Morning sunrise with mist over mountains. Yangshen Chinese medicine for health.

Nourishing Your Body and Life force: The Art and Practice of Yang Sheng

What will be covered in this article?

  • A quick look at ‘Yang Sheng’ and its history
  • How should we live in harmony with nature for health and longevity
  • Dietary considerations for health and vitality
  • Mental emotional considerations and impacts on health
  • Lifestyle suggestions for nourishing life

Introduction:

From Chinese medicine, there exists a profound concept known as Yang Sheng, which encompasses a holistic philosophy to nurturing life and sustaining health. Rooted in ancient wisdom and Daoist principles, Yang Sheng offers a comprehensive approach to well-being that seeks to harmonise not only the physical body but also the mind, spirit, and the intricate relationship between humans and their environment. In this article, we will delve into the essence of Yang Sheng, tracing its historical origins, exploring the various dimensions it encompasses, and understanding how it guides dietary and lifestyle practices in the pursuit of cultivating optimal health.

What is Yang Sheng?

Yang Sheng, often translated as “nurturing life,” is a core principle derived from ancient Chinese medicine philosophy. Yangshen represents the principles of cultivating and nourishing life, protecting physical health and living in harmony with the natural rhythms of nature, as well as our own inner nature.

History:

The roots of Yang Sheng can be traced back to ancient China, where it emerged as an integral part of Daoist and Confucian philosophies. Some of the earliest documented reference to Yang Sheng dates back to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), where it was a prevalent concept among scholars and physicians. Daoist sages like Sun Simiao (581-682 AD) who was a consultant for the emperor during the Tang dynasty, held a profound understanding of Yang Sheng and its principles. He was considered an enlightened or immortal sage who understood the importance of nurturing one’s life and vital essence. Some scholars consider his work to also be the reason gynaecology and women’s underlying health became a highly specialised field of treatment in ancient Chinese medicine.

Key areas of health:

The ancient philosophy of Yang Sheng helps us to understand the importance of living in harmony with our life and inner being, with the core focus of self-cultivation. This incorporates the physical aspects of health, as well as our emotions, mental attitudes and beliefs. When looking at Yang Sheng, there are for main aspects of health which should be considered.

  • Living in harmony with nature and the seasons
  • Regulating and maintaining balance in one’s diet
  • Cultivating the mind and spirit
  • Cultivation of the physical self through work, exercise and rest

Living in harmony with nature:

Living in harmony with nature includes adapting to the seasons, predominately consuming foods which grow in season, exercising and resting which is appropriate for the time of year, as well as living according to our age and health status.

Spring

According to Chinese medicine, Spring corresponds to the Wood element and is closely connected with the Liver and Gallbladder. During Spring, all things in nature begin to blossom and usher forward an energy of renewal and revitalisation. During this time, we are encouraged to wake with the sunrise, perform daily stretches and exercise, spend increased time outdoors, wear more loose comfortable clothing, and eat more lighter and fresher foods. In general, Chinese medicine generally advises against consuming raw or cold foods, so instead opt for lightly steamed or wok-fried foods. Pickled vegetables and fermented foods can be a wonderful addition, as these foods are slightly sour and correspond to the Liver. As Spring is also a time of winds, it is vital cover one’s neck and shoulders with a light scarf on windy days. This is to help prevent onset of cold’s, flu’s and flaring of symptoms.

