Thousands of years ago the ancient Chinese developed techniques for maintaining health and extending long life. These time-tested methods include meditation, qigong, proper diet, visualization, and massage. These arts are said to develop the strength of a lumberjack, the flexibility of a child, and the mind of a sage.
Among the world religions, Daoism is unique because it includes developing the physical body as an essential part of spiritual growth. In addition to practicing physical exercises to strengthen the body and meditation to strengthen the spirit, the Daoist lifestyle also uses diet as a way to attain physical and spiritual wellness.
The ancient Chinese view of the body teaches us about Qi (氣- life force) which is the basic energy of the universe. Qi energy comes to us through the food we eat (as well as through parents when we are created, through our interactions with other people, through the air we breathe). Illness, negative thoughts, and an exhausting lifestyle can drain this life energy, but it can be restored through medical care, conscientious diet and appropriate physical activity. When you are eating well, there will be harmony within the body, your life energy will be strengthened, and you will live a longer and healthier life.
The energy of the world is seen as manifesting through Yin and Yang, energetic qualities that shape everything in the universe. The Chinese character for Yin (陰) depicts the shady side of a hill. Yin is characterized as slow, soft, yielding, diffuse, cold, wet, and passive. The Chinese character for Yang (陽) depicts the sunny side of a hill. Yang is characterized as fast, hard, solid, focused, hot, dry, and aggressive. In the natural world, Yin and Yang exist in balance. It is also important to balance these energies in the body. Foods are also Yin and Yang in nature. This has less to do with the actual temperature of the food and more to do with the food’s inherent energetics. Because foods are Yin or Yang in nature they can be used medicinally, to bring the body back into a state of balance.
|Yang Foods||Yin Foods||Neutral Foods|
|Origin||Grow in the air in the sunshine||Grow in the dark and in the earth||Neither Yin or Yang in nature|
|Function||Warm the body(raise metabolism)
Enhance the Qi
|Cool the body(lower metabolism) Calm the Qi||Qi maintaining|
|Example||Beef, Black pepper, Brown sugar, Butter, Cheese, Chicken liver and fat, Chilies, Chocolate, Coffee, Eggs, Smoked fish, Garlic, Green peppers, Goose, Ham, Kidney beans, Lamb, Leeks, Onions, Peanut butter, Roasted peanuts, Potato, Rabbit, Turkey, Walnuts, Whiskey, Wine||Almonds, Apple, Asparagus, Bamboo, Banana, Barley, Bean curd, Bean sprouts, Beer, Broccoli, Cabbage, Celery, Clams, Corn, Corn flour, Crab, Cucumber, Duck, Eels, Fish, Grapes, Honey, Ice creams, Lemons, Mushrooms, Mussels, Oranges, Oysters, Peppermint tea, Pineapple, Salt, Shrimps, Spinach, Strawberries, Soya beans, White sugar, Tomatoes, Water||Bread, Carrots, Cauliflower, Cherries, Lean chicken meat, Dates, Milk, Peaches, Peas, Pigeon, Plums, Raisins, Brown rice, Steamed white rice|
In the Chinese healing diet, people eat to balance the pattern of the seasons. In the Winter, when the world is cold, we use Yang foods to warm and stimulate the body. In the Spring, we eat stimulating and neutral foods. In the Summer heat, we balance our bodies by eating calming and cooling Yin foods. In the Fall, when the weather becomes dry, we eat moistening foods to help us retain fluids. Many of us eat this way instinctively, enjoying hot stews in the winter and cooling salads and fruits in the summer.
In addition to using food to balance your energy with the seasons, it is also possible to eat to balance your own personal nature. Younger, or more aggressive people who are more Yang in nature can eat more Yin foods to have a calming effect. Older people or more reserved people are more Yin in nature and can eat more Yang foods to increase their strength and spunk.
Just as the Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic communities have within them a diverse assortment of lay people and clergy, each with a different layer of practice, this is also true in the Daoist community.
Varying Diets by Lifestyle
The Healing Diet (lay people, Daoist disciples, and married Daoist priests)
These people follow the traditional human diet (grains and beans, fruits and vegetables, animal products). The stomach is never filled. They also eat with an awareness of what foods are beneficial in a particular season and use the food’s inherent properties (warming, cooling, etc.) and eat with an increased awareness of the needs of their personal body. The intention of this diet is to produce maximum health in this world.
The Monastic Diet (diet of temple Daoists and hermits)
For ecological, psychological, and physiological reasons, Daoists living in temples and seclusion as hermits do not intake animal products. These people also avoid alcohol, sugar, caffeine, cold foods, processed foods, chemically treated foods, and foods brought in from far away places.
