Chinese Medicine Health Cultivation



Chinese Medicine Health Cultivation

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Yang Sheng: The Root of Chinese Medicine Health Cultivation

"Nevertheless, common sense tells us that the way we live has a direct effect on our health."

-Shen Ziyin and Chen Zelin, The Basis of Traditional Chinese Medicine

". . . the general population in China, and its medical practitioners, when asked "why is there disharmony?" speak of three catagories of precipitating factors in illness. These are environment, emotional outlook, and way of life."

-Ted J. Kaptchuk, The Web That Has No Weaver

". . . life cultivation and rehabilitation follows the patterns of natural changes so that the pace of life process is accordingly adjusted with the changes of time, space, four seasons, and climate."

-Wang Xudong, Life Cultivation and Rehabilitation of TCM

"If you want to be healthy, you should always feel thirty percent cold and hungry."

-Old TCM adage

For millennia the adherents of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) have been developing ways for people to nurture their overall well being and increase longevity. The methods and outlook which they devised was formed into a branch of practice known as Yang Sheng, or Life Cultivation. Yang Sheng is the result of thousands of years of patient observation of the general outcomes of various different lifestyles, with the intention of devising a way of existence that increases both life quality and quantity. Its practice is centered around creating a continuously engaged way of life that takes all factors of the human experience into account. This way of life includes methods which conform human action to fit within the bounds of the nature, regulate the emotions, arrange the immediate environment in a way that supplements healthfulness, and design diet patterns that bolsters well-being; while, at the same time, ever indicating what substances and environments people should try to avoid in order to maintain health. Taken all together, Yang Sheng is, at root, a system of living that conforms to the dynamics of simply being human; it is a philosophy and practice that manifests the ways in which humans have evolved to live.


By Wade of


Yang Sheng is a traditional Chinese practice designed to cultivate health through concentrating on aspects of well-ness rather than disease. This is one of the defining features of the practice, as it is in contradiction to what is generally though of medical practice- one usually does not concentrate on health until they are ill. Yang Sheng is a way of life for all people, and its lessons are optimally utilized during periods of well-ness to improve and preserve well-ness, rather than a system that is resorted to only in times of medical need and then abandoned. It is an extremely positive, and even joyous, type of medical practice which, as Michael Max puts it, ". . . is not only about the absence of disease, but the cultivation of health."1 In this way, Yang Sheng is a 365 day a year, 24 hour a day venture that aims to create a healthful lifestyle in all contexts.

The all-inclusiveness of Yang Sheng practice takes on the characteristics of folk knowledge as it is passed down from generation to generation. In China, Yang Sheng is a way of life that is taught orally through the socialization methods of the society . As Ted Kapchuk wrote in The Web That Has No Weaver, "teachers, parents, and philosophers, jointly with physicians, will recommend certain life styles or disapprove unhealthful activities. They will suggest a change in emotional attitudes or in environment if a person seems to be unwell or wants to maintain health."2

Therefore, it is a way of health preservation that is for the "people" and of the "people," which is oftentimes so ingrained into the psyches of some Chinese that they, themselves, do not even regard it as anything special. As a friend of mine told me about a time that she was leafing through a Feng Shui book in a Chinese bookstore, when a local man walked up behind her and began looking at the book over her shoulder. After a while the Chinese man finally spoke, and disgustedly said something to the effect of, "why would any body write a book about that?, everybody knows that already." Health knowledge was once the foray of folklore and oral transmission; Yang Sheng is a highly condensed, organized, and systematize part of this tradition, which is still handed down from parent to child throughout China.

Increasing longevity is a major aim of Yang Sheng practice that echos throughout the ages of Chinese tradition and thought. In Health Cultivation practice, longevity is prolonged through cultivating the mind, regulating diet, exercising the body, and abstaining from harmful substances and environments.3 These activities have been continuously cultivated by Chinese physicians, philosophers and religious adepts for thousands of years. In addition to the above stated practices and accordance with the lives of these sages, the most basic and important element of longevity is living a life that is close to nature.

Humans have evolved for hundreds of thousands of years direly locked into the ebb and flow of the nature’s rhythms, and are therefore physiologically, emotionally, and psychologically forever entwined within these feral cycles. "If human activities violate the patterns of natural changes, or abnormal and violent changes occur in the external natural surroundings, the regulatory function of the human body will fail to adapt itself to the situation. . ."4 In terms of Yang Sheng practice, this means that a life that is harmonious and balanced, within the bounds of the natural world and outside of the harmful span of modern infrastructures, will inherently nurture well-being and longevity. As Wang Xudong wrote in a Chinese book on Health Cultivation, "TCM believes that man lives amidst the universe and his vital activities are inevitably influenced by the natural laws of material movement."5 Likewise, Yang Sheng practice was devised as a methodological paradigm to live as close to these natural laws as possible.

A major part of living close to nature’s rhythms is finding ways to regulate and balance emotions. The emotions are deeply rooted within the very nature of the being human and are a necessary part of everyday life. But once the emotions become unbalanced many health problems can emerge. "Emotional changes," writes the TCM doctor Shen Ziyin, "are inevitable in daily life. One’s psyche and emotional upset are also related to diseases."6 Which means that extreme emotional fluctuations actually cause bodily harm. To this end, it is advantageous that the emotions, of their own volition, have ways in which they balance themselves. 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.

