The Contribution of Daoist Yangsheng Philosophy to the Modern Self-Care Movement
by Anda Pudule
The concept of self-care, especially in health related disciplines, has become increasingly relevant in today’s world. The main reason lies in the slow realization that modern medicine only focuses on the symptoms rather than the cause. Looking to medicine to treat illnesses and injuries has become unquestionable. These attitudes often neglect to pay sufficient attention to the causes of the contracted diseases. These are the main reasons why self-care has become more popular than ever.
Today’s generations have realized the importance of taking care of their health and are continually looking out for ways and methods to preserve health and attain longer life. One of the challenges of the modern world is its fast-paced environment which leaves little time for the individual’s needs. High stress lifestyles and a constant lack of time have created unhealthy habits. Mind-Body exercises and philosophies have gained recognition as a way to regain control and balance in one’s life.
Amongst different philosophical ideas Daoist Yangsheng is one that is becoming more popular. Yangsheng literally means nurturing and preserving life’s energy. In a similar way to the modern self-care movement, it looks into keeping one’s body healthy by means of proper diet and various exercises.
This essay is going to explore Daoist Yangsheng and its beneficial qualities. I will look into the modern self-care movement today and at the ways Yangsheng philosophy can be of great help to those who are looking to improve their lifestyle, those looking to achieve better health and longer life, and most importantly those looking to achieve a level of balance and harmony within themselves and the environment they live in.
Before the first scientific achievements in medicine, people had to cope on their own in the face of illness. The era of modern medicine has changed all of that. “At the low point of self-care – around the 1960’s in the West – self-care and self-medication were regarded as unnecessary and potentially even unhealthy practices. This paternalistic approach to medicine, supported by health systems designed to treat sickness (rather than to prevent disease) remains a familiar aspect of healthcare in many countries to this day.”
Undeniably medicine has had a positive impact on generations of people. Statistics show that “In 1900, the leading cause of death was influenza and pneumonia – which peaked in 1918 when between 50 and 130 million people around the world died in a pandemic.” Because medicine has improved greatly since then, the statistics nowadays display a completely different picture.
Research done by the World Self-Medication Industry shows that “Chronic “lifestyle” conditions such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes are taking over from infectious diseases as the primary cause of death and disability in most countries. These chronic non-communicable diseases are significant in that they are substantially preventable through better self-care – by individuals avoiding risk factors such as smoking and obesity.” This clearly illustrates the relation between illness and lifestyles led by many people nowadays.
According to the American Heart Association statistics, in 2012 in the US: “among children ages 2-19, about 1 in 3 are overweight and obese.” As well as in the US, obesity is one of the developed world’s problems that are in many cases directly caused by poor lifestyle habits.
Besides physical issues, mood disorders and depression can also be caused by the pressure of the stressful environment we live in today. “Approximately 18.8 million American adults, or about 9.5 percent of the U.S. population age 18 and older in a given year, have a depressive disorder.” In order to avoid these health issues, the importance of self-care has to be strongly highlighted. Proper, balanced diet and exercise is important to each individual and it is also each individual’s personal responsibility.
“Self-care is what people do for themselves to establish and maintain health, prevent and deal with illness. It is a broad concept covering hygiene, nutrition, life-style, physical activity, avoiding risks (e.g.smoking, obesity) and responsible self-medication with nonprescription medicines (OTCs).”
The concept of personal responsibility to live healthily is widely recognized today and has generated a demand in the global market. The industry of self-care products has become incredibly wealthy. The products in demand include but are not limited to “…over-the-counter medicines and complementary medicines, such as vitamins and minerals, herbals, homoeopathic and aromatherapy products.” Market research shows that “The global market for over-the-counter (OTC) drugs is expected to surpass $70 billion by 2015.”
The increasing understanding of the importance of self-care clearly demonstrates that people around the world are eager to have more knowledge and control over their health.
Daoist Yangsheng has a great potential to provide the knowledge necessary without unnecessary costs. Yangsheng is a body-mind philosophy in Chinese Traditional Medicine which has helped generations of people to find balance and harmony in their lives. The health issues addressed are of particular relevance nowadays when the impact of incorrect eating and sedentary lifestyle has started to show. As Mike Adams once said, “Today, more than 95% of all chronic disease is caused by food choice, toxic food ingredients, nutritional deficiencies and lack of physical exercise.”
