TRADITIONAL CHINESE MEDICINE & PREVENTION
Principles for Nourishing Life by Philippe Riviere
Longevity and Health are two indissoluble notions. Nobody desires to live too long at the expense of pain and disease. Long life is desirable only if we are in full possession of all our faculties. Only then can we retain dignity and well-being.
Literally translated, “Yangsheng fa” means “Principles for Nourishing Life”. It has its source in the experience handed down by the sages of ancient China, followers of Taoism philosophy. Taoism is one of the 3 great philosophical schools which permeate traditional Chinese thought and culture, the two others being Confucianism and Buddhism. “Nourishing Life” means knowing how to maintain and protect health, prevent disease and live a better life.
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1. The difference between natural human lifespan and life expectancy
All living beings are subject to the laws of nature. Where there is birth, there is also necessarily death.
Each living species has its own potential lifespan. Some insects live only a few days while certain trees may live for more than 1000 years.
What is the potential lifespan nature has fixed for human beings? According to the ancient Chinese, it is about 110 to 120 years. Even today there are a few parts of the world where large numbers of physically and mentally vigorous centenarians are to be found. This phenomenon is particularly characteristic of certain Caucasian and Himalayan valleys, and in Ecuador. In China, it is encountered above all in South, in the Sichuan region.
This natural potential lifespan should not be confused with what demographers call “life expectancy” which simply refers to the average length of the individual’s life in a given society. This is merely a statistical average calculated on the basis of observed mortality rates. No one would deny that a certain improvement in a population’s living conditions and hygiene increases life expectancy. But in the regions we mentioned earlier, the predominant life-style is still traditional in character. The great vigor of the inhabitants cannot be attributed to the evolution of their way of life, what we call “scientific and medical progress”.
A reduction in accidents and in infant mortality obviously leads to an increase in life expectancy. It does not, on the other hand, lead to an increase in the number of healthy centenarians. On the contrary, the present tendency in the West is for an upsurge in cases of premature senility and senile dementia (Alzheimer’s disease).
What are the secrets which enable man to live out his natural lifespan? In China, the Taoist sages of antiquity were known for their longevity. They retained the characteristics of youth, such as suppleness, an absence of wrinkles and strong teeth, to an advanced age.
Apart from various accidental causes, our lives may be shortened by premature ageing and disease.
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2. The role of lifestyle in the ageing process
Every life may be divided into 4 phases: Birth, Growth, Maturity and Old age
Birth and growth are rising phases, where the life force is strong. Old age is a stage where degeneration accelerates to its inevitable term, death. Of the 4 stages, the longest and most fruitful is Maturity, the stability attained in adulthood.
This cycle of existence is the same for all life forms. It corresponds to the great natural cycles represented by the succession of days and years. Spring and summer correspond to the germination and growth of vegetable life. The most fertile time of the year is the period between summer and the middle of autumn. This is when the fruit of the previous seasons is harvested.
As we move through our life cycle, each of us changes and evolves from moment to moment. This characteristic of life may be likened to the effect of a force which governs our development and conducts us from birth to death. The term we will give to this life force within us is Vitality. Our health and longevity depend on the quality of this force.
This vitality is precious: through our behavior and life-style, we can either nourish or else dissipate it. It is like a capital deposited within us. We can choose to expend it rapidly or, on the contrary, to make it bear fruit.
Health and longevity are determined by 3 factors:
– Heredity: this is inalterable. It is entirely conditioned by previous generations, in particular the last one which gave us life.
– Environment: as individuals, our power to intervene directly is circumscribed. It is not dependent on any single individual.
– Life-style and behavior: these 2 factors are directly under our control since they relate to our daily habits.
Whatever our heredity or the quality of our environment, we always have the possibility of controlling the speed at which we expend our natural vitality, and thus of influencing the course our life takes.
Life may be represented by a curve with two phases, one upward (growth) and one downward (ageing). If we place excessive demands on our vitality, the effects will be less apparent during the upward growth phase. In adulthood, we can only call upon available reserves and on the “impetus” built up in the first stage of our lives.
Research in the West has demonstrated that the body’s degeneration begins very early. The number of nerve cells in the brain, for example, begins to decrease from the age of 18. But apart from nerve tissue grafts from laboratory cultured fetuses, what do modern medicine and biology propose in the way of preserving vitality and slowing degeneration? Realistically, how should we proceed in our daily lives to slow down ageing and maintain health?
