Introduction to Yang Sheng

Kevin W Chen, MPH, PH.D.

The Concept of Yang Sheng

Yǎng Shēng (養生) may be the most important concept in TCM and Chinese health culture. The Chinese word “Yang” means to nurture, take care of, and nourish; “Sheng” means life, birth, and vitality.  Together “Yang Sheng” means to nurture or nourish life — fostering health and well being by nurturing body, mind and spirit in harmony with the natural rhythms, and with universal laws.  Sometimes Yang Sheng is also translated as health preservation, life cultivation, or life nourishment.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (1997) 1 defines Yang-Sheng as “Daoist practices, especially through breathing and directing the breath (ch’i) to prolong life and attain immortality.”  This definition reflects the fact that many books about and techniques of Yang Sheng have roots in Daoist philosophy or practice.  However, Yang Sheng is not just practiced by Daoism, but by many different schools of health, such as Confucianism, Buddhism and martial-arts traditions.  More importantly, some of the oldest classic works on Yang Sheng, such as Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic, appeared before Daoism was formed, representing the general wisdom of Chinese health. So Yang Sheng can not be simply labeled as Daoist practice.

Yang Sheng as a health discipline is taught in most TCM schools in China. According to the definition in a recent textbook of “Life-nurturing Science in TCM”,2 Yang Sheng is “the type of subjective and objective behaviors with which people take care of their life consciously through various means and methods, which is the reappearance or application of their deep understanding of the laws of entire life  developments. …It is also a mind-body health activity achieved through material and spiritual unification.”

Life is about balance and harmony.  Yang Sheng is a common accessible practice for ordinary people to cultivate health and harmony through daily activities.  Rather than treating disease, the focus is on maintaining balance through an awareness of our connection to nature, to our own bodies, and to the spirit.

Health preservation (instead of disease treatment) is a central feature of TCM practice, and is significantly different from western medicine, which focuses on disease, illness, and dysfunction.

Yang Sheng is a way of life for all people at all times. It is a powerful practice that can preserve and improve health when engaged in daily.

The Contents of Yang Sheng

There are many books on the subject of Yang Sheng in Chinese, and the contents may vary from one text to another.  In general, Yang Sheng activities can be applied through the entire span of human life; from birth, growth, aging to death.  It refers to activities used to enhance health and achieve longevity by various methods and comprehensive techniques, such as cultivating spirit, adjusting diet, exercising the body, regulating the moods, moderating sexual life, adapting to the climate, and so on.

The appendix includes a brief table of contents from the recent official textbook, “Life-nurturing Science in TCM” (Liu et al. 2007)2 used in China, which gives the reader a general idea of how Yang Sheng science has been taught in Chinese medical schools.  I chose this textbook as an example because it was published in both Chinese and English by the most authoritative Chinese publisher in health (the People’s Medical Publishing House) for foreign students in TCM schools.  It is interesting to notice that Yang Sheng science is a required course for all foreign students who study Chinese medicine in China, but it is just an optional course for Chinese students who grew up in China.  This policy may reflect the fact that knowledge of Yang Sheng has been taught through the Chinese socialization process in daily life; young Chinese learn about Yang Sheng through osmosis, or daily socialization, therefore, may not need to take a full academic course for it (This may not be true in modern China).

Unfortunately, if you read only the definition of Yang Sheng Xue (Life-Nurturing Science), or just the table of contents, you may be easily misled on what Yang Sheng is really about, since 70 to 80% of the contents in Yang Sheng books are about physical health or bodily preservation, such as diet, environment, adjusting to climate, sexual activities, exercises, bathing, leisure activities, medicinal, massage and techniques to take care of specific body parts and so on (some people even misspell Yang Sheng as body-nurturing (养身).)  However, Yang Sheng inherently includes three interrelated components: nurturing body, mind and spirit, as all of them are necessary components of a healthy life.  As pointed out in Tina Zhang’s article, “nurture life is mainly accomplished by cultivating one’s mind. If the mind is calm and clear, the spirit is pure and healthy, when the spirit is healthy, how can the illness enter you?” However, cultivating the mind and nurturing spirit is the subject of Qigong study in TCM, which is covered by a different textbook 3 in medical schools. Therefore, I would like explore why the contents of Yang Sheng have mostly been bodily health, whereas the key to successful Yang Sheng is actually cultivating the mind and nurturing the spirit.

