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Yang Sheng and the Art of Self-Care

September 26, 2019

Yang Sheng. 

 

Nope, it's not the name of a master meditator/martial artist/holy monk who lives in the woods. 

 

It's a concept; a philosophy of living; and when practiced on a daily basis, becomes part of the fabric of your daily routine. It isn't really a singular task that you do and check off at the end of the day. It's really more of the way you approach your tasks and the mindset (or your attitude) that you take when you go through the mundane, daily motions of living. And what powers the beating of the heart of the concept of Yang Sheng? The idea of nurturing and self care.  

 

OK. Maybe I'm making this sound a little too simple. Or so simple that it just becomes downright confusing (sorta like when Mr Miyagi tells Daniel in the Karate Kid to "wax on, wax off" in typical zen-like fashion, while teaching him karate - and poor Daniel wonders how the heck any of this stuff even relates to real life!)

 

 

This is where I come in and do my typical filibuster explanation and try to make it all make sense....ISH

 

Ever heard of the concept of "an ounce of prevention is better than an ounce of the cure" or, "an apple a day keeps the doctor away"? Well, that's one facet of the concept of Yang Sheng; that when practiced as part of one's daily routine, helps a person look after themselves well enough so that they prevent certain problems from becoming (through neglect and constantly dismissing them as minor nuisances) full blown health conditions. 

 

When broken down into its two characters, "Yang" and "Sheng", this phrase quite literally means (or as literally as I can try and explain it with my limited - but hopefully ever-growing in vocabulary - understanding of my mother tongue) "Cultivating Life" or "Nourishing Life". 

 

養 生​

 

The first character 養 means "nurture" and the second character means "life". I could get into the whole etymology of the character and how it signifies what it means but man, that would require another filibusterin' saga so I think I'll give this attempt a pass. (However, for the acugeeks out there who may want to have a look at the character breakdown and how it relates to this concept, start here with this pretty academic but rather insightful article: https://www.monkeypress.net/blog/yang-sheng-養-生-nourishing-life)

 

In simplistic, modern day terms, this concept of nurturing a life can be compared to being given your first tamagotchi as a kid and being told that to help it thrive, you'll have to care for it in a way that goes beyond just giving it just basic food and water. You are nurturing a (quote unquote) living being and need to play with it, pay attention to it, give it love and care lest it shrivels up and dies due to your neglect and constant dismissing of it's needs. (Now if you are all old enough to remember tamagotchi's, you've made the writer of this article feel a little less alone in her Jurassic-period age cohort!).

 

Well, if you imagine that your own health is the equivalent of your childhood tamagotchi, you get the idea then that dismissing your body's "check engine" lights on a regular basis means that you're headed towards internal tamagotchi self-neglect and at some point, your body is just going to curl up, stop working and make you stand up (or lie down), take notice and finally take care of it. 

 

 

However, if you practiced the philosophy of Yang Sheng and made good on your promise to look after your internal tamagotchi as part of your regular self-care routine, then the "check engine" lights wouldn't go on quite as often and typical conditions of the 21st century (common ones I see regularly in my practice like: adrenal burnout, insomnia, chronic generalized stress and anxiety, digestive upsets like IBS, thyroid conditions, menstrual irregularities, acne breakouts; and the list goes on) won't have much of a foothold on which to develop into full blown distressing and chronic, long-term conditions.

 

So what does Yang Sheng look like when applied to everyday living? 

 

In most eastern-oriented medical (this is my side of the TCM camp), lifestyle (meaning diet, sleep and daily activities), martial and esoteric (this is where the flying kung-fu monks and mediation fit in) arts, it looks like daily rituals and routines that help a person nurture their physical, mental and spiritual health.

 

 

A daily ritual can be as simple as doing a simple day to day check-in with yourself mid-day at work ("did I breathe / drink water / have lunch today?"); to making sure you take an hour before bed to "power down" and switch off all your devices so that you can wind down before sleeping; to taking the time to plan out well balanced meals each day so that you can manage energy spikes (and their corresponding slumps) and attend to your day's priorities; to simply just making it a habit to be kind to yourself in thought, self-directed internal dialogue (replacing "You did that sales presentation with all the gusto of a wet noodle!" to "Dust yourself off and get up again tomorrow. That wasn't your best pitch but you've had great days and you'll have more of those once you get a good night's rest") or going slower and taking it down a notch when you're trying something out for the first time.

