Updated: Apr 26, 2021
By Daryl Fang R.Ac
Nope, it’s not the name of a master meditator/martial artist/holy monk who lives in the woods.
It’s a concept; a philosophy of living; and when practiced on a daily basis, it becomes part of the fabric of your daily routine. It isn’t really a singular task that you do and check off at the end of the day. It’s really more of the way you approach your tasks and the mindset (or your attitude) that you take when you go through the mundane, daily motions of living.
And what powers the beating of the heart of the concept of Yang Sheng?
The idea of nurturing and self-care.
Ever heard of the concept of “an ounce of prevention is better than an ounce of the cure” or, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”? Well, that’s one facet of the concept of Yang Sheng; that when practiced as part of one’s daily routine, helps a person look after themselves well enough so that they prevent certain problems from becoming (through neglect and constantly dismissing them as minor nuisances) full blown health conditions.
And given that we are living in extraordinary times right now with this new Coronavirus / COVID-19 threat looming over the horizon, this concept of nurturing the spirit and taking good preventative measures to look after you becomes so much more important.
When broken down into its two characters, “Yang” and “Sheng”, this phrase quite literally means (or as literally as I can try and explain it with my limited – but hopefully ever-growing in vocabulary – understanding of my mother tongue) “Cultivating Life” or “Nourishing Life”.
The first character 養 means “nurture” and the second character 生 means “life”.
(For the acu-geeks out there who may want to have a look at the character breakdown and how it relates to this concept, start here with this pretty academic but rather insightful article: https://www.monkeypress.net/blog/yang-sheng-養-生-nourishing-life)
In modern day terms, this concept of nurturing a life can be compared to being given your first tamagotchi as a kid. In order to help it thrive, you would have to care for it that goes beyond just giving it food and water. You are nurturing the Tamagotchi pet by playing with it, paying attention to it, giving it love and care. (Now if you are old enough to remember tamagotchi’s then you’ve made the writer of this article feel a little less alone in her Jurassic-period age cohort!).
Well, if you imagine that your own health is the equivalent of your childhood tamagotchi, you get the idea then that dismissing your body’s “check engine” lights on a regular basis means that you’re headed towards internal tamagotchi self-neglect. When at some point, your body is just going to curl up, stop working and make you take notice so you can finally take care of it.
However, if you practiced the philosophy of Yang Sheng and made good on your promise to look after your internal tamagotchi as part of your regular self-care routine, then the “check engine” lights wouldn’t go on quite as often.
Common ones I see regularly in my practice:
Chronic generalized stress and anxiety
Digestive upsets like IBS
And the list goes on…
So what does Yang Sheng look like when applied to everyday living?
In most eastern-oriented medical (this is my side of the TCM camp), lifestyle, martial and esoteric arts, are daily rituals and routines that help a person nurture their physical, mental and spiritual health. Given that we’re all self-isolating and taking preventative measures to protect ourselves; the concept of Yang Sheng comes in handy because ALL OF US are being asked to stay healthy and strong so that we can ride out the storm and emerge healthier and stronger than when we started.
A daily ritual can be as simple as:
Doing a simple day to day check-in with yourself mid-day at work (“did I breathe / drink water / have lunch today?”)
Making sure you take an hour before bed to “power down” and switch off all your devices so that you can wind down before sleeping
Taking the time to plan out well balanced meals each day so that you can manage energy spikes (and/ or corresponding slumps)
Attend to your day’s priorities (simply just making it a habit to be kind to yourself in thought)
Going slower and taking it down a notch when you’re trying something out for the first time
Now that we sort of get the idea of the daily ritual part of self-care, let’s now bring back the idea of prevention being better than the cure.
What happens when regular check-ins with yourself turns into a protective “warding” effect that occurs when nasty stuff gets thrown at your body?
“Protective warding” is the preventative side of things with the daily cultivation of self-care rituals. The more you make these routines a normal part of your everyday life, the cumulative effect of practicing self-care enables both your body and mind to becomes more RESILIENT.