They abstain from using any of the “5 strong vegetables” (foods in the Alliumfamily) onions, scallions, shallots, leeks, and garlic, which are considered very stimulating in nature. 1/3 of the stomach is always kept empty. Many temple Daoists also use traditional Chinese herbal medicine to improve their health. The monastic diet is done in conjunction with other Daoist practices, including breathing exercises, meditation, self-massage, and sexual restraint. It is believed that humans also intake the energy that was used when our food was cooked. So, during a typical meal in a Daoist temple, cooking is treated with reverence, as a sacred act. In many temples rites are given to dedicate what we are eating to our spiritual development. In some temples, the meal is eaten in silence, followed by a concluding prayer. The intention of the monastic diet is to increase connection to the spiritual.
The Immortal Diet
Daoism tells of a level of spiritual practice where the normal intake of food is no longer needed. A typical part of this is the practice of Bigu (辟谷 – abstention from grains). Daoists at this level of practice are said to live on herbs and the Qi energy gained through their practices. Through intensive meditation, physical exercises, and visualization practices, those on the path to immortality refine the Qi energy of the body into Shen (神 – pure spirit), so that the self lives on as a spirit being long after the death of the body. The intention of this diet is to assist in spiritual transcendence.
The basic principle behind all levels of Daoist nutrition is that humans are a part of the world around us. The food we eat influences the nature of our bodies both physically and energetically. Eating in a mindful way, taking into account the needs of our bodies and the world around us, is an essential part of any spiritual practice. Whenever making changes to your diet, it is best to work together with a conscientious medical professional to develop a diet that is tailored to your own
What is “Qi ” ?
The term “Qi ” is usually translated as “vital energy”. The original Chinese character 氣 (Qi ) was a pictograph, showing steam rising from a bowl of rice, symbolizing a non-material state of energy. In Chinese, the term Qi is used to refer to weather, the atmosphere in a room, and even a person’s temper. It is the energy of life that gives force to all of the nature including the human body.
An understanding of Qi can be applied to any field. When understanding the nature of Qi and you look at architecture, it becomes feng shui. When you look to the future, it becomes divination. When you look at the body it becomes Chinese medicine. Chinese medicine sees Qi as the force that gives movement to the organs and function of the body. It describes the proper functioning of the organs, including the processing of food and the immune system. Where does Qi energy come from? In Daoism we say there are two sources of energy, pre-natal and post-natal. Prenatal Qi is the life force and genes we inherit from our parents before we are born. Postnatal Qi is the energy we take in after we are born, from the air we breathe, the food we eat, and our interactions with other people. Because of the influence of Postnatal Qi, our lifestyle choices, impact our body energetically. Factors such as poor diet, lack of physical activity, sexual excess, stress, over-work, harm the flow of Qi in the body, causing illness. However, the body’s energy can also be strengthened by making lifestyle changes, as well as practicing Qi Gong. A proper lifestyle and Qi Gong practice create a state of health where the Qi in the body flows smoothly. Beyond the absence of illness, it is this state of full and balanced Qi that defines ideal health.
What is “Qi Gong”?
Qigong is an ancient Chinese practice that combines breathing techniques, visualization, body posture, and self-massage to bring the mind and body to a higher state of well-being. Within the Daoist community, we refer to many of our practices as Dao Yin (導引– guiding and leading energy). In the Daoist community Qi Gong practices are done in a spiritual context, and while they are very good for the body, the major goal is not healing, but self-cultivation and a stronger relationship with the Dao.
History of Qi Gong
In the 1970’s a tomb called Mawangdui (馬王堆Lord Ma’s Tomb) was excavated in Hunan Province. The tomb, which dates from the Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 9 CE) included a scroll that shows a group of people, young and old, noble and common, all practicing Qigong. One of the things about the scroll that is the most striking is the resemblance the ancient postures show to the Qi Gong that is being practiced today, showing the consistency and continuity of Qi Gong techniques.
The earliest Daoist reference to Qi Gong practice can be found in chapter fifteen of the Book of Master Zhuang (莊子 – zhuan zi) was written in the 4th century BCE during the Warring States Period. The book descries Qi Gong practice saying “To practice blowing, breathing, inhaling and exhaling, to expel the old and bring in the new, and to engage in bear-motions (xiongjing 熊經) and bird-stretchings (niaoshen 鳥申), with longevity as one’s only concern -these are the practices of Daoyin adepts, people who nourish their bodies and hope to live as long as Pengzu”.
During the Cultural Revolution in China (1966-1976) the Communist Party declared Qi Gong a feudalistic practice and banned a public practice. In the 1980s the practice became acceptable again and China underwent a Qi Gong boom, and the practice was spread to the outside world, and a growing group of dedicated students and teachers are protecting these practices and living healthier and longer lives.
Styles of Qi Gong
Qi Gong can be done standing, sitting, or lying down. In a realized state, the practitioner breathes deeply and performs a series of movements. These movements often correspond to ideas in Chinese cosmology, for example, the 5 elements, 8 trigrams, etc.) These practices built strong Qi flow in the body, and help the student develop the ability to feel and move their own Qi energy.
Qi Gong and Medicine
Qi Gong is an inseparable part of Chinese medicine. The best Chinese medicine practitioners today still practice using not just herbs and needles, but will also prescribe healing Qi–Gong exercises, sounds and movements, and breathing techniques, which their patients can use to better their health. This is very different from Western medicine, as it empowers the patient, giving them the tools to heal themselves.
