Principles for Nourishing
TRADITIONAL CHINESE MEDICINE
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
2. The role of lifestyle in the ageing process
Every life may be divided into 4 phases: Birth, Growth, Maturity and
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
* * *
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
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
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
* * *
4. The link between disease and longevity: the significance of
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
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
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
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.
* * *
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
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
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
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
* * *
5. “Following the way of Yin/Yang”: harmony with nature in Chinese
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
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.
* * *
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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.
* * *
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
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.
* * *
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
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
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
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
As for Qi Gong, they are exercises which have been practiced for
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.
* * *
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
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
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
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
* * *
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
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
of Chinese Medicine (SinoBiology). In 1992, he received a
Degree in Chinese Language Studies from the University of Paris
Mr. Riviere is fluent in Chinese and actively utilizes classical texts
in his daily practice. After training for five years in
Chinese Oncology, Mr. Riviere is a specialist in the TCM analysis and
of malignant tumors. He works in collaboration with several
in Beijing. Mr. Riviere also currently teaches TCM to physicians
in the Czech Republic. Philippe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
[back to top]