Spring in Chinese medicine
Summer in Chinese medicine

Summer

Summer is related to the Fire element, as well as the Heart and Small Intestine organs. It is also secondarily related to the Triple Burner and Pericardium organs. In the Summer time, the Yang has reached its peak and the days become long. During this time we are advised to wake with the sunrise, eat fresh foods, maintain hydration, exercise frequently, and work hard. As fruits begin to become plentiful, we can safely enjoy more fruit in our diet. Things like watermelon, rock melon, grapes and berries are a great addition as these have high water content and natural sugars, which can help to maintain our hydration and prevent heat-stroke. Although we may feel inclined to eat more raw and cold foods or salads, always ensure to have these with other cooked foods and/or warming spices. During the Summer time, our Yang moves out towards the extremities and away from our Spleen and Stomach which are responsible for our digestion. If we consume too much raw or cold foods during Summer, we can be prone to digestive symptoms like bloating, reflux and abdominal discomfort, as the digestive fire is too weak. This is why it is advised in Chinese medicine to never consume ice-cold beverages or foods, and instead stick to cooked foods or lukewarm beverages. When exercising, it is generally considered beneficial to produce a light sweat without pushing oneself to exhaustion. As sweat and other thin fluids belong to the Heart and Pericardium, daily exercise with light sweat is a great way to ‘vent out’ heat, which will assist with emotions, sleep quality and energy levels.

Autumn

The season of Autumn corresponds to the Metal element, as well as being closely associated with the Lungs and Large Intestine organs. During Autumn, the atmosphere begins to cool and nature becomes still. Leaves turn colour and trees start to wilt. To live in harmony with Autumn, we are advised to slow down and rest more. As the Yang in our bodies begin to descend towards our vital organs, we should begin to cultivate our energy by practicing breath-work, yoga, taiqi or qigong. Retire early at night and wake up gently in the mornings. Focus our diets on only cooked and warming foods, which includes soups, freshly baked vegetables and slow cooked meats. Beef and lamb can be wonderful additions for individuals who experience cold limbs and poor blood circulation during the colder months. To prevent the onset of colds and flu’s, Chinese medicine advises us to always cover our necks and shoulders, especially when in the cold or windy elements. As Autumn is a time of change and inner still, this can also be a great time to discard what is no longer of use for us.

Autumn in Chinese medicine
Winter in Chinese medicine

Winter

According to Chinese medicine, Winter is regulated by the Water element and is connected to the Kidneys and Bladder. During the season of Winter, Yin has reached its peak and the Yang has descended into the depths of our body and vital organs. The environment becomes cold and all things in nature slow down. To cultivate our energy during this time, we are advised to wake later in the morning and retire early, perform moderate exercise without sweating, and consume only warm and cooked beverages or foods. Concentrate on baked foods, warming broths, soups or stews, and consume seasonally appropriate vegetables like cooked kale, broccoli, cabbage, pumpkins and cauliflower. Winter is a great time to contemplate, meditate and do inner searching. Chinese medicine also advises to keep sexual activity to a minimum during Winter, as the Kidneys correspond to our vitality, life-force and essence. It is important to protect our Kidney essence like protecting a flame during a frost.

Regulating and maintaining a balance in one’s diet:

In Chinese medicine, diet and nutrition is regarded as the initial form of preventative medicine. That is, focusing on foods which sustain and increase our health and support our body constitution. Regulating one’s diet is primarily focused on eating foods which are good for our individual constitutions, which can be different from each person. That is, dietary advise which is applicable for one person may not be applicable for another. If you are interested in which foods are suitable for your body constitutions, it is best to see a qualified practitioner of Chinese medicine as they will be able to give you specific dietary suggestions to help support your health. However, there are some general considerations which we can focus on when it comes to food and healthy eating practices.

Cooked salmon. Health eating.
  • Eat at regular times each day
  • Consume foods which are grown predominately in season
  • Avoid overconsumption of cold, raw or Damp-forming foods, such as dairy, grains, sugar, raw salads, ice-cold beverages and smoothies.
  • In healthy individuals, avoid excessive consumption of fluids and instead consume fluids when you actually feel thirsty.
  • Eat moderate amounts of meat or other protein source which is appropriate to your activity levels.
  • Focus on eating broadly, with a variety of cooked vegetables.
  • Try to eat a balance of the six flavours, which include sweet, bland, sour, pungent/acrid, bitter and salty.
  • Eat food in a calm and quiet environment. Be mindful and thankful for the food you have in front of you.

A special note: Dietary considerations and advise is very nuanced and depends on the individual constitution and underlying health conditions. If you are planning on making significant changes to your diet or have any concerns, always first consult trusted general practitioner or trusted allied health professional.

