Featured Article

Yang Sheng: The Art of Nourishing Life

Solala Towler

Yang sheng, the art of nourishing life, covers a wide variety of health, spiritual and immortality practices dating back to the times of Laozi and Zhuangzi, and perhaps further back to the early days of Chinese (wu) shamanism. Some believe the practices of yang sheng go back at least 3700 years, to the time of the Yellow Emperor. They include qigong or energy practices, meditation, internal alchemy practices (neidan), and such subjects as medicine, dietetics, astrology and fengshui.

While many, if not all, of these practices have their roots in traditional Daoism, many are practiced in modern times without any Daoist connection at all. Modern acupuncture, for instance, is practiced widely by people trained in what is called Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which is actually a form of modern, standardized, Communist medicine, often extremely disconnected from its Daoist roots. In addition, many forms of fengshui being practiced in the West are heavily influenced by Buddhism. Most taiji instructors know nothing about Daoism, understanding only the most basic principles of yin and yang. Indeed, many qigong instructors are unfamiliar with the Daoist cosmological principles underlying many of these practices.

While this can seem problematical to traditional Daoists, it is interesting that these practices work anyway. People are healing from chronic or even acute illness and injuries; they are living longer, more fulfilling lives; their level of stress and frustration is dramatically decreased; their sex lives are healthier and, for some, the internal alchemy practices provide ever new and deeper levels of spiritual development.

Many modern teachers and practitioners believe that the greatest influence that Daoism will have on the West will be from these yang sheng practices. The number of people interested in becoming ordained Daoist priests (daojiao) will always be smaller than the number of people interested in health or longevity practices.

The number of people practicing qigong and taiji is steadily rising. Taiji classes can be found in almost every local community center, including many specialized classes for seniors. Events such as World Taiji Qigong Day1 attract thousands of participants worldwide. Organizations such as the National Qigong Association (NQA)2 bring together teachers, healers and practitioners from across the country, networking teachers and healers with students and patients. The NQA holds a national conference each year, with participants from around the country as well as from overseas. The first qigong clinic was opened in 2000 at the Five Branches Institute of Chinese Medicine in Santa Cruz. This clinic offers medical qigong treatments (fagong) only, instead of the usual acupuncture/herbal treatments used in most Chinese medical clinics in the West.

Clearly there is much interest in these “nourishing life” practices in the West. While some traditionalists may decry the separation of these practices from their root source, many modern Chinese teachers do not see this as a problem. While much of the world of traditional Daoism has been lost in modern China, the Daoists with whom I have had contact in China actively promote these practices in the West by lay practitioners.

“We have common points, you and I,” I was told by Abbot Liu from Xiaqing temple at Laoshan, a sacred Daoist mountain I visited in 1997. “American people love nature. American people love peace. They pursue good health. They have many common points with Daoism, so it is very natural for them to study Daoism. American people also have many scientific achievements. I think that if they can combine Daoist ideas and scientific achievements they will be very strong.”

Then he went on to say, “Study Daoism bit by bit, one thing or aspect at a time. I know that American people love freedom, freedom of the individual. Develop Daoism in America according to the reality of America.”

Of course, when charlatan teachers and healers come from China to the West, making erroneous claims about their abilities and charging outrageous amounts of money, the reverse can happen. Many people in the West do not know how to recognize an authentic master or healer. They believe that being Chinese is identical with being authentically Daoist.

Modern China is also full of qigong teachers who travel through the countryside doing slight-of-hand tricks and making false promises to people while charging large sums of money. In response to such conditions, Wang Qingyu, a well-known qigong master from Sichuan province says: “In modern times you must be careful to differentiate between the circus type of Daoism, the religious form and the science of nourishing life. China is a culture where all kinds of bizarre things exist all the time. Most of the amazing things you see are tricks.”3

So, how does one differentiate authentic teachers and practices from false ones? Part of the answer is more education on the part of the Western students and practitioners. The next part of the answer lies in the practices themselves. Daoists are known for being very practical in their teachings. While they may have some elaborate arcane rituals, they also place a great deal of emphasis on experiential learning. The following is an example of a Daoist cosmological qigong form that I teach and use as my personal practice.

A Personnal Narrative

My own interest in Daoism and especially with the yang sheng practices came about, as with many people, through major health issues. I had the misfortune or bad karma, to come down with three serious diseases at once—giardiah, amoeba histolytica, and infectious hepatitis. Needless to say, I was extremely ill for some time. The problem, though, was once I had been treated and had recovered from these ailments, my health did not return.