It is significant that Yangsheng practice focuses on preserving life and health before the illness, therefore it has much to contribute to the Western approach where the main focus lies on healing diseases after they have been contracted. Despite the concept of self-care becoming more and more popular in the West, not many pay sufficient amount of thought to it before experiencing some health difficulties of their own.
In the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine, the Emperor asked his minister Qi Bo if he thought people had started to age faster and die younger than they used to. The answer to that was: “In the past, people practiced the Tao, the Way of Life. They understood the principle of balance as represented by the transformations of the energies of the universe. They formulated exercises to promote energy flow to harmonize themselves with the universe. They ate a balanced diet at regular times, arose and retired at regular hours, avoided overstressing their bodies and minds, and refrained from overindulgence of all kinds. They maintained well-being of body and mind; thus, it is not surprising that they lived over one hundred years.”
In order to understand the ways Yangsheng can contribute to the modern self-care movement in the world, it is important to understand how Yangsheng works and how it can bring individual benefits to those who practice it.
It is essential to first appreciate the importance of the life force Qi (气) in order to unlock the potential healing powers our bodies possess. “Qi is the foundational energy of the universe, the basic stuff of the Dao, the life force in the human body, and the basis of all physical vitality.”
Qi has many levels of energy and one of the strongest qi levels is jing (精) which is the essence. “The basic concern for all longevity seekers and Daoist practitioners is to regulate and slow down this process of decline, to keep jing in the body, and to reverse the downward movement of qi. By reverting essence back to qi through various physical disciplines and meditation practices, they renew life and enhance vigor, laying the foundation for ultimate energetic refinement.” It is believed that unbalanced qi energies lead to diseases and ill health; therefore the concept of Yangsheng self-care practices is based around balancing and nurturing them.
The various practices and aspects of Daoist Yangsheng include food Yangsheng, Yangsheng mind-body exercise, balancing emotions, environment and lifestyle that promote personal well-being. Each of them is designed to help people regulate their qi and return to their more balanced and natural state, which in turn will reward them with better health, energy levels and longevity.
Since Daoism promotes returning to the natural state and living in harmony with nature, it is essential to return to the natural state as often as possible. Yangsheng principle states that: “one should attempt to spend as much time in the midst of natural settings, far from the pollution and artificial environs of cities, as possible.” Whilst it is sometimes complicated, if not impossible, to influence the environment, all the other aspects of Yangsheng are easily manageable by practitioners regardless of their gender, age, location or wealth.
One of the aspects often discussed around the world is the topic of healthy eating. One has to agree that the unhealthy eating habits are common nowadays and are a cause of health issues such as obesity and chronic illnesses around the world. A lot of money is spent on diet pills, health supplements and implementing fad diets that simply aren’t healthy and the results are not efficient enough.
CBS news have reported that Americans spend about 35 billion dollars a year on weight loss products, however the results are far from ideal: “I estimate I spent, you know, tens of thousands — maybe $100,000 — on different kinds of diet products, diet services,” says Wendy Shanker. “And I was still fat.” The main problem lies in the fact that diet industry makes people believe the weight loss is easy and they don’t have to change their lifestyles in order to regain fitness.
“The Taoist diet relates the five basic flavors with an element of nature: sweet (earth), salty (water), sour (wood), bitter (fire), spicy (metal). They believe that becoming greedy and putting one flavor on a pedestal above another causes you not to taste at all, so it is important to balance the flavors in order to reach internal harmony.”
Daoist diet offers its own philosophy to everyone who is open to use it in their daily life. It does not require expensive food ingredients or a radical lifestyle change in order to become healthier. The main focus lies on consuming home grown, seasonal ingredients: “Each individual generally becomes adapted to the climate; foods that are eaten in a hot country may not be suitable for a colder climate. It is advisable to eat food that is grown locally and in season. Food that comes from a distance may not be fresh or may have been stored, but above all it is probably out of season.”
It is also essential to enjoy food slowly so that each different taste can be fully appreciated. The art of mindful eating includes the knowledge of when to stop. Yangsheng practitioners suggest that stopping before being full is the best way in controlling one’s portion size and preventing overeating. It comes as no surprise that Daoist diet has already sparked some interest around the world.
People were born to eat different types and varieties of food. Daoists agree that having small amounts of different food is essential in the quest for long and healthy life. Niraj Naik in his essay ‘Twelve longest living cultures in the world’ points out that: “Long living cultures tend to eat a wide range of foods everyday. Japan recommends eating 30 different varieties of food daily. Macau and Singapore have some of the world’s largest ports providing a richly diverse range of cuisine from around the world.” Unfortunately, nowadays many countries produce and consume large amounts of the same type of food which can be the cause of health related issues. These patterns can be changed with sufficient knowledge that can be readily provided by Daoist Yangsheng food philosophy.