In this field, the Chinese theories are considerably more practical and directly applicable. They are a matter of logic and common sense.
Although originating in a culture alien to our own, Chinese notions quickly come to seem familiar, much more so than, for example, those of modern biology. Which of us can distinguish the role of “deoxyribonucleic acid” from that of “ribonucleic transmitter acid”? Even were we able to, what practical use would it be to us in daily life? What does a precise understanding of sperm production in the testicles or egg production in the ovary contribute to a more fulfilled or happier sex life?
To rediscover a way of living which is in tune with our real needs, we need to seek knowledge which has been proven by experience.
There exists a different understanding of man and of human life which evolved long before the sudden eruption of modern science in the West. This is an understanding which is based on a clearer perception of man’s true nature and of our harmonious relationship with the natural environment.
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3. The 3 constituents of human vitality
Human beings may be perceived as the union of 3 aspects, each of which is indispensable to life:
– Spirit (Shen) which includes all the elements of the psyche (perception, knowledge and feeling) and which governs and regulates all the body’s organs and vital functions.
– Vital energy, or vitality (Qi): this is the force which makes us animate beings. It is represented through movement and activity in general, as well as by the functions of the different organs, blood circulation, digestion, breathing, etc.
– “Quintessence” (Jing) which refers to the material substance of which we are made. The term “quintessence” designates the “noble” organic matter which forms living tissue.
Our general vitality depends on the quality of these 3 fundamental constituents, Spirit (Shen), the physical body (Jing) and the vital functions which it carries our vital energy (QI).
The spirit (Shen) is an immaterial entity. Its maintenance or dissipation depends on how we use it. Two principal factors are involved: intellectual overstrain and emotional stress.
Vital energy (Qi) and Quintessence (Jing) are both closely implicated in bodily vitality, which is the body’s physical state and its functions. The principal factors involved here are diet and the way we treat our bodies (exercise, sleep, etc.).
If one or other of these 3 constituents becomes deficient, vitality as a whole is diminished. For example, a lack of vitality in the spirit is characterized by signs such as a fixed stare, dull eyes, lack of vivacity, slowness in the responses and a pessimistic outlook. Gradually, the absence of spiritual impetus comes to affect the bodily activity as well, as the organs’ vital functions are deprived of stimulus.
We all know how important “morale” is in the evolution of illness. Some illnesses cause serious weight loss and weakness. The physical substance is affected, with emaciation, dehydration and tissue degeneration, and the organs cease to function properly. These types of deficiency affecting both the constitutional and functional aspects of the organism (Jing and Qi), are encountered, for example, in chronic degenerative disorders (cancers, tuberculose, multiple sclerosis, etc.). But if the spirit (Shen) is not exhausted, the vitality generated by a patient’s will to live, courage and optimism may sometimes reverse the course of the disease. Although it cannot be measured by a machine nor demonstrated on a laboratory animal, the role of the spirit is a determinant factor in the effectiveness of any treatment.
Under normal conditions, our vitality depends on these three components. They are closely linked. When we need to make an effort, the sensation of energy or fatigue that we experience depends on our motivation. It is easier and less tiring to carry out a task we enjoy than one we dislike, irrespective of the objective effort involved. Our attitude of mind (Shen) influences our vitality.
When physical and functional degeneration (Jing and Qi) progress too far, they may give rise to signs of spiritual deficiency. Hence, as the physical brain tissue deteriorates with age, the spirit (Shen) becomes affected, producing the signs associated with senile dementia.
That is how the three aspects of vitality interact and complement each other.
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4. The link between disease and longevity: the significance of therapeutic choices
Vitality and longevity may also be reduced by illness. This occurs notably in the 2nd part of our lives, corresponding to the downward phase of the curve.
During this downward stage, there is insufficient vitality to repair and regenerate the organism. Recovery from illness takes longer and is no longer complete. The older we become, the more debilitating are the effects of illness. This reduction in vitality helps shorten our lives.
In Chinese medicine, all illness may be described as the struggle between two forces: the body’s resistance or immune response (Zheng Qi) and the different agents which cause illness, the pathological factors (Xie Qi).