Cultivating the mind and spirit:

Cultivating the mind and spirit relates directly to our mind, emotions, attitudes and beliefs. How do we see the world? What are our attitudes towards people and situations? What are our values in relationships? How do we experience and respond to conflict or change? Are we in control of our emotions or do they control us?

Many of these questions relate back to what we call the Shen or ‘Heart Spirit’, which is directly related to our conscious experience, thoughts, intuition and higher reasoning. In particular, the Heart and Pericardium, being the pivotal organs which process our emotions, are responsible for how we absorb experiences and give our energy out to the world. That is, the Heart is our conscious awareness in life, whereas the pericardium, being the Heart protector, filters our experiences and dictates what we allow in or how we freely give our energy to people or situations. The Heart and Pericardium also process the entire spectrum of emotions, which relate directly to the internal organs in the body.

These organs and emotions are as follows:

  • Heart: Joy, excitement, happiness and laughter
  • Spleen: Worry, anxiety, melancholy and rumination
  • Lungs: Sadness, grief and loss
  • Kidneys: Fear and aimlessness
  • Liver: Frustration, irritability, rage, anger and feeling stagnant
Woman meditating in sunrise. Mindfulness meditation.

In Chinese medicine, it is believed that being chronically stuck in any of these emotions can disrupt our Qi and lead to an imbalance between the internal organs. As an example, persistent grief is considered to deplete the Lung Qi resulting in symptoms like shortness of breath, coughing or low immunity. Excessive worry, rumination and anxiety is believed to weaken the Spleen Qi, which can lead to numerous digestive symptoms. Chronic fear consumes one’s Kidney Qi, leading to a loss of vitality and energy levels. Recurring frustration, fits of anger or repressed emotions stagnates and impairs the free movement of Liver Qi, leading to symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, digestive disorders or high blood pressure.

Based on these Chinese medicine beliefs, it is thought that moderation of emotions is key to sustaining health and internal balance. Of course, we can not always predict or control what happens in our lives, and there will always be times where we experience unexpected grief, fear, frustration or anxieties. The important message here is that we as humans need to find tools in which we can navigate our emotional landscapes and work towards a sense of balance and emotional equilibrium. Luckily there are many tools we can use to sustain this.

  • Mindfullness meditation
  • Yoga and pilates
  • Taiqi and Qigong
  • Intentional breath work
  • Exercise
  • Counselling and psychotherapy
  • Connection with friends and loved ones

To conclude on the cultivation of the mind and spirit, it is important to understand that we can, and should, experience the full spectrum of emotions. If you experience loss, its okay to feel sadness or grief. If you have an upcoming meeting or difficult situation, its okay to experience anxiety. Conversely if you experience a situation which is a cause for happiness, then embrace the joy and contentment. The key is always maintaining balance of the mind and emotions. So in those particularly difficult periods, use the tools to feel your emotions, but gently move towards a state of emotional balance and equilibrium.

Cultivation of the physical self:

This particular aspect of Yang Sheng relates to our work-life balance, sleep patterns and quality of rest, level and frequency of exercise, specific practices for energy cultivation, and affairs of the bedroom. The following considerations can be taken into account:

Exercise:

It is recommended to exercise for at least 20-40mins a day to mobilise the Qi and Blood and prevent emotional stagnation. Exercise is beneficial for all age groups and can include things such as walking, running, weight lifting, swimming, yoga or pilates. Taiqi is especially recommended for the aging population to sustain mobility, strength and balance. The key to choosing an exercise regime is to find something you enjoy and stick with this. If you haven’t regularly exercised, then start slow and build yourself up, and always consult your general practitioner if you have any health concerns or health condition which may affect your ability to perform certain exercises.

Sleep:

The following recommendations mainly originate from daoist philosophy and beliefs, however some additional remarks have been added concerning modern-day considerations.

