably involves an element of risk, encountering our edges vulnerability and mortality, as much as bliss and peak experiences. A healthy body and mind is not one that is invulnerable to challenges and set-backs but one that is able to easily assimilate disturbances and grow and develop more strength as a result. When our bodies and minds are well ordered and in good health we are able to recover quickly and smoothly from injury and illness, maintaining openness to life and change.
Yang Sheng is not so much about perfecting the form of our life as engaging consciously and skilfully with the changing conditions of our existence, enabling us to refine the process of change itself. The archetypal embodiment of this ideal can be found in Zhuangzi’s “windflow personality” and the Daoist concepts of non-governance (wu wei), free and easy wandering, and the “natural state” or “un-carved block” (pu).
YANG SHENG, SPIRITUAL CULTIVATION AND THE PURSUIT OF LONGEVITY
Whilst Yang Sheng practices are aimed primarily at health cultivation Daoism does not see health as an end in itself but as a starting point for deeper work. Health and spiritual realisation are seen as constituting a single continuum and it is spiritual cultivation that is the ultimate aim of the Daoist arts and the ultimate context of healing in classical Chinese medicine.
In addition to health preservation and disease prevention Yang Sheng is famously associated with the attainment of longevity. In China long life is said to be one of the five blessings (wufu), alongside health, wealth, a love of virtue and a peaceful death. The longevity sought by the ancient practitioners of these arts was not, however, what we might assume from our modern standpoint. The medical practitioners, qigong masters and alchemists who developed the Yang Sheng tradition were not interested in merely extending their years or preserving their outer appearance, but in extending and augmenting youthful levels of health and vitality in order to improve the effectiveness of their art and develop the requisite resources and capacity to engage in arduous physical, energetic and spiritual cultivation into old age and up to the point of death, whether that death came at 80 or 90 or 120 years. In other words it is the quality and depth and fruitfulness of one’s time on earth that is the focus of Yang Sheng and not simply its duration.
Alchemy and spiritual cultivation are long and arduous pursuits taking a lifetime of continuous application of effort to develop advanced skill. The building up of one’s health and vitality (jing, qi and blood) and the extension of that vitality into old age was therefore a very desirable if not essential prerequisite for high level alchemical training and the attainment of self realisation or “immortality” through the Daoist path. For this reason Yang Sheng fa is often taught as part of an initiatory and foundational curriculum. In the context of Daoist spiritual training then, Yang sheng can be thought of as the practice of preparing and maintaining the alchemical vessel in which the spirit is nourished and grown. Or, to use another common metaphor: building the temple of the body so that the gods can take up residence within.
A solid foundation in Yang Sheng fa ensures that our system can cope with the stronger energetic and spiritual aspects of practice without becoming depleted and burnt out. If we think of our body as an electrical appliance then Yang Sheng fa can be thought of as a means of ensuring the internal circuitry, resistance and capacitance is adequate to cope with a significantly stepped up current. If we plug a poor quality or poor condition appliance into a three phase power source it will fry its circuits. Yang Sheng fa is thus a means of establishing the proper foundation for smooth efficient and safe progress in the energy and spiritual arts.
In addition to cultivation of the body and energy system Yang Sheng fa also traditionally encompassed the basic refinement of character necessary for the establishment of a firm ethical orientation to life. A strong moral foundation is considered an essential prerequisite for the spiritual aspirant in nearly all classical traditions. From the Daoist perspective it is understood that without this foundation the strong energetic cultivation practices inherent in Nei Gong and Alchemy training will feed the baser aspects of our nature and distort the expression of our spirit. In Daoist terms cultivation of Ming (the bodily and energetic aspects of being) must be balanced by cultivation of xing (the mind and consciousness aspects of being). As we build energy in the system it feeds our nature, amplifying all aspects of our psyche. If the psyche is disordered and distorted then the increased energy will fuel that disorder and distortion. In essence building energy builds power. If that power is to be harnessed for spiritual elevation and the good of humanity, and not for personal gain and domination of others, then it must be built on a solid ethical foundation. Nurturing virtue (de), then, is one of the primary purposes of Yang Sheng.
SELF CULTIVATION AND SPIRITUAL CULTIVATION
The Daoist path can be seen as encompassing two parallel and interrelated processes; self cultivation and spiritual cultivation. Self cultivation precedes and accompanies spiritual cultivation. Spiritual cultivation refines and completes self cultivation, imbuing it with fluidity spontaneity and authenticity. Self cultivation, in turn, grounds and balances spiritual cultivation in everyday reality as well as preparing the ground for relinquishing the self when the time is ripe. It is a kind of conversation between the Hou Tian (acquired) and Xian Tian (congenital) aspects of being. Yang Sheng (self cultivation) works with purifying, refining and perfecting the Hou Tian level whilst Alchemy and meditation (spiritual cultivation) works with the Xian Tian level, the deeper aspects of Nei Gong training sitting somewhere between the two. As alluded to above, we can set the relationship between these arts out as a spectrum with medicine and healing at one end and meditation and spiritual realisation at the other (see figure 1 below).