Our bodies are naturally equipped with all the defenses they need for survival. Like all living beings, they possess natural powers of adaptation and healing.
The essential problem of all treatment of illness is to find the correct balance between 2 opposed actions:
-Destruction of the pathogenic agent
-Reinforcement of vitality and of the natural defenses
Why is this a problem? Because the more powerful a treatment is in attacking a pathogenic agent, the more destructive it is of our vitality. The most striking example is that of cancer. The cancer therapies used in the West are mostly one-sided: their exclusive principle is “destruction of the pathogenic agent”, in this case the cancerous tissue. Techniques like chemotherapy and radiotherapy are extremely injurious to vitality, leading to a rapid collapse of the body’s defenses.
Without sufficient vitality and resistance, no real lasting cure is possible. That is why so many cancer sufferers die “cured”, or find that their illness spreads faster and faster as the toxicity of the treatments increases.
The cancer example also hold good for the treatments proposed to Aids sufferers. But beyond these vivid instances, doubt is cast on the whole current medical approach. This approach may be defined as the attempt to wage war against illness by usurping the body’s own natural powers of resistance. Almost all modern medical thinking is dominated by the concept of pathogenic agent destruction. One of the best known illustrations of this approach is the intensive use of an increasing number of antibiotics.
Such an approach can only produce transient results. For example, the massive use of ever more powerful medications favors the rapid evolution of ever more resistant strains of pathogenic micro-organisms. Science’s attempt to keep up with the process it has initiated aggravates the medical situation and leads to ecological disorder.
A glaring instance of this is the frightening progression of malaria worldwide. Malaria treatments have brought about genetic mutations of the parasite responsible for the disease. A more resistant strain has evolved, making the problem much harder to deal with.
The western therapeutic approach is much too aggressive to take account of the fundamental balances of life. Its effect on the bodily environment is comparable to the disequilibrium in our planetary environment which technological advances have brought about.
Any science of healing which fails to reinforce the body’s natural defense capacities by restoring vitality will, in the end, do no more than worsen and complicate the situation.
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Bacteria, viruses and parasites will always exist. Once modern biomedical research has found a way of neutralizing the Aids virus, another will sooner or later take its place. The real problem, that of our natural powers of resistance, will remain unsolved. Will we one day have to undergo scores of vaccinations in order to feel safe, or live in sterile bubbles?
In this field, Chinese medicine is well ahead. It takes account of both aspects of treatment: the direct struggle against the illness and the reinforcement of the body’s own capacity to resist. As the illness recedes, natural healing is allowed to take place and any treatment aims only to reinforce vitality. It is not only conceptually ahead, but also as regards therapeutic methods. For example, the products used are natural, and cause no pollution when they are being prepared or being used.
The modern pharmaceutical industry acquires its profits from the discovery of new molecules which are protected from competition by temporary patents. Medical research is inevitably subordinated to the industry’s economic priorities. Yet all the molecules or active principles that we need for treatment already exist in the natural state. Many synthetic chemical medicines are no more than patented industrial replicas of natural substances.
What has this to do with health and longevity? When some active healing agent is present in the natural state in a plant, it is always only one of a multitude of other substances. The process of extraction and concentration may greatly increase its toxicity. That is why today’s health care users are spontaneously reducing their medicine intake, aware that the undesirable side-effects outweigh any long term therapeutic benefits.
Until the dawn of the 19th century, China managed to preserve a traditional “science of care” which was the fruit of several millennia of uninterrupted observation and experience. This science is rooted in a certain philosophy of man and nature which entirely protects it from the types of insoluble ethical problem created by the possibilities of modern medicine and biology (genetic engineering, disconnection of life support systems in coma, etc.).
The effect of diseases on vitality depends above all on how they are treated. Inappropriate treatment can be worse than the disorder it is supposed to combat. So it may be said that both illness and its treatment influence our vitality and longevity. These are issues involving the treatment of illness, which is the direction of competent health professionals.
What can we do ourselves, in our daily lives, to reinforce health, and to prevent illness and premature aging?
The answer lies in what the Taoist sages called “Yangshseng fa”, the Principles for nourishing Life.