Resilience is often defined as:
The ability to be happy, successful, etc. again after something difficult or bad has happened or
The ability of a substance to return to it’s usual shape after being bent, stretched or pressed
Think of yourself as a sort of super-stretchy person. You can be pulled, stretched, warped out of shape and squished by life’s various pressures. If you practiced the concept of Yang Sheng, all that stretching and squishing by the demands of life and unexpected circumstances wouldn’t knock you too badly out of shape. You areable to bounce back through having the protective benefits of a solid self-check-in and self-care routine.
In ancient China, Yang Sheng was cultivated in daily eating practices as well as in exercises like qi gong or tai qi, in the pursuit and practice of preventative health. If anyone has ever witnessed a group of tai qi practitioners in a park, you’ll notice how calm, focused and quiet they are. This is what happens when the mind and body work together in harmony and it is what tai qi practitioners aspire to do when they cultivate a spirit of mindfulness in present, focused bodily movement that harmonizes with one’s breath.
The nurturing of the body’s internal qi or vital energy is what allows the body to become resilient to disease, and prevent common health conditions from settling in and becoming full blown chronic problems later in life. This practice of tai qi developed during the transitional period between the Ming and Qing Dynasty and has spawned several schools or styles; many of which are still currently being practiced today – mainly with the aim of cultivating health (through the harmonization of breath, mind and body).
It is this same qi that Acupuncturists work with when patients come in and ask for treatments. Instead of using movement and breath to cultivate the internal qi of the body, needles are used to nurture, move, slow down and gather qi when they are inserted into the meridians of the body. Although I have to admit that 80% of the patients I treat are actively seeking treatments for conditions that they already have, I always add a component of preventative treatment when I select the points that I wish to use.
Qi can be gently encouraged to flow during a treatment, not only do I direct the flow of qi down a certain meridian to ease tension / pains or brighten the mood of a heavily weighed down mind, I will add specific acupuncture points to keep the healthy flow of qi moving for longer periods of time post-period.
The more the body’s qi flows freely, the more easily the obstruction (whether physical or emotional) is removed. When that obstruction to qi flow is removed, the longer the body is able to maintain this healthy flow of qi for longer periods of time and hence, prevent the settling in of disease states or conditions that become chronic if left unattended for too long a period of time.
Yang Sheng can be applied to preventative healthy eating habits as well. Patients are sometimes told to eat certain foods that will help them recover faster and allow their bodies (and / or minds) to become less susceptible to certain conditions recurring.
For instance, I sometimes advise patients who come in for cold or flu treatments to abstain from drinking chilled or icy cold drinks or consuming cold, raw foods after their treatment until their symptoms get better. The idea behind this is to keep the lungs warm as external cold conditions (i.e. introducing cold foods or drinks into the internal bodily environment) injure the lung and prolong the severity and duration of a patient’s cold symptoms. Instead, patients can warm up their internal environment with warm / hot foods like garlic, ginger or turmeric which are all foods that warm, strengthen and regulate the lungs; thereby strengthening the body’s immune system and preventing colds.
So in a quick wrap-up, Yang Sheng really is more than just a routine and a laundry list of “I must do this to feel this way and look this zen“. It becomes a natural way of living and a philosophy on how to live life by the habitual practice of self-nurturing and self-care.
It’s a nice way of being able to check in with yourself, self-assess and do the work to make sure that you attend to them before they become an unsurmountable health problem.
Sometimes, taking a step back and slowing down really is the best way to get ahead. The wise and often quoted entity called “They”, say that: “You cannot pour from an empty cup.” So perhaps today, make sure that you take a moment to slow down, smell the roses and enjoy that coffee sitting down – instead of running with it sloshing around in an adult sippy cup, towards the bus, while frantically trying to get to work. Otherwise that cup really will be empty when you pour it accidentally on yourself on your epic bus-chase! (Been there, done that!)
So if anyone gives you any heat for taking a half hour afternoon nap, or rain-checking on dinner plans because you’re feeling a little under the weather or just a bit stretched out, tell them you are practicing the art of Yang Sheng and working on “nurturing life” while you strengthen your ability to bounce back from adversity and life interruptions.
And lastly, I leave you with this.