Can the ancient concept of Yang Sheng nurture our wellbeing and fit into a time-strapped lifestyle? Alice Whitehead investigates…
Before ‘self care’ there was Yang Sheng – the Chinese philosophy of nuturing healthy habits to nourish life. Rather than wait for your doctor to prescribe medicine, this Taoist approach encouraged the idea of prevention.
“It very much puts you in the driving seat of your own health,” says Chinese medical practitioner, Katie Brindle (katiebrindle.com), author of Yang Sheng: The Art of Chinese Self-healing (£15, Hardie Grant). “These are simple techniques and steps you can take yourself in order to feel better, without the involvement of any outside therapists.”
These steps can be quickly incorporated, too. Dating back to the second and third centuries BC, the concept of Yang (to nourish or nurture) and Sheng (life or growth) is that our vitality and longevity can be sustained and strengthened through holistic healthcare practises such as exercise, meditation and dietary choices.
“The concepts of health maintenance and disease prevention informed how the ancient Chinese would interact with their doctors. People would pay the Chinese medicine doctor when they were well and would stop paying the doctor when they fell ill. The doctor would routinely ‘prescribe’ a healthcare regime including meditation, qigong exercises, Chinese herbs and acupuncture treatments,” says Alexandra Lees, co-founder of Wu Wei Wisdom, a unique system of integrated therapy, based on ancient Taoist and traditional Chinese medicine (WuWeiWisdom.com). “This contrasts with the traditional Western medical approach, where we typically only visit the doctor when we are sick. It is a very self-empowering concept as it teaches us not to rely, or become dependent upon, other people or things for our health.”
The aim of Yang Sheng is to balance and support the energy of mind and body – the Taoists refer to this energy or life force as ‘qi’ or ‘chi’ – and take affirmative and regular steps to prevent ‘dis-ease’ in the longer term.
“Practising Yang Sheng helps you to understand how your body works, not only physically, but mentally, emotionally and energetically – and how all these levels interact with each other,” Katie adds. “Once you understand this, you can then take steps to balance yourself using small tweaks to how you breathe, your diet, exercise, emotions and your sleep habits.”
And the best bit? Most Yang Sheng practices can be done at very little cost and easily slot into your daily routine. “Yang Sheng places emphasis on the idea that a series of small and regular actions and lifestyle choices can over time add up to produce larger benefits for health,” explains Alexandra. “It should be an ongoing process of health maintenance that we apply over the course of our life.”
1. Get outside
“The simplest way to apply Yang Sheng is to attune to your natural environment and the seasons,” says Alexandra. “The ancient Taoists taught us that if we can live in harmony with nature it will support our health and wellbeing. This includes adding seasonal ingredients to your meals to ensure a balanced and nutritious diet that promotes healthy qi flow.”
2. Try healing sounds
Practise this ancient breath technique, advises Katie. “As you take a long breath out, make one of the following sounds: Ssssssss for your lungs, Chooooo for your kidneys, Shhhhhhhh for your liver, Haaaaaaa for your heart and small intestine, Whoooo for your stomach, spleen and pancreas and Herrrrrrrrr for your trunk or core. Visualise the matching organ and imagine old, stale energy coming out of it, like mist. Repeat five times for each organ. Ideally, do three rounds.”
3. Feel grounded
“Wu Ji is a very simple, yet powerful qigong standing position, that is both energising and relaxing,” says Alexandra. “Stand with your shoulders relaxed, arms loose at your sides, palms facing backwards, knees slightly bent, feet hip-width apart. Visualise a stream of flowing energy running from the top of your head, down through the centre of your body following a nice ‘S-shape’ in your spine, and then out between your legs and into the ground. Notice any areas of tension or discomfort in your body. Imagine breathing deeply into and softening the muscles in these areas.”
4. Get combing
“Combing is an age-old Chinese selfmassage therapy which works on the notion that every meridian (energy channel) in the body has a connection with the scalp,” says Katie. “Combing stimulates your qi (energy) and increases blood flow, which boosts nutrients. This daily ritual promotes healthy hair while reducing stress and tension, leaving you feeling rejuvenated and relaxed. I recommend a jade comb and practising first thing in the morning to stimulate the scalp and give you a wakeup boost. Start at the frontal hairline and slowly comb backwards, covering all of your head with a light but firm pressure. If you have long hair and it gets caught, shorten your strokes. Then, starting in the middle of your scalp, comb each side of the head down from the crown until you reach the nape of your neck.”
5. Connect to the breath
“Our minds can often be busy with heightened stress, causing many of us in the West to ‘pant’ rather than ‘breathe’. So, focus more on the breath, observing the rhythm and how the breath enters and leaves the body,” says Alexandra. “Even one minute will give your mind a simple, singular point of focus which is deeply restorative. Aim to create a calm, long and rhythmical breath that extends deep into your diaphragm – the Taoist call this the ‘Natural Breath Technique’.”
6. Self massage
“Gua sha is a therapeutic self-massage technique that has been widely practised in China for thousands of years. It involves using a round-edged tool, traditionally made from jade or metal, to press-stroke the skin until redness appears,” says Katie. “After gua sha most people report feeling better both physically and emotionally, with a feeling of weightlessness and relief. In studies it has been shown to boost immunity and reduce inflammation in the body. Start gently, use oil and gently press-stroke up to eight times across your skin, focusing on the chest, back and neck areas.”
7. Drop your shoulders
“Often we hold tension within our body without even realising it,” says Alexandra. “So, several times a day, observe the position of your shoulders and how tense they are. Consciously drop and lower your shoulders away from your neck and chin and visualise exhaling out tension in your body as you do so.”
8. Apply some pressure
This acupressure exercise is instantly calming, says Alexandra: “Loosely hold your thumb in the palm of the other hand (either hand is fine), so that your hand is wrapped around the whole of your thumb. Take a few deep breaths.”
9. Eat mindfully
“We often eat on the go and rush our meals,” says Alexandra. “Instead, try choosing a fork or spoonful of food from your plate and chew your food slowly for one minute at a time, noticing the flavour and texture of each mouthful. This will not only mean your meals become more satisfying, but it will also support your digestion and you’ll be more aware of when you are full so it will help prevent over-eating.”
10. Offer gratitude
“To sensitively balance the energy of the mind we need to avoid mental and emotional overwhelm,” says Alexandra. “This is particularly important at the end of each day when we should be unwinding and preparing for a good night’s sleep. Before bedtime, take a minute to write out a short list of everything you are grateful for that day. Don’t over-think it, just write out the first things that come to mind. This will help you process your busy day, set aside any unresolved issues and create a positive mindset that is more conducive to a restful night’s sleep.”
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