“Those who think they have not time for bodily exercise will sooner or later have to find time for illness.”
Regular exercise is one of the modern self-care’s corner stones. Exercise has the ability to strengthen the body and immune system, improve wellness and physical fitness. It has also proved to help with mental disorders, such as depression. Daoist Yangsheng exercise includes Taiji, Qigong, Daoyin, Daoist breath regulation, Five Animal Frolics and others. Daoist exercises focuses not only on the body itself, but also the mind and spirit.
Kevin W. Chen in his essay on Yangsheng points out: “These exercises focus on the integration of body-mind-spirit, cultivate oneness or emptiness through regulating breathing, body and mind, and intend to eventually achieve a state of harmony and peace within, or reach a high level of spirituality.” These exercises are used to relieve tension, stress and anxiety in the body and mind.
There has been much research done on the subject and the outcomes demonstrate the potential benefit Yangsheng exercise could bring to the modern self-care movement. One such research was conducted in the United States, by Dr. Cecilia Rosenfeld in 1976.
“After practicing the Internal Exercise and experiencing an immediate improvement in health, Dr. Rosenfeld decided to prescribe these exercises to her patients. Internal Exercises were taught to her patients and within one week, about 80% of the patients showed positive results.
Then eight nurses were hired, taught about the Internal Exercises, and trained in the instruction and supervision of patients. Afterward, several patients were assigned to each nurse after the patients were examined and given a prescription of specific Internal Exercises. Most patients reported that they experienced immediate improvements in health, without feeling pain or discomfort, and the nurses themselves reported that they had boundless energy even after a day of performing and demonstrating the exercises.”
Since the pace of life in today’s world has greatly increased compared to fifty years ago, another major problem today’s generations face is stress. Researchers have proven that stressful lifestyles cause many health issues: “…evidence shows that chronic stress can result in muscle tension and fatigue for some people.
For others, it can contribute to stress hypertension, migraine headaches, ulcers, or chronic diarrhea.” Whilst there are many self-help books available on stress management in daily life, they tend to focus on dealing with stressful events and experiences rather than taking a better look at one’s lifestyle and well-being requirements.
It is hard to find harmony when emotions are out of balance; therefore balancing them is of the utmost importance in Yangsheng philosophy. “Acting in accordance with Yin Yang theory, fear restricts joy, anger restricts anxiety, joy checks grief, grief blocks anger, and anxiety prevents fear. In this way it is possible to allow the emotions to check and balance themselves in a very natural manner.”
Interestingly, these Daoist ideas have already reached the Western world in the field of psychology. “The principles of Taoism are an integral element of many Western counseling theories. Principles such as authenticity, or being true to oneself, and the need for balance in the universe, the yin and yang, are two examples that can be found in many theoretical practices. Methods based upon the teachings of Tao have been effectively interwoven into Western therapy.”
The concept of Daoist well-being lifestyle describes each person’s daily routine and includes the activities conducted throughout the day such as walking, sleeping, eating and having sex. “A Taoist lives each day fully and actively. This means life is rich and full of experience. This is important to provide an edge to keep one healthy, flexible and strong.”
Yangsheng practices also highlight the importance of sex. A satisfying sex life can be an essential part of personal well-being. Dr. Felice Dunas believes that: “Not only does a healthy body lead to better sex, but better sex produces healthier bodies and souls.” In the end, Daoist beliefs are that life should be enjoyed and every new day should be welcomed with excitement.
As previously mentioned, the modern self-care concept includes all of the things individuals can do for themselves in order to increase the well-being and quality of their lives. Nowadays people are aware they need to take care of themselves, eat proper diet and exercise; however it is not easy for everyone. Christine Meinecke in her article ‘Self-care in a toxic world’ points out that “Medical and mental health professionals pioneered the concept of self-care by prescribing healthy lifestyle changes and stress management behaviors. Unfortunately, these prescriptions are often ignored because they require hard work and perseverance.”
Daoist Yangsheng offers a different perspective on self-care whilst still focusing on the issues that are relevant around the world. By implementing designed self-cultivation practices, such as Taiji and Qigong, while applying Daoist knowledge to the food choices and daily activities, it is possible to achieve a healthier body and a happier mind without needing unnecessary health supplements or medical drugs.