This involves several elements, but they are all simple and easily practiced, and so accessible to each of us:
– Harmony with nature
– Alternation of rest and activity
– Bodily overstrain
– Intellectual and emotional overstrain
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5. “Following the way of Yin/Yang”: harmony with nature in Chinese philosophy.
Man, like all living beings, is bound to live in harmony with the ineluctable laws of Nature. He is intimately linked to the fundamental forces which govern the universe.
Tao refers to the laws by which the universe and all living beings on earth are bound. The spontaneous movement and development of all existence is an expression of the Tao.
According to Taoist philosophy, the regular succession of days and nights and of the four seasons is the primordial expression of the ebb and flow of Yin and Yang in the universe.
Yang corresponds to the gradual increase in light and warmth which occurs through spring and summer. It is synonymous with heat and activity. Yin corresponds to darkness, cold, inertia. In the diurnal cycle, night corresponds to Yin while day is the Yang phase.
The body’s internal balance reflects this fundamental alternation in nature. By adapting to the permanent Yin and Yang fluctuations of the cosmos, the vital functions of the microcosm that is man remain in harmony.
This example illustrates the essential identity between man and nature: man’s place is redefined. It is no longer mankind that dominates nature since man is no more than one of its elements. It is nature and the laws of life that govern man. The development of western civilization is predicated on the ambition to achieve mastery over nature and to manipulate it unrestrictedly. That is the basic reason why human activity today poses such a threat to ecological balance.
Of the three great philosophical currents which fashioned traditional Chinese culture, Taoism places particular emphasis on the preservation of health and vitality. For the same reason, it is closely linked with Traditional Chinese Medicine.
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There is no doubt that diet is the most fashionable aspect of life-style, the one currently most in vogue in the West.
Human diet fulfils 3 functions:
-it is an element of our survival
-it is also a social act: sharing the same dishes around a table is a essential aspect of family and social life
-it is also a source of pleasure and satisfaction to be cultivated wisely.
In view of the bewildering proliferation of highly sophisticated dietary programmes, the best source of inspiration in the quest to rediscover a stable and balanced regimen remains the accumulated experience of previous generations, acquired when people lived in closer contact with nature.
Rather than strictly defined diet plans, it is enough to master a few fundamental rules which can then be adapted to all circumstances.
How much we need is determined both by heredity and acquired habits. If our forbears were big eaters, or if we were fed a lot in childhood, our needs will be greater. What is meant by “need” is the amount of food necessary for us not to feel hungry and to feel strong.
In fact, according to the ancient Chinese, man’s true needs are minimal from the point of view of simple survival. It is said that in China some people lived long and healthy lives eating no more than one bowl of food a day. When you see how modern dietetics is preoccupied with dietary deficiencies, you realize how different the Chinese approach is.
The digestive process as a whole involves 2 main functions: assimilation and elimination. Each time the quantity of food ingested exceeds the body’s real needs, a great deal of energy is required for transformation and elimination. A large proportion of nutriments will not be assimilated, and these residues may lead to an accumulation of toxic substances in the body.
Furthermore, the excessive demands made on the digestive organs may overwork them and impair their efficiency. As a result, despite the quantities eaten, the body may still not receive the nourishment it requires. The same applies to the organs of evacuation which may become less efficient under the effect of the excessive demands made on them, with dire consequences to health.
On the other hand, a relatively small food intake which is well adapted to our needs fortifies the digestive system. Here, all the nutriments can be extracted and used, without waste accumulation. In these conditions, a very moderate diet will be sufficient to fulfill all our needs. More than what we eat, it is the quality of the digestive organs which is the determinant factor. The organism can then adapt to circumstances without recourse to sophisticated diets in which every ounce is calculated.
It should not be forgotten that the amount we need is determined by heredity and the habits inculcated in childhood. Upbringing plays an important role. Chinese mothers are taught a proverb which says that “cold and hunger make strong children”. This is not an encouragement to child abuse! It simply means that children should not be wrapped up if they are not cold, nor force fed if they are not hungry. In the West, over-protectiveness produces totally opposite behavior, and the body’s spontaneous mechanisms are overruled.
How do we go about altering our dietary habits? Someone who is accustomed to certain quantities will feel weak if these are suddenly reduced. The only solution is to proceed gradually, with moderation. Any sudden change in habits constitutes an irregularity which is injurious to health.
