Yangsheng – nourishing life 養生

Before I go into this blog post’s actual topic I would like to say something about my blog posts in general: Many among the readers who have been following me for some time, might already be familiar with many of the Daoist concepts I am writing about. On the other hand, it seems that many things need to be heard at least a „thousand times“ before one can actually listen to them for the first time. You might have experienced this yourself, but it is also an important insight for one’s own teaching.

Like the way concepts are presented in the Daodejing 道德經, my blog posts will also not be arranged in a chronologically systematic order. The subject matter taken up in this blog is nothing linear. The concepts that I am writing about here are complexly interwoven, and they can neither be grasped, nor are they actionable in a linear fashion. Therefore, these concepts cannot be ticked „done“ when having reached some kind of intermediate or higher level. This is what makes them so interesting. The longer you are engaged in working with these seemingly simplistic, or basic concepts, the more complex and profound they seem to become, and the more manifold and fascinating possible applications turn out to be. The meaning blog posts might have for one’s own practice, therefore, changes with the position you find yourself in at any given time. This is closely related to the nature of Daoist philosophy.

Following the philosophy of the Daodejing you are also not exclusively relying on the intellect in dealing with philosophical issues, but make use of the whole spectrum of possible tools. These include physical, emotional, and social aspects. You are not limiting yourself to your brains: You are not reflecting with your intellect alone–although we should not forget that our intellect is also a function of our body. In Daoist philosophy the body as a sphere of reference is an integral part of the thinking process. The individual body itself, however, is not isolated either (in human life), and is therefore also not looked upon or treated as isolated. Body work that is guided by the Daodejing therefore always integrates intellectual reflection and the fostering of emotional and social intelligence in its way of dealing with movement–a life’s task.

And this, eventually, brings us to the actual topic of this blog post, that is Yangsheng (養生), nourishing life, and all kinds of ancient Daoist methods, and exercises that are also dealing with nourishing one’s vitality. All too often „nourishing life“ exercises are regarded as health exercises in a much too narrow sense. Nourishing life and the Daoist practices often simply called Qigong nowadays are, however, much deeper, and extraordinarily complex. Originally, they are modelled after the cycles in nature (Daodejing, chapter 25 – 人法地) and the caring for the offspring (Daodejing, chapter 51 – 道母生育畜養) to secure the survival of species in the animal world. They are not about narrow and individualistic goals. They always are about individuals operating in a healthy and nourishing way within the networks of life, within the whole and for the whole. Microcosm and macrocosm are inseparably interwoven. Working on the outside always requires work on the inside, so to speak, reflecting the experiences with the physical basis, one’s body. From a Daoist perspective it therefore appears to be absolutely sensible that every job in the areas of sustainability and environmental protection, or any vocational field not putting the main focus on personal gains, and profit, but on the common good, accordingly should also be linked to, and rooted in some kind of deeper body work.

The Daoist focus is on the endless matching and interweaving of inside and outside. The experiences gained through a healing physical practice hereby serve as analogies for dealing with processes in one’s own closer or farther living environment.

Seen from this angle, the Daodejing and all movement methods closely relating to the Daodejing originally are about healing in a broad sense. Unlike the Zhuangzi, the Daodejing, for instance, clearly sees a societal task. Concrete Yangsheng practices that regard the urtext of Daoism, the Daodejing, as their main philosophical framework therefore have individual health, strengthening of the functioning of the inner organs and the movement apparatus as focal points, but not as the only ones. In these movement practices one can therefore also concretely feel the improvement of one’s body coordination, particularly of the hand foot coordination as increased physical strength. Improving the connection to the ground (earth 地 — 栽根功) and the upward orientation towards the sky (heaven 天 — 天地人) by a pulsing in these two opposite directions, that is, by sending free and parallel impulses upwards and downwards, are elementary components of these kinds of movement practices, since each and every individual movement is sustained by this ( kind of permanently connecting). Strength and the feeling to be sustained originate exactly from this „becoming one with heaven and earth“ in Daoist movement traditions (天地人). And, becoming one is linked with responsibilities in the Daodejing (聖人). Here, health and strength never aim at gaining power, at gaining control over everything and everybody.

And because of the reasoning presented above, constructive (nourishing) ways of dealing with personal injuries as well as methods to handle aggression and hatred–that is, emotional traces that of course do not only show biochemically and hormonally in the inner organs–are also strongly focused upon (the social aspect).

The so-called inner smile (內笑 | 面帶微笑), like the friendly and caring way of looking inwards and outwards, provides the energetic foundation for constructive processes–no matter, whether aiming inwards or outwards. This is a method to establish an attitude that is not only wholesome for oneself, but one that is generally meaningful for acting in the world. Apart from the Daoists‘ knowledge of the energetic networks of the acupuncture fields (the translation as acupuncture points is not really adequate) and their specific medical knowledge that is being implemented in the Yangsheng practices, facial expressions, gestures, the rhythms of movements (和), and body language in general are also deliberately employed in this wide context.

Deep internal Daoist practices aim at bringing everything together, getting everything to being one, focusing on a general oneness (抱一). As I tried to show, these kinds of internal Daoist practices are by no means pure collections of simple physical exercises. They are methods of working with different kinds of energies on the foundation of a thorough physical training. They exceed the unfolding of an individual energetic field by design. This is all about the interconnection of energetic fields. (不言之教)

All this is of course a much more elaborate and time-consuming process than one merely narrowed down to improving one’s own physical well-being–even if that alone naturally brings with it a multitude of benefits and might also require no little effort.

This kind of setup with a concrete and very physical path like the Yangsheng practices as a starting point provides an entrance to an endless and wide world–a typical Daoist path.