Western medicine has been used to examine the significant physiological changes that occur during Qi Gong practice by examining electromagnetic changes, low-frequency muscle vibration, skin conductivity, and brain wave response.
Benefits of Qi Gong practice that have been observed in scientific study including the following:
- Lower heart rate
- Relaxation causes blood vessels to dilate, improving circulation
- Increasing a flow of blood to limbs and brain.
- Abdominal breathing massages the digestive organs
- Mental well-being
- Lower metabolic rate
Advice for Qi Gong Practice
While Qi theory is interesting, it cannot stand-alone. Qi can be understood by the mind, but it also must be directly felt through the body. In many ways understanding Qi is like understanding snow. While you can read, and theorize about snow all day, nothing can replace the direct experience of a snowfall. The most useful understanding of Qi is found through observing what you feel in your own Qi Gong practice.
It is important to be alive in your practice. No matter what style of Qigong you study, you need to work with the exercises and through trial and error, discover how to make them work for you. If the practice is not working for you, you need to examine you body posture, breathing, and thought patterns, and make changes. If you have a good practice, ask yourself why it was good. After each exercise, turn your mind inward, and see what type of changes you feel happening. You have learned to listen to what is happening in your body. Qi Gong is a practice not to be done carelessly. It can cause significant physiological and psychological changes. These changes can be beneficial for the body, but when Qi Gong exercises are performed incorrectly, they can also cause serious harm. In order to ensure your safety, and get the most benefit from Qi Gong it is best to practice under the supervision of a qualified teacher.
Benefits of Taiji Quan
“Taiji can give you the strength of a lumberjack, the pliability of a child, and the peace of mind of a sage.” – Chinese Proverb
Taiji Quan (Tai Chi) is often described as “meditation in motion”. As with other mind-body practices, Taiji focuses on movement and breathing, creating a state of calm relaxation. In recent years, the health benefits of Taiji have been the subject of a number of academically rigorous scientific studies in the West, and it comes as no surprise that in addition to relieving stress and creating a sense of well-being, many measurable benefits to practicing Taiji have been identified.
Taiji addresses the key components of fitness; muscle strength, flexibility, balance, and aerobic conditioning. Taiji differs from other types of exercise in several respects. When practicing Taiji, your movements are natural, your muscles relaxed. Joints are never fully extended and connective tissues are not stretched. Research conducted at the prestigious Mayo Clinic shows that Taiji burned 292 Calories per hour for a 160 pound individual) and 364 (for a 200 pound individual). That’s more calories per hour than their recorded rates for ballroom dancing, walking, bowling, volleyball, surfing and weightlifting.
Rigorous scientific research has shown evidence that Taiji is helpful for several medical conditions, including:
Eight weeks of Taiji classes followed by eight weeks of home practice significantly improved flexibility and slowed the disease process in patients with a painful and debilitating inflammatory form of arthritis that affects the spine. (Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine December 2008)
Low bone density
A review of six controlled studies by Harvard researchers indicates that Taiji may be a safe and effective way to maintain bone density in postmenopausal women.
A University of Rochester Study found that quality of life and functional capacity (the physical ability to carry out normal daily activities) improved in women with breast cancer who did 12 weeks of Taiji while declining in a control group that received only supportive therapy. (Medicine and Sport Science 2008)
A 53-person study at National Taiwan University found that a year of Taiji significantly boosted exercise capacity, lowered blood pressure, and improved levels of cholesterol, triglycerides, insulin, and C-reactive protein in people at high risk for heart disease, with no improvement noted in the control group. (Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine September 2008)
In a review of 26 studies, in 85% of trials, Taiji lowered blood pressure — with improvements ranging from 3 to 32 mm Hg in systolic pressure and from 2 to 18 mm Hg in diastolic pressure. (Preventive Cardiology Spring 2008)
A 33-person pilot study at the Washington University School of Medicine found that people with mild to moderately severe Parkinson’s disease showed improved balance, walking ability, and overall well-being after 20 Taiji sessions. (Gait and Posture October 2008)
In a University of California (LA) study of 112 healthy older adults with moderate sleep complaints, 16 weeks of Taiji improved the quality and duration of sleep significantly more than standard sleep education. (Sleep July 2008).
In 136 patients who’d had experienced a stroke at least six months earlier, 12 weeks of Taiji improved standing balance as compared to a general exercise program entailing breathing, stretching, and mobilizing muscles and joints. (Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair January 2009)
Taiji practice is inexpensive. It requires no special equipment. It can be done indoors or out, alone or in a group. You can get started with Taiji practice even if you aren’t in great shape or the best of health. Taiji can be adapted for anyone, from those in wheelchairs to those recovering from surgery. If you still aren’t convinced, check with your doctor before starting Taiji. Given its excellent safety record, chances are that your doctor will encourage you to try it.
You may find that Taiji is the perfect activity for the rest of your life!