Yang Sheng or The Art of Nourishing Life is a very long tradition that is the foundation of Chinese medicine and the basis of Taoist health cultivation. This vast body of knowledge gives us clues for staying healthy all year round.
Yang means taking care of one’s health, to nourish, whilst Sheng means life, existence and growth.
The content of Yang Sheng is very rich. There are many methods used in health cultivation that include diet, herbs, sleep, recreation, traditional exercises, bathing, massage, and Qi gong.
Yang Sheng shows us how we can cultivate the health of our body and mind, adapt to our environment, strengthen the constitution and ultimately prolong our life.
Over thousands of years Taoist sages have tried to understand the Universe and the natural cycles in nature. Certain philosophical systems such as Yin Yang and five element theory were developed as a result of this research.
Through observing nature, healers set out to find patterns within it and apply these discoveries in both the understanding & prevention of disease.
From a Chinese medicine perspective, the healthy body is a balance between two opposing forces.
When this delicate balance is disturbed, Yin Yang lose their ability to adjust and consequently we become more susceptible to outside influences such as the weather.
Certain climatic influences can invade the body when it is in this weakened state and lead to more serious diseases later on.
As we approach Winter it is a good time to pause and reflect on how we might best prepare ourselves for this busy time of the year!
In the Northern Hemisphere, Winter is the coldest time of the year. At this time of the year, vitality of the universe is stored and whilst Yang Qi subsides, Yin Qi is abundant.
For trees, Winter is the time to go into a form of hibernation called dormancy. As there is less sunlight in the winter & trees can’t produce as much food, they must conserve their energy. The sap sinks downwards & returns to the roots.
Growth is halted. This is a time of rest in the plant world, living off stored food until Spring arrives. This period of apparent rest is also an extremely important phase which helps the trees to gear up for the return of Spring.
We are also a part of nature and as such it is important to adapt to the changing seasons. When the energy changes in nature, it changes within us too. To be in the best possible health we must live in accord with these seasonal changes.
Winter is where Yin dominates. Yin represents cooling, quiet, storing, slowing, contraction & lowering.
Whilst Autumn begins the process of cooling and harvesting, Winter takes it to an extreme and this is why this phase of the seasons is called Tai Yin or Greater Yin.
Winter being the coldest time of the year is when yang qi in nature is gathered internally and the focus is on storage, and yin qi goes from weak to strong. This provides the optimal basis for growth in Spring.
The Huang Di Nei Jing or Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor is an ancient Chinese medical text that has been the foundational source for health cultivation and Chinese medicine for at least 2000 years.
The first text, Su Wen, covers the theory and diagnostics of traditional Chinese medicine.
The second chapter of the Su Wen is titled ‘The Great Treatise on Regulating the Spirit with the Four Seasons.’ It gives a description of the seasons and based on the concept of Yin Yang and the five element theory, how we can adapt and live in harmony with each.
“The three months of winter denote closing and storage. Water freezes and the earth breaks open. Do not disturb the yang – go to bed early and rise late. You must wait for the shining of the sun.
Allow the mind-will to enter into a hidden state as if shut in – not unlike someone with secret intentions, not unlike having already made secret gains.
Avoid the cold and seek warmth. Refrain from sweating as it causes the Qi to be carried away quickly. This is in resonance with the Qi of winter and the Way to nourish storage.” (Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen Chapter 2)
The focus of health in Winter is to nourish the Kidneys, constrain Yang and protect Yin.
In Five element theory, the Greater Yin phase is associated with the element Water.
The Water element in the body is associated with the Kidneys and Bladder.
The Kidneys by extension have an influence over the bones & marrow, ears and sense of hearing.
The Kidneys store energy and send warmth & energy out to every part of the body.
It is therefore very important to take care of and support the Kidneys at this time of year so that when Spring arrives we have plenty of energy to grow and function well.
“Do not disturb the yang – go to bed early and rise late. You must wait for the shining of the sun.”
This phrase encourages us to reduce our activity and sleep a little longer. This will help to store our Yang Qi (energy) and warm the interior. Becoming a little quieter, more rested and inward focused, allows us to harmonise with the energy of Winter.
The Nei Jing also adds:
“Allow the mind-will to enter into a hidden state as if shut in – not unlike someone with secret intentions, not unlike having already made secret gains.”
Our state of mind should also be quiet and reflective.
In Chinese medicine it is said that the Kidneys are the ‘residence’ of Will-power (Zhi). This means that the Kidneys determine our will-power.
In western society there is a strong tendency to be continually pushing and straining beyond one’s capacity. Constantly on the go, going all out to achieve one’s goals.
Whilst it is important to have direction and aims in one’s life to move forwards, if we continually push ourselves too much, this will quickly drain our energy (Yang Qi) and in the end, lead to burnout. Sadly this is not an uncommon story I hear in the clinic.