I still had many complaints—from extreme fatigue, digestive problems, hypoglycemia, insomnia, dizziness, short-term memory loss, as well as deep depression and anxiety. Finally after years of this, I was diagnosed with CFIDS (Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome). Unfortunately, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is a mysterious disease to Western medicine, who see it as a sort of auto-immune disease, somewhat like AIDS. And, while Chronic Fatigue Syndrome will not kill you, it can destroy your life, as it came very close to doing with mine. In addition, there is no known cure. The only thing Western medicine has to offer is bed rest and lots of vitamins. Many people are confined to wheelchairs or bedridden, losing jobs, careers, marriages and their lives to chronic illness.

Fortunately for me, Chinese medicine has very good treatments available—including herbs, acupuncture and qigong. After being completely bedridden for three months, I embarked on a course of Chinese “food” herbs. These are specific formulas to be used as part of one’s ongoing diet. Originally Chinese herbs were thought of as highly nutritious, beneficial food. Some of the ancient Chinese formulae, or recipes, are made up of herbal “soups” rather than teas. Herbs were eaten as part of the daily meal, cooked into soups or broths or eaten as salads. There were, of course, purely medicinal herbs, but for the most part, herbs were used as a means of strengthening or maintaining the integrity of the body. As Stephen T. Chang says, “Herbs give everlasting strength, whereas regular foods give only temporary strength.” 4 These herbs got me out of bed and strong enough to begin a qigong program, which further improved my condition.

During my convalescence I began studying the works of Ni Hua Ching, a contemporary Daoist master. One passage that really spoke to me was the following:

People have different natural cycles, which can be organized according to the five different phases of energy. Sometimes you do better in life and other times you do poorly. When your cycle is high, you enjoy your life more than when you are having difficulties in a low cycle. To harmonize the flow of your life, don’t become excited by the high points or depressed by the low. Always remember the high is built by the low. You should respect the time when you are in a low cycle, the times when you are a nobody. Don’t struggle to be somebody, become you will only be a somebody when other people say your are a somebody. “Somebody” is built on the moments when you are a nobody. This guidance is not the same as ordinary teachings that only look for high respect and exaltation and don’t value the low. When you look up to the high, spiritually and emotionally you are low. When you respect the low, spiritually and emotionally you are high.

When people have a low cycle, they think of it in an emotional way and feel terrible. They want to die or kill themselves. They feel boring, unattractive and uninteresting. They receive no attention or respect from anyone, and they don’t love themselves either. They don’t realize that their low cycle can make them wise. Life is built up by each uninteresting moment, not just by excitement.

The more I read Master Ni’s works, as well as the other Daoist classics such as Laozi and Zhuangzi and began my own practices of meditation, taiji and qigong, the more I realized that these Daoist practices held a key to health, happiness and deep spiritual experiences.

Then again, I have never been a joiner and I was not about to start now. The idea of joining the Daoist religion never entered my mind. Indeed, many of the people I have met in the West who do Daoist practices are also “non-joiners,” highly individualistic people who value their personal freedom very highly.

As Abbot Liu said: “ American people love freedom, freedom of the individual. Develop Daoism in America according to the reality of America.” Of course, even in China this type of belief has had a long history. There have always been “wandering Daoists” or what some people refer to as “mountain Daoists” who have wandered freely, studying with various teachers in different parts of the country. These people have a long tradition of being healers, ritualists, alchemists (both internal and external), poets, and when the situation warranted it, priests. (See Opening the Dragon Gate, translated by Thomas Cleary for a good example of a modern Mountain Daoist).5

There has always been room for both lay Daoists and ordained Daoists in China. This is even more the case in modern times because much of religious Daoism was destroyed by the Communists. Yet the temple-style Daoism is alive and thriving in modern China, according to one of the few Western priests to have been ordained in the Longmen tradition in modern China, Alan Redman (Shi Jing). 6

In a recent conversation with him, I was told of many temples being rebuilt and tucked away in mountainous regions. His own ordination, which was foretold in a dream to one of his lineage teachers, is a sign of how open the Chinese Daoists are to sharing their tradition with the West.

“There’s no separation in China between the teachings of Laozi, the philosophy, if you like, and the temple practices,” he said. “They are all interconnected.”

This means that the cultivation practices, which are often thought of as the more spiritual practices, as well as the yang sheng practices cannot, in reality, be separated from their Daoist roots. While it is true that the emphasis in the Chinese temple tradition is not as much on the qigong type of practices popular in the West, qigong practices are done by priests there along with their regular meditation and chanting practices.