 

Now that we sort of get the idea of the daily ritual part of self care, let's now bring back the idea of prevention being better than the cure. Think of the concept of prevention this way - regular self check-in rituals and self nurturing routines put into daily practice. What happens as a cumulative result of regular checking in with yourself is a nice protective "warding" effect that occurs in the body when nasty stuff gets thrown at it.

 

Not this sort of "warding" (though its is a pretty badass way of picturing how awesome a preventative routine can help you overcome life's usual obstacles!):

 

 

I'm talking about the sort of "protective warding" that happens on the preventative side of things with the daily cultivation of self care rituals. The more you make these routines a normal part of your everyday life, the cumulative effect of practicing self-care enable both your body and mind to become essentially, more RESILIENT.

 

Resilience is often defined as "1. the ability to be happy, successful, etc. again after something difficult or bad has happened; 2. the ability of a substance to return to its usual shape after being bent, stretched, or pressed" (taken from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/resilience). 

 

Think of yourself as a sort of super-stretchy person that can be pulled, stretched, warped out of shape and squished by life's various pressures. If you practiced the concept of Yang Sheng (by making sure you slept well, that you ate today, that you are nourishing your spirit with calming techniques in times of stress, etc), all that stretching and squishing by the demands of life and unexpected circumstances wouldn't knock you too badly out of shape because, well.....you're stretchy....and able to bounce back through having the protective benefits of a solid self check-in and self care routine. That's daily resilience working for you and that's what makes us able to get through a week where you're suddenly slammed with work commitments; while, unannounced, your family also shows up at your home "for a visit and short stay"; and, if that wasn't enough, a pipe bursts in your apartment somewhere and it's 11pm at night (and you're up because you also realized you forgot to pay this month's rent)! Now if we're already on top of the game with our self care routines, despite the unforeseen interruptions, we can still stop, breathe, put things into perspective, prioritize and execute what we can do now and plan what we can do the next day without too much of a collective dent to our physical health, egos and mindsets!  

 

 

ASICS, the Japanese running shoe company, got its name from the acronym "Anima San In Corpore Sano"; meaning "a sound mind in a sound body" (Really! True stuff! Check this page out: https://www.asics.com/us/en-us/about). It often makes me think of the idea of "holistic health" when I pass by their store on my way to and from work; of the the harmonious coming together of the happy mind, body and spirit (sounds a little like Yang Sheng doesn't it?). This concept of the magical trinity of mind, body and spirit working together as one isn't new. It can be traced back to Ancient Rome, to a philosopher named Juvenile, who believed in the correlation between healthy mental functioning and good physical well-being (this article from Psychology Today was pretty interesting and though told more from the standpoint of sports medicine, it still correlates quite neatly to the idea of Yang Sheng - you get the drift: https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/smart-moves/201407/healthy-body-and-sound-mind.)

 

 

In other words, if you look after your body by paying attention to its state of health (think of it as ordering up daily health "status reports") and adjusting your behaviours or mental attitudes to bring it back to a state of relative healthy balance if that "check engine" light starts flashing, it will respond by looking after you by being able to bounce back better after a long bout of illness or injury or, find a way to better make peace with things and shrug off the stresses of being cut off in traffic on your way to work this morning. 

 

In ancient China, Yang Sheng was cultivated in daily eating practices as well as in exercises like qi gong or tai qi in the pursuit and practice of preventative health. If anyone has ever witnessed a group of tai qi practitioners in a park, you'll notice how calm, focused and quiet they are. This is what happens when the mind and body work together in harmony and it is what tai qi practitioners aspire to do when they cultivate a spirit of mindfulness in present, focused bodily movement that harmonizes with one's breath.