Anger is one of the main emotions that need to be regulated. A little anger is absolutely acceptable in the appropriate setting, and actually serves to keep the body in balance. But excessive anger can damage the liver, heart, stomach, and many other internal organs. It is commonly documented in Chinese Medicine case studies that it is possible for a human to become so angry that their face reddens and they spit blood. Anger can lead to many imbalances in the body and it is of absolute pertinence to keep in check. One such method that the Chinese have developed for doing this is by openly displaying aphorisms that will remind them of the ill-effects of excessive anger in often frequented locations.7

Another emotion that TCM advises people to control is depression. Excess of this emotion can have seriously detrimental health consequences. Therefore, when in the thorough of depression, it is essential for overall health to find ways to release and ease the emotional build up. The TCM doctor, Wang Xudong, suggests that when overburden with depression, ". . . one may cry aloud in a place where there are no people. . . [or] . . . one may go to an open field and shout loudly to let off his depression and emotions. . ."8 Other avenues of easing depression are also available, such as online therapy from BetterHelp, but the fact stands that this emotion must be kept in balance in order for health to be maintained.

Although the other four emotions (joy, fear, anxiety, and grief) are usually easier to keep in harmony, they are still worthy of attention. For example, excessive grief can damage the zang-fu organs of the heart and lung which can seriously damage one’s well-being. Likewise, an unchecked amount of anxiety may cause dizziness and insomnia. An unbalanced amount of fear can injure the heart and kidney. Whereas an overabundance of joy can actually use up a great amount of qi very quickly and also can affect the functioning of the heart.9 Therefore, it is of absolute pertinence to administer a proper balance when dealing with the emotions.

Another important aspect of Yang Sheng is its intense focus on how the environment impacts human health. Yang Sheng theory takes into account all types of environmental exposure- from the natural spaces of wild-lands to the artificial conglomerations of metropolises, from outdoor landscapes to the insides of buildings- that the human could possibly interact within. It states that the idea environment is one ". . . with clear and plentiful water sources, fresh air, sufficient sunlight, good vegetation, as well as a quiet, secluded, and beautiful landscape."10 If a person was able to live in this type of environment year round they would be able to fulfill both the physical and psychological needs of the human being.11 Yang Sheng maintains that environments which do not comply with the above stated description are often times detrimental to all aspects- mental, emotional, and physical- of human health. Therefore, Yang Sheng stresses 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.

Diet and eating preference is also major point of Yang Sheng Health Cultivation. This falls into the premise that diet can be used as a tool to regulate health and that many foods can be used to help the body gain an idea degree of harmony. Food can also be used as a means to combat and ward off detrimental health factors. "Different diets also should be selected according to the differences of diseases on the basis of differentiating syndrome to decide the diet."12 This means that the food that a person selects to eat must be the right food for their particular health condition. For example, people with heat conditions benefit much more from consuming cool foods than someone with a cold condition etc . . . Some foods even have special effects that they can bring about in the human body. For example, sesame, mulberry, bee milk, human milk, and turtle all have anti-aging properties, and the regular consumption of which can increase longevity.

According to Yang Sheng theory, a person should eat a modest amount of highly diverse foods multiple times every day to maintain optimal health. It is thought that a person should eat between 3-5 times a day from a wide selection of different categories of foods (fruit, meat, cold, warm etc . . .). The amount of food that someone eats in a single helping is also a point of Health Cultivation concern. "The dietary style of being "70- 80 percent full" has proven to be the effective method of promoting longevity by the public of all times and in all countries."13 Therefore, by mixing food types and limiting the amount of what is eaten optimal health can be cultivated.

A final point in Yang Sheng theory is avoiding, wherever possible, substances and practices which are harmful to the cultivation of human health. One such substance that should definitely should be avoid is cigarette smoke. Wang Xudong states bluntly that, "smoking is absolutely harmful," and recommends the complete abolition of any smoking habit.14 Tobacco smoke contains ammonia, cyanide, and nicotine, and when it is burnt releases carbon monoxide.15

The stance that smoking cigarettes is not a healthful practice is attested to by the fact that, ". . . the amount of nicotine generated by twenty cigarettes can make an ox die immediately."16 Another substance that can erode the health through habitual usage is alcohol, which, "causes excitation, dilates blood vessels, and accelerates blood circulation."17 But although alcohol is detrimental in large amounts, TCM views it as a substance that can be used to nurture health cultivation in small and regular doses. Therefore, alcohol consumption follows the same lines of balance as many other substances related to TCM. Eating excessive amounts of poor quality foods is also another way in which Yang Sheng can be damaged. "Food preference refers to the addiction to a particular food or condiment that exceeds the endurance of the organism and consequently brings harm upon the organism."18 This means that consuming an excess of a single type of food, even if it is considered to be "healthy," will eventually have detrimental effects. This also includes excessively eating foods that are high in substances- such as sugar, simple fats, chemicals- that are also harmful to health. Stress is also a practice that can harm the body in almost all regards. Physical, mental, and sexual stress is all detrimental to cultivating health. According to Yang Sheng thought, the best way to handle stress is to simply avoid situations which produce it. In all, there are many practices and substances which corrode health cultivation efforts, and the best way to alleviate these are to either avoid them all together, or take them in moderate doses. In this way, one can still obtain a harmonious and balanced existence in the presence of harmful substances and practices.

 In all, Yang Sheng theory and practice incorporates set ways of living that guide its adherents through all aspects of the human experience. Health Cultivation methods are designed to maintain harmony and balance within the human body in all regards- whether it be internal, external, natural, or artificial. The theory is essentially designed to be a way of life for its practitioners to nurture and celebrate health and well-being. In essence, Yang Sheng is the accumulated and concentrated health-specific folklore that the Chinese people have been cultivating and practicing for thousands of years.

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