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
Enhance the Qi
|Cool the body
(lower metabolism) Calm the Qi
|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.
The type of diet that is appropriate for each lifestyle also varies:
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