The same applies to the frequency of meals, where regularity remains the most important principle. For the rest, it is all a question of habit. Whatever the frequency and number of meals, which depends on various social or professional commitments, the most important thing is regularity. Meals should be taken at the same time every day, and in roughly the same quantities.
In the country, closer contact with nature produces more regular habits. What was a traditional day like in rural China?
At daybreak, they ate little before beginning work. So by the end of the morning they were hungry, enough to eat a snack. As the day’s work had not finished, they ate until about 70% full. This meant they could go on working through the afternoon without worrying about indigestion.
At the end of the afternoon, after work, they could finally relax and enjoy the evening after a well spent day. This was when they have their main meal and leave at least 2 hours before going to bed with some reserves left. That is why, the next morning, they would first work to use up what they had eaten the night before. Just as you wait till your car petrol tank is nearly empty before refilling it.
That was what daily eating habits were like. The diet was frugal and regular so as not to damage health. But there were holidays. On those days, large numbers of dishes were prepared, with the priority given to taste and the pleasures of the table. That was when they would let themselves go and enjoy what was on offer.
B. The choice of food
Dietary customs vary according to geography and culture. The people of the northern polar regions live almost exclusively on a meat diet. Many Indians, on the other hand, are strict vegetarians. If an Indian started eating like an Eskimo form one day to the next, he would fall ill. So while we can see that man is a highly adaptable species, he is also a species whose bodily patterns are vulnerable to sudden change.
Certain animals, like the herbivores, eat only vegetation. Cows and horses, for example, obtain all the nourishment they need from grass. They are often endowed with great strength, but their nature is essentially peaceable. Other creatures, like the carnivores, live by killing and eating other animals. Their behavior is characterized by the ferocity that is necessary to their survival.
What about human beings? Our eating habits have changed as the various human civilizations developed. The first men were hunter gatherers. To survive, they needed to be fierce enough to hunt successfully and to struggle in the wild.
As man became sedentary, animal husbandry and agriculture developed. Gradually, cereals became the basic food of most of the civilizations of antiquity. This new way of life favored intellectual and artistic development. The evolution of culinary traditions progressively altered man’s dietary habits. From generation to generation, there occurred a gradual adaptation of which we are the inheritors today.
Given that our current life-style makes less and less demands on violent physical strength and aggression, there is a tendency for our diet to become more and more vegetarian, as is happening in most modern societies. Those who depend on a certain amount of strength for their survival would be advised to eat more meat to fulfill their needs. Likewise, growing children or weaker elderly people may need to eat a little more meat.
The choice of foods depends both on our innate requirements and our acquired habits. It is therefore impossible to fix exact proportions, or to establish a list of ingredients which will be appropriate to everyone.
For reference purposes only, the following may be taken as a very rough guide:
On a daily basis:
*cereals (rice, pasta, whole grain products, etc) 30%
*various vegetables (preferably cooked) + seasonal fruits + legumes + nuts + seeds 40%
*various complementary food (fish, seaweed, mushrooms, eggs) 30%
NB: meat may be eaten on a weekly or monthly basis
Because of their bland and somewhat neutral flavor, cereals are the ideal basic food for inhabitants of temperate regions. Bearing in mind that cereals on their own can greatly slow down transit through the intestines, fibrous vegetables like large-leaved greens are a perfect complement. Vegetable fibers act a little like a brush which cleans and sweeps. It should be noted that vegetables are generally of a “cold” nature, which is why they are difficult to digest when raw. After blanching them for a few seconds in boiling water they become digestible without losing their crispness.
As regards our daily diet, that is to say what should most correspond to our real needs, priority should be given to cooking in steam or water. If not, (pure olive) oil may serve as an intermediary between the food and the fire. But when cooking is done directly over the flame (barbeque, grill), it may become covered with highly toxic charred residues. The risks may be reduced removing the blackened parts of this kind of food.
C. May Chinese dietetics be regarded as a therapeutic method?
What is the difference between nourishment and therapy?
Plants may be divided into 3 categories: food, medicinal, and emergency. Medicinal and emergency plants contain active therapeutic agents. Their use must be carefully controlled by a competent health professional. These plants are not intended for nourishment. Their properties are too powerful.
On the other hand, the properties of fruits, vegetables and cereals are much more moderate. Cereals in particular are very gentle; they are essentially neutral and flavorless. That is why they make the best staple foods.