Winter is the moment in the year to reflect and rest.
When we achieve our goal, we might get a sense of satisfaction, but this is usually a temporary feeling.
This part of the text nudges us into a different state of being. It is as though we have attained our goals. Where we let go of the constant push to get somewhere and allow the mind to rest in the stillness within.
“Avoid the cold and seek warmth.”
Under normal conditions the weather will not cause ill health, as the body can adequately protect itself against external causes of disease.
The weather becomes a cause of disease (a pathogenic factor) only when the balance between the body and the environment breaks down, either because the weather is excessive or unseasonable or because the body is weak in relation to the climate.
Another situation where the climate may cause disease is when the weather changes very quickly and the body fails to adapt properly.
Cold is a Yin pathogenic factor & as such it tends to injure Yang. Although cold may invade the body at any time of the year it is generally associated with Winter,
Cold injures especially the Kidneys.
When examining the importance of keeping the body warm, it is worthwhile considering the feet!
There is a useful phrase, “Protect roots in trees and protect feet in man.”
Modern research suggests that the feet (and calf muscles) are the second heart and play a vital role in our blood circulation.
Regular hot water foot baths before going to bed keeps the feet warm and may prevent colds.
Maintaining the right temperature…
Fresh air and constant room temperature should be maintained in your living environment. The ideal temperature is 18℃. A low room temp can injure yang qi whilst a high room temp can let yang qi escape. Large room temperature differences can lower our immunity making us more susceptible to catching infections.
It is quite beneficial to be exposed to a degree of cold however. This helps strengthen our capacity to adapt to the environment and strengthen our tolerance to the weather. But this needs to be well managed according to our constitution.
Winter is an important time to focus on our mental and emotional health. It is a moment to cultivate our emotional health and find balance within ourselves. Meditation is a great way to cultivate a stillness within ourselves. This can have a very beneficial effect on our overall health and wellbeing.
Activity in Winter
Activities should reflect the season and therefore focus on looking inwards, with more self reflection, quiet activities such as writing, drawing & painting are recommended..
It is very important to exercise the body all year round. The internal arts of Qigong & Tai Chi are especially useful at this time of year.
Your own constitution will determine your exercise programme. It is best to avoid exercising outdoors in the early morning as this puts one at risk from the extreme cold air. This applies mainly to the elderly and those with a weak constitution.
However, controlled exposure to the cold weather whilst exercising stimulates our metabolism and strengthens our resistance to cold. This can improve our immunity and help prevent colds and the many other winter ailments!
Qigong is a phenomenal art that when practiced regularly can certainly transform your health.
When I began in 1992 my health was very poor. I found the movements of Qigong & Tai Chi to be extremely relaxing. But over time I also found that I had more energy. I could get through the day without feeling exhausted!
The strange thing was that although the movements were seemingly quite gentle, I gained an immense inner strength and resilience.
After some time I noticed that the regular seasonal colds I got every year became a thing of the past.
In today’s stressed out and fast paced world, the ancient healing art of Qigong is still just as relevant as it was hundreds of years ago.
There are many different forms of Qigong but all of them aim to improve and strengthen the circulation of Qi and blood around the body.
It is when Qi flows smoothly throughout the body uninterrupted, that the Yin Yang balance within is maintained and physical & emotional health is maintained.
There are many Qigong movements that can help support the Kidneys.
Here is one that you can try:
Click on the image to watch the video.
Food in Winter
There are many foods that are beneficial to eat during the cold Winter months. The foods that naturally grow at this time of year are cauliflowers, leeks, swede, parsnips, beetroot, red cabbage, turnips, brussel sprouts, onions, pumpkin, carrots, chestnuts, chicory, jerusalem artichokes, pears, clementines & quinces.
In Winter our bodies need warming with hearty soups made with vegetables and rich stocks such as bone broth.
Foods that really benefit the Kidneys are walnuts, black beans, kidney beans, black sesame seeds and dark leafy green vegetables
Having regular acupuncture treatments is a great way of tuning the body to the seasons and regulating the free flow of energy around the body. This is the best way of approaching chinese medicine. It is far easier to keep the body well than trying to cure the body when illness has set in.
A Chinese medicine practitioner might also suggest taking specific tonics or herbal formulae when appropriate.
We all respond to Winter differently. Some of us tend to wind down and enjoy the stillness that the season brings. Taking time to rest and reflect on the past year.
Others grab their ski’s and head for the snowy mountains to enjoy the slopes.
Whatever your take on Winter, it is important to listen and respond to nature’s way.
Above all take time to enjoy the soft white landscapes, snow covered trees, glistening icicles and the hushed stillness of a starry night.