One of the reasons Daoism is so little understood in the West is that it’s source materials, the Daoist Canon, is such a massive collection of seemingly diverse and even contradictory materials, including texts on meditation, internal alchemy, mythical geography, religious liturgy, health practices, Chinese medicine, folk stories, hagiography and more.

Certainly not all modern Daoists are ordained priests, and never have been. But the teachings of the ancient sages can be learned on many different levels and used in many different ways—from simple attitudes towards life and working with change and flexibility (the Watercourse Way), to deep internal alchemical practices designed to help the practitioner achieve immortality or “attaining the Dao,” to energetic practices such as taiji or qigong, which are designed to help the practitioner live a long and healthy life (ostensibly so that they can better practice the deep spiritual cultivation).

Tranquil Sitting

As previously mentioned, the practices of yang sheng include such things as qigong and meditation. Indeed the Yangsheng Yaoji (Compendium of Essentials on Nourishing Life, a collection of materials dating from the Han to the Jin, 2nd century B.C. to 4th century B.C.E.) says:

In order to cultivate the arts of nourishing life one must first of all practice meditation. During all everyday activities such as walking, standing, eating, drinking, sleeping, and resting, one must continuously meditate. It makes no difference whether it is night or day. One always preserves one’s essence and breath in their entirety, thus one always prevents the divinities of the body from leaving. Thereby long life is attained. 7

And from a Han dynasty work, the Wenzi, we find these words:

It is most important to nourish the spirit, it is of secondary importance to nourish the body, The spirit should be pure and tranquil, the bones should be stable. This is the foundation of long life. 8

So we see that the practice of internal stillness or what is sometimes referred to as Tranquil Sitting is seen as a foundation to all the nourishing life practices.

Much of what we know of today as qigong practices were developed as aids to meditation. The earliest form of qigong that we know of is dao-in, based on the Five Animal Movements, which were, in turn, based on actual animal movements. Daoists have always been greatly involved with observing and learning from nature.

These dao-in practices, which date back to the Han Dynasty, were created in order to lead the qi into its proper channels by utilizing various stretching, twisting, and self-massage movements. This was done in order to help the practitioner be as healthy as possible in order to practice deep meditation.

In the Zhuangzi we find the following passage:

To pant and puff, to breath our the old breath and draw in the new one, practicing bear walking and bird stretching, longevity as his goal — such is the life of the scholar who practices yang sheng, who nourishes his body and who hopes to live as long as Pengzu, who lived for more than eight hundred years!

While dao-yin was an important part of Daoist and Chinese health and longevity practices, it was all done in service to the meditation practice, which was itself considered an “immortal practice.”

Various methods of meditation were used at different times and by different Daoist sects. Some involved visualizing and meditation on the various divinities who were thought to dwell in each organ of the body. By clearly imagining each divinity, complete with the proper color, clothing, and energetic aspect, the practitioner was able to sanctify and re-energize each organ. 

Other meditation practices involved guiding qi through various pathways in the body, including the well-known Smaller Heavenly Orbit, or what is often referred to as the Microcosmic Orbit. The chong mo or central channel was also used to clear and strengthen the energy body. All of these practices were aimed at preparing the practitioner for the higher immortality or spiritual practices.

While energy and spirit have always been linked together in Daoism the so-called internal alchemy practices were designed to transmute or transform the energy or qi state to a spiritual or shen state. Then, to take the alchemical process a step further, the spiritual or shen state is then transformed into Dao, or universal consciousness.

Then again, Daoists were also very practical about all of this. If one is sick, unbalanced, ungrounded or emotionally confused it is very difficult to enter the deep spiritual realms of the immortality practices. Thus, they developed their health practices to help the student of the Way stay as strong, healthy and clear as possible. In this way they were better able to keep up with life’s demands as well as delve deeply into the meditation practices that were necessary for the Daoist adept.

But if one is interested in spiritually evolving or “attaining Dao,” one must pay attention to the internal cultivation practices as well as the movement forms. We must remember that the qigong or movement forms are there to support our spiritual practice, much of which consists of stillness or meditation practice.

An ancient Daoist text, the Daoshu, says: “First one must concentrate one’s mind, then illuminating wisdom will radiate within, the myriad projections appear empty and are utterly forgotten, the mind is serene and tranquil.” 10 It is in this serene and tranquil mind that we can discover the Dao, our source as well as our destination.