In addition to the meals we cook, we can reinforce our diet by adding certain specific vegetables or fruits as dietary supplements prepared, for example, in dried and powdered form. This powder may be taken during the day with a little warm water, or it may be turned into a broth to be drunk once a day between meals. This is a very practical way to use food to replenish vitality.
However, the addition of these types of supplement should not affect our daily food intake, which should always include balanced proportions of the various main ingredients. Dietary supplements cannot be used to replace meals, because it is imperative above all to sustain a certain regularity.
The essential key to nourishing our vitality is moderation and temperance. Irregularity and excess are damaging to the body. Crash diets based on just one type of food, for example, are one form of irregularity. Eating only rice or fruit for several days, or suddenly starting a slimming diet very different from our usual food intake, are also violent interruptions which traumatize the digestive system. Any positive results they produce will not last long.
No lasting effects can be achieved unless a regular diet is adopted. If we want to alter habits we have acquired, we need to proceed gradually on the basis of habits familiar to us from childhood.
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7. Alternation of rest and activity
In Chinese philosophy, Yin and Yang refer to the opposed and complementary facets contained in all things: male/female, Sky/Earth, hot/cold, etc. In nature, the fluctuations of Yin and Yang take the form of the alternation and succession of days and nights and of the 4 seasons.
Light and heat are Yang. Darkness and cold are Yin. Within a 24 hour cycle, day is Yang, night is Yin. In the annual cycle, spring and summer are Yang, since the temperature increases as the days grow longer. Fall and winter, on the other hand, are Yin.
The Yang of the universe is represented by the Sky and the Sun. It corresponds to the presence of sunshine around us, which is a factor indispensable to the development of life on earth. The Yin of the universe is represented by Earth which bears, gives birth to, and nourishes, all living beings. The interaction between Sky and Earth is constant. Constant movement in the atmosphere is responsible for climatic variation. One form of interaction is the cycle of moisture: water evaporates to form clouds from which water falls again as rain.
A. The daily rhythm
Getting up and moving when the sun rises, resting and sleeping when the sun has set: this is the universal pattern.
Nevertheless, as with diet, the essential point is regularity in our habits. Sleeping during daytime and getting up to work at night, is a regular cycle. The body can adapt to it. It is having no fixed and regular pattern that damages vitality. Working practices that require frequent changes of sleep pattern make demands for adaptation which exhaust the body’s vitality.
The length of sleep varies from person to person, but the average is about 6 hours. Lack of sleep affects the body’s physical regeneration which occurs during sleep. In the long run, lack of sleep damages in particular the YIN aspect of our vitality, the part which regenerates tissue and repairs the physical wear and tear caused by the day’s activity. Its effects are noticeable in relation to skin moisture, for example, or to the health and color of hair.
Too much sleep, and too much lying down in general, damages our vital energy (Qi). This is the Yang aspect of vitality which is outwardly expressed through our strength and vivacity. Inwardly, it is manifested in the functional strength of the organs. A deficiency becomes apparent through tiredness, and breathlessness or sweating at the slightest effort.
B. The Seasonal rhythm
By following the rising and setting of the sun every day, our life rhythm progressively adapts to the seasons.
Lack of sleep is particularly damaging in winter, which is the season of hibernation. It is the time of year when the body rebuilds its stock of vitality, just as it does on a smaller scale each night. Late nights are harmful in winter, but not in summer. Winter is also a time when sexual activity should be reduced to a minimum.
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8. Bodily overstrain
Our bodily activities are also involved in the maintenance or else the expenditure of our vitality.
What is over strain?
The movements and efforts we carry out during the day should be distributed harmoniously over the whole body. For example, if we use one arm much more than the other, or the upper body more than the lower, an imbalance occurs. The joints of the most used parts will be more prone to rheumatic disorders. This is a type of overstrain.
To prevent this, one simple activity simply involves exercising each of our joints for a few seconds without trying to exercise the muscles which move them. The exercise should be done gently and slowly, without violence. It just involves gently moving each joint as far as it will comfortably go. The full movement should be carried out several times without any attempt to develop muscular strength. The objective is to maintain the quality and suppleness of the joints.
