Life Cultivation

The art of nurturing life — Yang Shen

Life cultivation is a Chinese Medicine practice that is quite simple: it is taking care of the body in a preventative way through proper diet and exercise, mindfulness and proper rest to prevent disease from occurring and to maintain good health for a quality life.

If we practice Yang Shen — life cultivation — our treatments take faster effect if disease does arise and the health obtained lasts longer. Living mindfully and in moderation.

“When a person’s body is balanced and harmonious, you must merely nurture it well.”

— Zhang Zhongjing

Life Cultivation: Yang Shen at Home

Diet Therapy

  • Use your food as medicine to maintain your health
  • Eat whole foods — fresh and clean food to balance and nourish your body


  • Do something active at least every second day to maintain adequate health and vitality
  • Move, play, stretch, jump

Relaxation / meditation

  • Make the space in your day to relax or be still in mindfulness
  • Without adequate rest your body cannot regenerate appropriately.

The best medicine is the medicine that you do in your day to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Slow down (slow down your movements and your thoughts), go to bed earlier, be sure to walk, take rest, meditate, and eat more vegetables.

Here are a few points to consider from classical Chinese texts:

Five activities that tax the body, having the potential to exhaust, deplete, or weaken:

  1. Too much sitting — taxes the flesh
  2. Too much laying down — taxes the qi (energy or function)
  3. Too much standing — taxes the bones
  4. Too much walking — taxes the sinews
  5. Too much vision (staring) — taxes the blood

Six poor lifestyle habits that can damage the body:

  1. Irregular and improper food intake — which damages the stomach
  2. Anxiety — which damages the lungs (Note: in classical Chinese medical theory, the lungs constitute a paradigmatic function not generally conceptualized in Western physiology)
  3. Alcohol — which damages the liver
  4. Too much sex — which damages the kidneys
  5. Under-eating — which damages the spleen (again, this refers to the classical Chinese concept, and not the organ as in Western physiology)
  6. Overworking — which damages the yin, our nutrients, minerals, our blood, and our stores

Thus, to avoid disease people needed to live in balance:

  • Balance in lifestyle and exercise,
  • Balance in emotional and sexual habits,
  • Balance in exposure to the environment,
  • Balance in eating habits.

What the Ancients Said About a Healthy Diet

As Chinese Medicine was developing, doctors observed the causes of disease, not merely the symptoms. According to traditional Chinese dieticians and physicians, improper diet is one of the 10 causes.

Traditional Chinese doctors discerned a number of principles regarding a proper diet. Balanced eating meant moderation in the five flavors — sweet, salty, sour, pungent and acrid. Eating a variety of foods was considered very important to ensure adequate nutrition and to avoid an excess of any one flavor — which could cause imbalance to the internal organs. Today, an overconsumption of sugary or salty foods would be an example of excess. Balance in warm — e.g., soups or pungent foods — and cool — raw fruits and vegetables or chilled foods — was also an important principle.

The ancients made reference to both quantity and quality of food. Improper diet was broken into two aspects:

  • Irregular eating habits
  • Impure foods

People were taught to eat at regular times, not to eat late at night or to skip meals, and always to avoid overeating. Slowing down to chew and enjoy one’s food was encouraged. Avoiding distractions — such as working or being emotional — was also considered a principle in regular eating. Today, eating while driving, or watching TV, would be discouraged.

Traditionally, Chinese were taught to eat pure foods — quality, fresh, and uncontaminated by poor food storage or cooking methods. They were taught to avoid greasy, fried foods and too much alcohol. In modern times, impure foods are a far greater concern. Processed and refined foods, colorings, preservatives, hormones and many other impurities are found in so many of our foods make it much harder to sustain a pure diet.

The most commonly recommended approach was eating to protect and to care for the digestive tract and associated organs. This meant eating foods that were easy to digest — for example, soups, stews, and steamed veggies — and avoiding too many cold-natured foods — such as ice cream, chilled or frozen foods, cold drinks, raw foods. Cold liquids with meals were prohibited as they decrease digestive efficiency. Simply put, hold the ice when pouring your water!

These teachings may have their roots in an ancient time, but even today our bodies still require the same attention and care, making these principles at the core of a healthy diet.

Sun Simiao was a famous traditional Chinese medicine doctor of the Sui and Tang dynasty. He was titled as China’s King of Medicine for his significant contributions to Chinese medicine and tremendous care to his patients.

Master Sun chose to include an entire volume on dietetics in his monumental encyclopedia. His masterpiece is inspired by two concepts, which are also central to his approach.

  1. Treat disease before it arises

    “To be skilled at nurturing life is to treat disease before it arises”

    “...Even if you constantly ingest alchemical preparations, but do not know the art of nurturing life, it will still be difficult to extend your lifespan. The way of nurturing life is to constantly strive for minor exertion, but never become greatly fatigued and force what you cannot endure!”

    The benefits of prevention over treatment, of slowing down and getting rest over collapsing, of not pushing yourself too hard, are obvious not only to each of us on an individual level, but also to health insurance corporations and governments.
  2. the microcosm is a reflection of the macrocosm
    The second concept that is central to Master Sun’s vision of medicine is the recognition that the body is just one microcosm among many, which all change in accordance with the same principles: the very principles that also govern the changes that occur in the macrocosm.

Understanding the positive or negative changes that take place in one microcosm then facilitates one’s insights into the operation of the macrocosm at large or of any other microcosm.

A few final words:

To practice medicine, you must first thoroughly understand the source of disease and know what has been violated. Then, use food to treat it, and if food does not cure it, afterwards apply drugs.

If you are able to use food to stabilize chronic disease, release emotions, and chase away disease, you can call yourself an outstanding artisan. This is the special method of lengthening the years and “eating for old age”, and the utmost art of nurturing life.

A Food Assessment with Wild Roots

Just as in treatment with acupuncture and herbal medicine, the practitioner assesses the person’s constitution and then makes dietary suggestions. For example, a person requiring support for their kidneys may be encouraged to eat more warming foods, and black beans, black sesame, rich green vegetables, walnuts and so on. For someone who has a tendency towards liver stagnation it may be suggested that they avoid stimulants, refined foods and over-eating, enjoy a balance between raw and cooked food, and to always remain calm at the dining table. The possibilities are endless as they are based on individual needs.

The goal is to be knowledgeable about your body so you can eat the foods that make you healthier. I recommend taking an interest in food therapy and new recipes. Try to discover joy in cooking and eating. I invite you to explore the five flavours equally (pungent, sweet, bland, bitter, and sour). Balance in the food we eat is very important. Be adventurous and wholesome with your food choices and always eat more vegetables!

“Let Food Be Thy Medicine, and medicine be thy food.”

— Hippocrates

Move your body.
Calm your mind.
Get outside and play.
Turn off the screens.
Put down your phones.
Pick up your books.
Listen to someone’s story.
Contemplate the breeze.

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