 

The nurturing of the body's internal qi or vital energy is what allows the body to become resilient to disease, and prevent common health conditions from settling in and becoming full blown chronic problems later in life. This practice of tai qi developed during the transitional period between the Ming and Qing Dynasty and has spawned several schools or styles; many of which are still currently being practiced today - mainly with the aim of cultivating health (through the harmonization of breath, mind and body).

 

It is this same qi that Acupuncturists work with when patients come in and ask for treatments. Instead of using movement and breath to cultivate the internal qi of the body, needles are used to nurture, move, slow down and gather qi when they are inserted into the meridians of the body. Although I have to admit that 80% of the patents I treat are actively seeking treatments for conditions that they already have, I always add a component of preventative treatment when I select the points that I wish to use.

 

Because qi can be gently encouraged to flow during a treatment, not only do I direct the flow of qi down a certain meridian to ease tension / pains or brighten the mood of a heavily weighed down mind, I will add specific acupuncture points to keep the healthy flow of qi moving for longer periods of time post-period. The more the body's qi flows freely, the more easily the obstruction (whether physical or emotional) is removed. When that obstruction to qi flow is removed, the longer the body is able to maintain this healthy flow of qi for longer periods of time and hence, prevent the settling in of disease states or conditions that become chronic if left unattended for too long a period of time. 

 

 

Yang Sheng can be applied to preventative healthy eating habits as well and makes up a small but sometimes highly effective component of what I call "take home homework" post acupuncture treatment. Patients are sometimes told to eat certain foods that will help them recover faster and allow their bodies (and / or minds) to become less susceptible to certain conditions recurring. For instance, I sometimes advise patients who come in for cold or flu treatments to abstain from drinking chilled or icy cold drinks or consuming cold, raw foods after their treatment until their symptoms get better. The idea behind this is to keep the lungs warm as external cold conditions (i.e. introducing cold foods or drinks into the internal bodily environment) injure the lung and prolong the severity and duration of a patient's cold symptoms. Instead, patients can warm up their internal environment with warm / hot foods like garlic, ginger or turmeric which are all foods that warm, strengthen and regulate the lungs; thereby strengthening the body's immune system and preventing colds.  

 

 

So in a quick wrap-up, Yang Sheng really is more than just a routine and a laundry list of "I must do this to feel this way and look this zen". It becomes a natural way of living and is a philosophy on how to live life by the habitual practice of self-nurturing and self-care. 

 

Its a nice way of being able to check in with yourself, self-assess and do the work to make sure that if there are any nicks on the frame, any bumps on the exterior or any squeaky noises emanating from the insides, that you attend to them before they become an unsurmountable health problem. 

 

Sometimes, taking a step back and slowing down really is the best way to get ahead. The wise and often quoted entity called "They", say that "You cannot pour from an empty cup." So perhaps today, make sure that you take a moment to slow down, smell the roses and enjoy that coffee sitting down - instead of running with it sloshing around in an adult sippy cup, towards the bus, while frantically trying to get to work. Otherwise that cup really will be empty when you pour it accidentally on yourself on your epic bus-chase! (Been there, done that!)

 

 

So if anyone gives you any heat for taking a half hour afternoon nap, or rain-checking on dinner plans because you're feeling a little under the weather or just a bit stretched out, tell them you are practicing the art of Yang Sheng and working on "nurturing life" while you strengthen your ability to bounce back from adversity and life interruptions.

 

Until next time, keep living the healthy life and take a moment to check in and breathe!

 

Personal note from me:

The last time I wrote here, I was fighting off an unexpected eye infection two weeks ago and was feeling like I wasn't quite "living the words I write". That's why this latest post came so late. I'm getting a slight bit better at actually walking my talk and making sure I actually make it a priority to take care of me first. Thanks to those of you who have been checking in regularly - and keeping me accountable! I'll try and keep the articles I write fun, fresh and told from the standpoint of the average Jane or Joe, to try and make acupuncture and TCM more accessible and frankly, more easily digestible. It may take me a little longer to work one of these babies out but know that when I do them, a lot of love - and hours of laughing at some of the weirdest GIFS I see when I'm GIF-searching - goes into them! I hope you get as much out of these as I do!)      

 

   

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

    

 

 

    

 

 

 

 

 

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