Since the different movements and postures affect the internal organs, the Chinese have developed health exercises called Qi Gong (pronounced Chee Kong). These exercises are not designed to build muscles and physical strength like western sport.
The practice of violent sports requires a copious diet which in turn places demands on the systems of digestion and elimination. The joints and muscles are put under great stress and may be subject to premature wearing. In the West, sweating is considerable as a desirable means of eliminating poisons. Violent exercises often involve extensive nervous tension: sports practiced to win, to push oneself to one’s limits and beyond.
The Chinese conception of physical exercise is completely different.
In practicing Qi gong exercises, you aim to be concentrated but relaxed; no attempt is made to achieve a result or improve yourself. Breathing is deep but completely natural. If there is breathlessness or sweating, it means the exercise is not being properly done. Profuse sweating is considered to be an “injury” to the blood and heart, and may even, in extreme cases, lead to cardiac problems.
Many Westerners believe that the practice of a sport is good for health. It is true that our internal organs and joints require a certain amount of movement. Physical exercise is essential to maintain our vital energy and make it flow harmoniously through all parts of the body.
But, to reach this objective, there is no need to suffer by doing exercises which exhaust our energy, and leave us breathless and sweating. The disorders so common in high level athletes shows clearly that excessive exercise does not promote health, but on the contrary exhausts vitality.
Nevertheless, as with diet, the most important point remains regularity in one’s habits. In someone who has practiced sport intensively since childhood, the body has adapted. Stopping suddenly may cause problems. The most dangerous situation is when one suddenly begins doing violent exercise after a long period without regular practice. The fashion for marathon, for example, brought on a whole wave of cardiac incidents. In view of the constant tendency to go over the top in the matter of physical exercise, who knows what will be the effects of the next fashion?
As for Qi Gong, they are exercises which have been practiced for centuries.
They mobilize all the parts of the body efficiently and gently, which also reinforces the internal organ functions. Although they appear externally to be gentle exercises, their internal action is very powerful. Instead of dissipating our energy through muscular effort, they improve the internal circulation of our energy. Done properly, they produce a sensation of lightness and well-being. Done wrongly, they can be dangerous.
Warning: Since Qi Gong became fashionable, courses open to the public have proliferated. As we know, there is a great difference between, for example, knowing how to read and being competent to teach children to read. Likewise, extreme caution should be observed regarding unqualified instruction in Qi Gong which, improperly practiced, may damage both physical health and mental stability.
In certain cases, Qi Gong may enable the development of physical abilities which Westerners generally consider to be paranormal or supernatural. The spectacular demonstration of such powers is unfortunately often confused with authentic competence, which is above all the ability to recognize what can be taught in the West without risk to health. It should be understood that the regular practice of incorrect exercises can seriously weaken our vitality, even if no apparent disorders arise immediately.
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9. Emotional and intellectual overstrain
Far more than diet, psychological balance plays a determinant role in the preservation of life and health.
The conscious functioning of the spirit may be divided into two parts: the one involved in knowledge and learning (Zhi), and the one involved in sensation and feeling (Qing). They are what psychologists call the cognitive sphere and the affective sphere.
Our thoughts are produced continually, one after the other. The mental activity consumes energy and can, in the event of excess, lead to overstrain. All the sense perceptions keep the mind in constant activity, and this activity gives rise to the emergence of desires. From her, thought becomes future orientated and we act in order to satisfy desire.
For example, when we see an apple, the mind interprets what we see. Thought comes into play: our intelligence, combined with knowledge previously acquired, makes us identify what the eye perceives as an apple. Having identified it, we associate the sight o the apple with the pleasant flavor we know it to have. And thus, even if we are not hungry, we start to feel desire. We feel the urge to eat the apple, just as we may feel the urge to own or buy a multitude of more or less useful objects simply because we have seen them. The effect of desire is to stimulate thought, to direct it toward the future, toward the accomplishment of an action. In the present example, this means either picking up the apple or deliberately not doing so for one reason or another.
Daily life is thus made up of a succession of actions which are all stimulated by the contact sustained with the outside through our five senses. This permanent activity is a concomitant of Life. It enables us to act to fulfill all our vital needs. This mental activity generates desires and emotional reactions. Having feelings is an essential aspect of our life. Emotions have physical effects on the human body. They stimulate the functions of our internal organs. Without this stimulus, their functions would diminish.