Figure 1. The spectrum of Daoist cultivation
In the context of Daoism, then, Yang Sheng can be seen as encompassing the practice of self cultivation. It lays the foundation work for building the inner resources and qualities of body and mind necessary for access to and safe, effective and ethical application of the deeper aspects of the Daoist arts, including classical Chinese medicine. As such Yang Sheng forms both a prerequisite and parallel accompaniment to spiritual cultivation, and an integral part of the education and toolkit of the classical Chinese physician.
APPLICATIONS AND METHODOLOGY
YANG SHENG FA AND YANG SHENG GONG
As with all Daoist arts, Yang Sheng can be divided into fa and gong. Fa means technique or method whilst gong translates as an inherent quality developed through the correct and consistent repetition of a practice over time. Gong is therefore the result of learning and applying fa. Gong implies work and skill. Nourishing life is an art, and like any art its mastery requires the creative and intelligent application of effort and technique over an extended period of time. The methods of nourishing life are simple and easy to learn but their effectiveness lies in their synergistic interactions when adopted together as a regular part of your daily routine.
YANG SHENG AND THE HEALING ARTS
As we have seen the Yang Sheng tradition bridges the worlds of Chinese medicine, physical and energetic cultivation and spirituality. Accordingly Yang Sheng fa are applied in a variety of ways to address different needs within these various fields of endeavour. Not everyone is drawn to the spiritual aspects of the Daoist arts, and many may simply wish to use the techniques of Yang Sheng to support and improve their health, wellbeing and physical performance. In this context Yang Sheng fa offers a uniquely holistic means to help heal and cultivate the body, calm and focus the mind, and establish and maintain optimum health in all areas of one’s life.
The function of Yang Sheng fa in medicine, health and wellbeing:
YANG SHENG METHODOLOGY
Like nearly all aspects of the Daoist arts successful Yang Sheng practice depends first and foremost on understanding the principles which underpin the various techniques and exercises. From ancient times Daoism and classical Chinese medicine have developed into a diverse array of lineages and schools, all with their own systems and their own techniques of Yang Sheng. The Yang Sheng tradition as a whole, then, is an eclectic body of teachings which has come to include hundreds of different exercises and lifestyle prescriptions and proscriptions. To the uninitiated Yang Sheng literature can seem like a bewildering collection of sometimes confusing and contradictory (not to mention downright bizarre!) advice, exercises and abstruse taboos. Grasping the principles and how and when to apply them in practice enables the intelligent and discerning use of such guidelines and exercises in forming a coherent system of practice capable of producing positive results.
The fundamental principles of Yang Sheng are essentially the same as those of classical Chinese medicine, being based on dispelling stagnation and optimising the flow of Qi by harmonising yin and yang and their expressions through the interrelationship of the five phases (wuxing) in the body and mind. The cornerstone of Yang Sheng is the integration of the microcosm of the human body-mind with the movements of the macrocosm - the earth, sun, moon, stars and planets. In practice this involves attuning ones physiology, psychology and behaviour to the cyclical rhythms of the natural world - yearly, monthly, daily. Yang Sheng techniques aim to achieve this through three broad categories of body-mind regulation.
The synergistic relationship between these processes is the key to effective practice and the transition from fa to gong. The highest attainment of Yang Sheng gong is achieved when we reach the stage of being able to abandon conscious application of methods and simply listen to and move with the currents of Dao in our body, energy and spirit; In other words when the unobstructed flow of life through us becomes the default state of our being and our presence becomes a spontaneous source of nourishment for others.
YANG SHENG IS A LIVING DYNAMIC PROCESS
Like all the Daoist arts the practice of Yang Sheng should never become mechanical. It should always be a process of living inquiry underpinned by deep curiosity and a gentle but sharp and discerning awareness. It is through applying the techniques with awareness and discernment that we build the desired qualities into our bodies and minds. We want to avoid running through the same set of exercises in the same way every day, or slavishly following a set of dietary guidelines. Such an approach will likely improve our physical health to a degree but this way of engaging will limit what we can get from Yang Sheng, it will certainly never lead to Yang Sheng gong! Every life is unique and to be effective as a proper foundation for vibrant health or spiritual growth, the practice of Yang Sheng must involve a continuous refinement of how we apply the techniques in our own life over time. The principles must take root in every aspect of our engagement with life and nourishment. This is what distinguishes it as an art and links it into a continuum with more profound levels of energetic and spiritual cultivation. As we develop and age (and as we evolve energetically and spiritually) we require different approaches to life and self cultivation. Remember, at heart, all the principles and practices of Yang Sheng are simply a means to discover how we, as unique individuals, may find the optimum set of conditions for us to flourish and contribute to the flourishing of others. In its broadest context Yang Sheng can be understood as the art of refining one’s ming.