Live Well, Live Long

Chinese medical culture has prioritised disease prevention since its earliest days. As the 2000-year-old ‘Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine’ says, waiting until a disease has arisen before intervening is like only starting to forge weapons once the battle has begun.

The traditional teachings on how to ‘nourish life’ (the Chinese term is yangsheng) and maximise your chance of living well and long, offer deep wisdom for the modern age. The four most important aspects – compared to the four legs of a chair – are the mind and emotions, diet, exercise, and sleep. These apply to all stages of life and, like a chair, if one or more is neglected or broken, your health will become unstable.

It is constantly emphasised that chaotic and unregulated emotions such as anger, anxiety, fear, worry and stress, can directly injure your physical and mental health unless they are moderated. It is also observed that, until you achieve some degree of emotional integration, you will find it difficult to look after yourself, undermining your own best efforts and making resolutions that you are unable to keep. As the great 7th century doctor, Sun Simiao, said, “Whenever people don’t live out their lives or their life is cut short, it is always caused by not loving or cherishing themselves.”

And lastly, without the conscious cultivation of positive emotions such as compassion and generosity, the search for health can easily become a selfish and narcissistic activity. The need to calm and stabilise the mind and emotions therefore runs like a thread through nourishment of life teachings, and the way we can start to learn to do so is made very clear – the practice of meditation or mindfulness. We now know that regular meditation actually changes the structure of the brain, growing it in regions associated with enhanced emotional and cognitive control and helping us achieve a centred and stable spirit.

As a Chinese saying goes, ‘He that takes medicine and neglects diet wastes the skills of the physician.’ Chinese dietary therapy can be quite complex but its broad guidelines are simple: That the ‘how’ of eating (quantity, timing, eating habits) is as important as the ‘what’; that the single most important rules for most of us are to eat less, eat slowly and calmly and not eat late at night; and that we should build our diet on light and simple foods (grains, vegetables, fruits and pulses). Richer, more flavoured and more nourishing foods are eaten to supplement them and the amount of these should vary according to our age, physical activity and the climate we live in.

Daoist (Taoist) philosophy had a profound influence on the nourishment of life tradition and one of its key tenets was to learn from nature. A favourite observation was that flowing water never becomes stagnant, and it is the same with the body. You should therefore exercise every day and additionally be as active as possible, never sitting or lying down for too long, yet at the same time not exhausting yourself with too arduous exercise. Traditional Chinese styles such as Tai chi follow this principle of promoting free flow, elastically coiling and uncoiling all the muscles and connective tissue while integrating deep slow breathing and a still and calm centre. Research conducted over the past couple of decades has shown how powerful Tai chi and similar practices such as Qigong are to promote health, strengthen the body, nourish the mind and prevent falling injuries in older people. Yet even if you do not practise Tai chi, simply walking, gardening and climbing stairs as much as possible will offer great benefits.

As far as sleep is concerned, the advice is simple. Sleep is free medicine or, as the 17th century author Li Liweng said, “Is not sleep the infallible miracle drug, not just a cure for one illness but for a hundred, a cure that saves a thousand lives?” Consciously prioritise sleep and do your best to avoid what interferes with it, for example eating too late at night, over-stimulating yourself in the evening with digital media, caffeine etc. and (once again) learn to calm your mind.

Beyond these four, nourishment of life teachings cover sexual life, pregnancy, childbirth, post-natal life, care of babies and children, cultivating your relationship to nature, music and art, maintaining vigour and mental acuity into old age and even managing the challenge of dying as well as possible.

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