For example, anger produces and excessive rise of energy towards the upper part of the body. The face becomes red and hot, vision becomes blurred, blood pressure rises. Fear affects the lower parts. The legs become shaky, and bladder and bowel control may be lost.
Each of the 7 fundamental emotions (anger, over excitation, rumination, sorrow, fear, anxiety and fright) which constitute our emotional behavior thus has a concrete effect which is easy to verify. The extent to which the different feelings we experience follow each other harmoniously, actively influences the body’s physiological balance. Emotional excess, that is too violent or long-lasting emotions, upsets the balance.
Obviously, the state of the organs also alters our emotional reactions. Thus, according to the Chinese, people in whom the liver is too full of blood and hence hard and congested, will be naturally irritable. They lose their temper at the slightest stimulus, even though the circumstances do not warrant it.
How can we calm the mind/spirit?
To do this, we need to cultivate the concentration of the mind/spirit by the regular practice of meditation exercises involving 3 aspects:
-natural and spontaneous abdominal breathing
When these 3 conditions are attained, it is possible to concentrate the spirit and to interrupt the flow of thoughts for a few moments. Gradually, concentration of the spirit may be maintained for longer. This meditative exercise profoundly relaxes the body as well as the mind. It strengthens the spirit and improves mental capacities (memory, concentration, clarity and acuity of thought). It progressively increases the ability to cope with emotional stress. Done preferably in the evening, it helps one sleep better. The practice of such exercises may nevertheless be contra-indicated in some cases, so it is important to seek advice from a competent health professional.
Through the deep calm it brings about, concentration of the spirit promotes energy circulation throughout the body which strengthens our resistance to illness, our natural defenses, as well as the organism’s natural self-healing capacities.
Calm and concentration enable us to diminish illusory desires and the procession of fleeting joys, regrets, and frustrations which come with them. As we stop being permanently intent on some goal, our needs diminish. This internal relaxation brings pleasures which are deeper and more lasting. Our entire attitude to life may be changed.
The few decades our life lasts may be compared to holidays spent in a hotel. It is pleasant to enjoy fully everything the hotel has to offer, to appreciate the furnishings and the quality of the service. Everything is laid on to make our stay as agreeable as possible, and we would be wrong not to take advantage of it. However, nothing in the hotel belongs to us. At the end of the holiday, we have to leave and can take nothing with us. If we have spent the vacation well, we will leave the hotel without regrets or bitterness, with the feeling of having taken full advantage of our stay.
Our philosophy of life is linked with Yangsheng fa, the Principles for Nourishing Life.
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To maximize the effects of treatment with Traditional Chinese Medicine, I strongly advise you to maintain the following programme:
1. Gradually alter your diet in accordance with advice of your practitioner.
2. Gradually start practicing exercises adapted to your needs.
3. Above all, adopt a philosophy of life, and attitude to the world, which emphasizes the following points:
– Taking responsibility for your actions and choices
– Self expression and involvement in altruistic activities and ideas. These ideas should lead to acts which transcend the self, are enriching and increase moral strength.
– Trying to solve conflicts as quickly as possible to avoid wasting emotional energy. Right or wrong, good or bad, whatever your decision, whether you win or lose by it, try to find the best solution from your point of view as rapidly as you can, then move on to something else. Live life to the full. If you’ve made a mistake, correct it and move on.
– Accepting yourself, liking and respecting yourself. Learn to tell yourself “yes” or “no”. Listen to your interior impressions and trust them. Be at ease with yourself when you are alone. Liking the people around you is absolutely essential to living in company, which plays a role in promoting health.
Prof. Leung Kok Yuen
Phillipe Riviere began his formal TCM training with Professor Leung Kok-yen in the late seventies through the North American College of Acupuncture and the European University of Chinese Medicine (SinoBiology). In 1992, he received a Master’s Degree in Chinese Language Studies from the University of Paris (France). Mr. Riviere is fluent in Chinese and actively utilizes classical texts in his daily practice. After training for five years in Traditional Chinese Oncology, Mr. Riviere is a specialist in the TCM analysis and therapeutics of malignant tumors. He works in collaboration with several oncologists in Beijing. Mr. Riviere also currently teaches TCM to physicians in the Czech Republic. Philippe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org