  • Maintain a regular sleep routine (this will gradually shift according to the seasons as stated previously)
  • Do not have exposure to blue-light or screens at least 1 hour before bed – instead listen to some gentle music or an audiobook
  • Avoid alcohol before sleep
  • Keep mobile phones, iPads and laptops at least 3 meters away from the bed
  • Sleep in a room which is free from clutter
  • Try to minimise light exposure in your room – it is best to have a room which is completely dark and slightly cooler
  • Do not sleep under an open window or have a fan blowing directly in your direction – in Chinese medicine Wind and Cold are seen as pathogenic factors which result in colds, flus and flaring of symptoms.
  • Try to be asleep by 10pm every night to support your Liver and Gallbadder organs to detoxify and replenish the Qi and Blood.
  • Work towards sustaining at least 7 hours of sleep every night
Woman sleeping on bed. Chinese medicine Yangshen principles.

Work-life balance:

“Work-life balance” may appear to be quite self explanatory by the title, but there is a hidden truth within this notion. When most people hear this term, they probably assume it means we shouldn’t overwork ourselves at the expense of our leisure and pleasure in life. Whilst this is true, it is only a half truth. The balance between work and rest means avoiding working to excess, but also avoid indulging in comfort and leisure to an excess as well.

“The way of nurturing life is to constantly strive for minor exertion but never become greatly fatigued and force what you cannot endure. Likewise, running water does not grow stale, the doorstep does not become bug-infested. The reason for this is that they move”

Sun Simiao in Bei Ji Qian Jin Yao Fang (Essential Formulas Worth a Thousand in Gold to prepare for Emergencies), vol 27, translation by Sabine Wilms.

Therefore, based on this premise, we should use our energies and work towards our goals and aspirations, but ensure that we take time to rest, recuperate and enjoy the small moments in life.

Affairs of the bedroom:

Affairs of the bedroom is a concept which derives from eastern daoist philosophy. The act of sexual intercourse and intimacy can be a source of deep nourishment and connection, but the ancients believed that when used inappropriately or excessively, it was seen to be vitality depleting. For men, sperm is considered a direct manifestation of Jing (Kidney essence), which is responsible for physical vitality, longevity and reproductive health. According to daoist thinking, excessive ejaculation was seen to directly deplete the Jing essence causing depletion of physical vitality. Based on this understanding, those who followed the daoist path, would generally advice seminal retention. In modern day, the advice is moderation of ejaculation, which is dependant on the virility, age and health status of the individual.

Further to daoist philosophy, the orgasmic experience for women was considered more physically nourishing, as their orgasm is almost entirely an internal experience. That is, women do not experience the direct physical manifestation or loss of Jing essence that men do. Instead, women were thought to be more prone to depletion of Yin and Blood due to their monthly menstrual cycle and child birthing.

Sexual intercourse for women should be comfortable and feel naturally in-tune with their physical and emotional state. Becoming sexually intimate when experiencing discomfort or emotional imbalance can lead to stagnation in the Qi and Blood, and disrupt the Heart-Kidney Axis.

So what can we take away from the concept of affairs of the bedroom? Sexual intimacy should be enjoyed when their is natural desire from both people. For men, they should practice moderation and decrease the amount of times they ejaculate according to age and health status. For younger men, this can be more freely enjoyed. For the years past 40, the frequency should steadily decline to preserve health and longevity. Lastly, sex should be used as a healing practice which merges the energies, deepens intimacy and harmonises the balance of Yin and Yang between and within both individuals.

Summary

Yang Sheng offers a comprehensive approach to health and wellbeing by advising us on specific practices which we can use to harmonise the physical body, mind, spirit. The predominate areas of focus used to cultivate health and longevity include, living in harmony with nature and the seasons, maintaining good dietary practices and sleep hygiene, cultivating one’s mind and physical self and regulating emotions.

1 thought on “Nourishing Your Body and Life force: The Art and Practice of Yang Sheng”

  1. This concept of adapting food and activities to the seasons is fascinating! I’d love to learn more about specific recommendations for Spring.

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