Since Yang Sheng is the common practice to cultivate health and harmony through daily activities, and maintain balance by concentrating on well-being rather than treating sickness, we need to first understand the Chinese concept of “health” before we can understand the key to Yang Sheng.  According to the Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic 4, good health is a state of “harmony” — a healthy life “takes harmony as ultimate, and takes peace as expectation” (以和为贵,以平为期).   It also stated, “A peaceful man will not get sick” (平人者不病也). What is a peaceful man (平人)?  Wang Bin in the Tang dynasty made a good note on this as “not excessive and not insufficient” (不太过也无不及), which clearly marked out a moderate and harmonious state in life.  The classic book Zhong Yong (中庸) stated, “no expression of happiness, anger, sadness and joy, is called moderate, while being expressed with restriction, is called harmony.”  Here we can see the key to good health is a state of moderation and harmony.

What are we harmonious with?  What will happen if the harmony is broken?  These are the broad questions of the entire TCM system – good health is the result of harmony with the heaven, earth and humanity (天地人和).  To be harmonious with heaven, we need to change clothing and adjust to the environment to synchronize with different climates or 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 any excessive consumption of the five tastes (sour, sweet, salty, bitter and spicy – TCM considers all foods or tastes the combination of these five basic tastes), 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 (blaming), hate, sorrow (annoyance), anger, worry (fear) (怨、恨、恼、怒、烦) so that we can get along with others peacefully.  According to TCM, many sicknesses are the consequences of excessive emotions, which can hardly be treated by any known medicine or simple formula.  Complaint hurts the spleen, hate exhausts the heart, sorrow depletes the lung, anger hurts the liver and fear/worry affects the kidney.

When our lives are in discord with heaven, we could catch a cold or suffer heatstroke, which can be easily treated.  When our lives are in discord with the earth, imbalanced intake of the five tastes, we may end up with high blood pressure, high blood sugar and/or high cholesterol — very common in modern society.  We could develop chronic sicknesses, which are more difficult to heal, but still treatable by medicine.  However, when our lives are in discord with other humans due to the five poisoning emotions, it becomes a personality and character issue, and there is simply no medicine or formulas that can effectively treat these disorder(s).

Recent studies have reported that 80% of all visits to primary-care doctors in the U.S. were related to psychological distress,5 and 70% of all cancer patients had emotional disturbances 2-3 years before their diagnosis. The only known ways to treat the symptoms due to discord with humans is through mind-body cultivation, such as meditation, Qigong, Taiji, Reiki and Yoga practice, to develop a detached attitude and to cultivate an empty mind (恬淡虚无).  This was why there were so many different mind-body cultivation traditions in Chinese history as most of them tried to achieve balance and harmony with the inner self through cultivation, which may have eventually led the practitioners to the level of emptiness or nothingness.  I have heard many stories of personality changes after qigong or mind-body practices. In the addiction treatment facility where I worked, counselors told me that the clients tended to be much less likely to become angry or to fight with each other after starting the daily qigong meditation program.

In summary Yang Sheng is the root of Chinese medicine, and the foundation of human health. To become a true Yang Sheng expert or a mind-body cultivator one needs the guidance of good teachers. When good teachers are not around, we can learn from each other by sharing and exchange.  Traditionally, teachers and students interacted with each other through long-distance travel and face-to-face meetings, which was the key to their personal cultivation, life fulfillment and truth illumination.  However, with our modern technology and communication tools (especially the development and widespread use of the Internet), we can be much better connected to one another, and have our own voices heard and establish our own platform of sharing.  More importantly, there are many emerging health-related issues that may not be addressed in the ancient literature but which need our current inspiration and understanding; for example, the effects of high-rise buildings (away from grounding qi), electric lights (breaking the boundary of day and night), over use of antibiotics and hormones (creating drug-resistant infections), computer screens and cell phones (strong electronic magnetic field) on our health, to name only a few.

In our new editorial board we have invited many experts in the areas of nutrition, mind-body cultivation, spirituality, sexuality and health, and complementary therapies to form a strong and knowledgeable team to support this virtual community.  Yang Sheng magazine or network will serve the purpose of sharing and improving our health practice and spiritual cultivation, and will enlighten more people who are searching for health, happiness and harmony within.   Please join us as part of this virtual community of mind-body-spirit cultivators.  We invite you to share your experiences and knowledge with your friends and acquaintances.  Together we can build a unique community of our own that is dedicated to a healthy, happy and harmonious life for all.

[Kevin W Chen is an associate professor at the Center for Integrative Medicine, University of Maryland School of Medicine (USA), and the founder and publisher of the Yang-Sheng network.  He is one of he few scientists who has both hand-on experience in mind-body-spirit integrative practice and active scientific research of the mind-body medicine with NIH-grants. ]

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