The other Daoist terms for meditation are found in the Tianyinzi, translated by Livia Kohn as, first, cun, “concentration of the mind by which one can see one’s own mind” and secondly, xiang, “closing one’s eyes to see one’s eyes.”11 Lastly, the Neiguan Jing tells us that if we can keep our mind empty and abide in non-action (wu wei), even if we do not wish for Dao, yet Dao will come to us, naturally. 12

The ancient Daoist sages described the body as the storehouse of our inner nature. They taught that we must take care of the body in order for us to have a place for our spirit to dwell. In this way, our qigong practice provides a foundation for our spiritual cultivation. It is important not to neglect our stillness practice if we are to fully enjoy the benefits of our movement practice. Like yin and yang, both movement and stillness are important to our overall cultivation.

Daoists believe that it is important to keep a balance between movement and stillness. Too much movement will exhaust one’s qi, while excessive sitting will cause stagnation in the body. The key here is to not abandon one for the other and to experiment and see what is the proper balance for your own cultivation.

Like yin within yang, or stillness within movement, that place of serene stillness within our movement gives birth to that subtle and mysterious movement within the stillness of our meditation. That movement brings us into greater harmony, greater awareness, and greater experience of the eternal and ever-evolving Dao.

Where Do We Go From Here?

For the many people in the West who practice yang sheng longevity practices that have their roots in traditional Daoism, the fact that they are living longer, healthier and more productive lives is enough.

In the West the emphasis has been on methods and techniques, while traditional Daoism places much more emphasis on cultivation. Zhouwang (a meditation practice called “sitting and forgetting”) is much more familiar to Chinese Daoists than the Microcosmic Orbit and other qi-moving techniques used in the West. This practice, the progenitor of Zen, is considered a beginning practice as well as an advanced one. (For more background on the connection between Zen and Daoism see The Tao of Zen by Ray Grigg).11

How then are we in the West to connect with deeper levels of cultivation? For most Western practitioners the idea of doing immortality practices seems vague and mystical. The fact that many of these teachings are passed on in an oral fashion in China makes them even more obscure. Similarly, many modern translations that are being published in the West contain errors and can be misleading to the uninitiated.

Fortunately, more and more people are traveling to China and making contact with traditional Daoists there. Also there are organizations such as the British Daoist Association, which are bringing Daoist priests to the West to teach and create some dialogue between East and West.

Any time a type of cultivation or practice is taken out of one culture and transplanted into another there is the opportunity for errors and misunderstandings. However, as we in the West become more educated about these traditional teachings we can, perhaps, begin to deepen our own cultivation.

At the very least, we will be able to live long and happy lives, with the energy to pursue our goals and dreams, as well as emotional and spiritual well-being. The ancient Daoist goal of becoming one with Dao may seem like a very lofty one, but each of us, in every moment, are given the opportunity to connect with the oneness of Dao or become splintered into fragments of personality that our modern culture is so good at supporting.

By pursuing these spiritual/health practices we can live richer, fuller lives and, in the process, be able to help others attain their own goals of health, wholeness and a balanced life.

1. www.worldtaichiday.com

2. www.nqa.org

3. Wang Qinyu, The Empty Vessel journal, Vol. No. 1, pg.22.

4. Chang, Steven J. The Great Tao, Tao Publishing, 1985, pg. 125.

5. Cleary, Thomas, Opening the Dragon Gate, Tuttle & Co., 1996.

6. British Taoist Association, 16 Birch View,Epping, CM 16 6TJ, United Kingdom.

7. Sakade, Yoshiobu, Longevity Techniques in Japan, (included in) Taoist Meditation and Longevity Techniques,ed. Livia Kohn, Center for Chinese Studies, 1989, pg.7.

8. Ibid, pg 6.

9. Robinette, Isabelle, Taoist Meditation, State University of NewYork Press, 1993, pg. 61.

10. Koh, Livia, Seven Steps to the Tao, Monumenta Series, 1987, pg. 14.

10. Ibid, pg 13.

11. Ibid, pg. 90.

12. Grigg, Ray, The Tao of Zen, Charles Tuttle, 1994.

[Solala has been involved with Daoist practices such as taiji, qigong and meditation for almost 23 years now. He has been publishing The Empty Vessel: The Journal of Daoist Thought and Practice, for almost 18 years. He has written a number of books on Daoist thought and practice (including Cha Dao: The Way of Tea and the Inner Chapters of Chuang Tzu) and has been leading tours to China to study qigong and other Daoist practices in the sacred mountains of China since 1997. In addition, he has recorded four cds of meditation/relaxation/movement music using Tibetan singing bowls, both Chinese and Native flute and harmonic overtone singing. He can be reached at solala@abodetao.com or at his website at www.abodetao.com ]

Do you like this? Please share it:
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.