nourishing life 养生
Yǎng 养 means to raise, bring up, support, nourish, and shēng 生 means life, give birth, grow. Together, yǎng shēng 养生 is often translated as nourishing life, and refers to lifestyle practices which allow one to live a long, healthy and happy life. Yǎng shēng practices allow one to stay healthy by living in harmony with the daily and yearly fluctuations of yīn 阴 and yáng 阳, and the cycling through the five phases (wǔ xíng 五行). The universe is composed of qì 氣, the energy which organizes and condenses into matter, and is the motive force for growth and change. Qì is constantly undergoing change due to the interactions of yīn, yáng, and the five phases. Because the human body is also seen as arising due to the gathering of qì, it is not immune to these laws of change, so one benefits from learning to harmonize their activities with the changes in the external environment.
The Huáng Dì Nèi Jīng 黄帝内经 (The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine), compiled over 2000 years ago during the Warring States period (475 – 221 BCE), outlines the fundamental theories of Chinese medicine. The first chapter of the first book (Sù Wèn 1 素问一) discusses how in ancient times people lived for over one hundred years because they practiced the Dào 道, the way of life. They understood the transformations of yīn and yáng, ate a balanced diet at regular times, rose and retired with the sun, and avoided overstressing their bodies and minds. Originally, Chinese medicine was about disease prevention and cultivating life. For the physician, it was more important to educate people on how to live longer and healthier lives than it was to treat disease. If they lived in accordance with their natural surroundings, there would be no disease to treat.
Holism in Chinese medicine sees the individual’s physical body, mental and emotional states, and the state of affairs in their life as one and the same; there is no separation. If someone feels metaphorically stuck in a situation, this often manifests as a 'stuckness' in the free-flow of qì in the body, resulting in physical and/or emotional pain. Acupuncture, movement practices, diet therapy, proper mental engagement helps to cultivate the quality of flexibility and adaptability so one may flow through life’s challenges, like water flowing around stony obstacles. Acupuncture treatments help to redirect the flow of qì, but what happens in between sessions can hinder these efforts. Adopting yǎng shēng practices supports acupuncture treatments, so one flows more easily with the rivers of life instead of swimming against the current.
Yǎng shēng practices are different for each person, for each stage of life; it depends on where you are at in the present moment. Chinese medicine would not recommend the same diet, movement practices, meditation style, or breathwork for each person. Together we may discuss foods, ways of cooking, times of eating, and how you are eating; this is called shí liáo 食疗, or diet therapy. We may discuss different styles of movement, breathing, and meditating to support your individual constitution and condition. We may do some qì gōng together so you can embody practices to do on your own. We may look at making minor adjustments to your daily routine to support your sleep, digestion, emotional wellbeing, and so on. Having said that, there are some general guidelines which everyone can follow to harmonize with yīn and yáng of the day and the seasons, which are outlined below.
Harmonizing with Daily rhythms
SUNRise (birth of yáng):
Nighttime is the most yīn time, and as sun begins to rise at dawn, yáng also rises. This is an ideal time for humans to rise and mimic the natural surroundings by doing some movement such as stretching, qì gōng or tài jí. By rising with the sun, we harmonize our yáng-qì with the yáng of the natural world; when we sleep in we remain in a yīn-state and do not allow the yáng to rise as it would like to. The Chinese horary clock indicates which organs are active during different times of the day. The Large Intestine (dà cháng 大肠) time is between 5:00 – 7:00am, making this an ideal time for elimination. The Stomach (wèi 胃) time is between 7:00 – 9:00am, making this an ideal time for digesting breakfast.
Mid-day (utmost yáng):
Mid-day is the most yáng time of the day. 11:00am – 1:00pm corresponds to the Heart (xīn 心), making it is an ideal time to have a small rest by laying down and closing the eyes to settle the spirit and stabilize ones emotions. This helps become centered by resetting one's mood for the rest of the day, so one can more easily flow around life’s obstacles as they arise.
Sunset (birth of yīn):
Because yáng is winding down and yīn is becoming more prevalent, it is ideal for humans to slow down the day’s activities, rest more, eat a light dinner, and have a meditation to empty the mind from the day. 5:00 – 7:00pm is the time of the Kidneys (shèn 肾); the Kidney channel begins at the bottom of the feet, making this a good time of day for a self foot massage.
Mid-night (utmost yīn):
This is the most yīn time of the day, and as such it is beneficial for humans to be sleeping. Ideally, humans are asleep before 11:00pm because that is the beginning of the Gallbladder (dǎn 胆) time, when yáng starts to rise again.
Harmonizing with seasonal rhythms
sprIng (birth of yáng):
Like dawn, yáng begins to grow in the spring after the yīn-dominated winter months. All things on earth begin to grow; there is a revitalization of nature. The frozen earth is warmed by the sun, and seeds begin to sprout. This season is dominated by the Wood (mù 木) phase of the five phases. It is beneficial for humans go to sleep later and wake up early, following the cycles of the sun and moon. Shortly after rising, a relaxed walk is beneficial for the sinews which are dominated by Wood, and to aid in the rising of yáng-qì. Exercise can become more frequent in spring, with more stretching to loosen the sinews. Everything should be free-flowing to aid in the flow of Liver (gān 肝) qì, the Wood-yīn organ, such as wearing loose-fitting clothing and letting ones hair down. It is beneficial to develop emotional equanimity, and avoid indulging in anger, frustration or sadness.
summer (utmost yáng):
Like noon, yáng is at its zenith during summer, and everything in nature is growing and blossoming. This season is dominated by the Fire (huǒ 火) phase. While spring is about birth, summer is about growth and maturation. Plants and animals begin to mature, and fruits appear in abundance. Humans can go to sleep later and rise earlier with the sun. One can remain more physically active, and aim to maintain a happy, easy-going disposition so the qì can flow freely.
autumn (birth of yīn):
As the weather begins to cool, the yīn becomes more dominant. The active-yáng phase transitions to its opposite, the passive-yīn phase. This is the season dominated by the Metal (jīn 金) phase, which is contracting in nature. As daylight hours shorten, it is beneficial for humans to retire to bed earlier, yet they can still rise early as there is still some yáng left in this season. The Lung (fèi 肺) corresponds to the Metal phase, making this an idea season to practice breathing exercises to enhance the qì of the Lungs. After the yáng-dominated, active summer months, it is beneficial for humans to become calmer and more peaceful, gathering their spirit inward as they transition to the yīn-dominated winter months.
winter (utmost yīn):
Winter months, like nighttime, are dominated by yīn. All things in nature enter a resting period, just as lakes and rivers freeze over, and bears go into hibernation. The philosophy of winter is that of conservation, sealing and storing away. Human beings benefit from conserving their yáng during these months by staying warm, not over-exercising or over-sweating which would cause a loss of yáng so less yáng could rise in the springtime. Humans can retire early and rise later in the morning, still following the rising and setting of the sun and moon. Winter corresponds to the Water (shuǐ 水) phase, and the Kidney (shèn 肾) organ. This is a good time of year to rub the Kidneys to warm the yáng of the body.