February 12th 2021
5 lessons for modern life from the Chinese art of self-care, Yang Sheng
April 3rd 2019 / 0 comment
If you suffer from 'stress face', poor digestion and plain old overload, these simple tweaks and one-minute rituals from Yang Sheng expert Katie Brindle will not only improve your day but support your health and wellbeing long-term
We’re all familiar with the term ‘self-care’ but not many people have heard of Yang Sheng, the Chinese art of self-healing. It’s a central aspect of Chinese Medicine and means ‘to nurture life’ and is rooted in ancient Taoist (Chinese) philosophy.
In the West, we take our good health for granted and neglect wellness and disease prevention. Yang Sheng is about discovering energy imbalances long before they turn into overt disease. It works on the approach of eliminating small health niggles and balancing the body to stay healthy.
The good news is, you don’t need a whole new you. In Yang Sheng, the secret to long-lasting health and happiness does not lie in radical diets and extreme workouts that prove impossible to stick to. The key is to implement small daily measures that are simple, pleasurable, and fit effortlessly into your life. Think about how daily teeth-brushing has become a habit for most of us. Yang Sheng offers a similar, easy approach focusing on wider health benefits. Do this and you’ll set yourself up for success, even on the toughest of days.
Why we need to look after our circulation, especially if we're stressed
There are two aspects of the body that are particularly important in Chinese medicine, qi which is the energy, or life force, that flows inside all of us and determines our health - and blood. The two are intertwined and circulate together.
We all know that our blood is important, but how often do you stop to think about why? It brings nutrients and oxygen to our organs and tissues and carries away wastes and toxins; without this function, our organs can’t thrive and waste accumulates to dangerous levels.
One of the biggest enemies of blood flow and qi is stress. The stress hormone cortisol causes reduced blood flow in many parts of the body. The muscles start to will feel dry and fibrous through lack of nourishment from blood and lactic acid can build up causing pain, tension knots and inflammation.
Stress also has a negative impact on circulation because the ‘fight or flight’ response diverts blood and qi away from the skin and into the muscles, so we can run from danger. This process results in less oxygen and vital nutrients passing into the skin, leading to muscle tension, inflexible fascia and stagnant lymph as well as wrinkles and dryness in the face.
Good flow of qi and blood leads to proper circulation, which ensures a well-nourished body with the added benefits of a glowing complexion, a sharper mind and boundless energy. Increasing your blood flow stimulates cell growth too. On the other hand, poor qi and blood circulation leave the body feeling malnourished and waste will start to build up, leading to stagnation of energy and disease.
In Yang Sheng, you’ll find many practices that improve blood circulation. Food and breath are important too. Chinese wisdom places huge importance on breathing because it is one of the two major ways, alongside food, we create quality qi and blood. Yang Sheng offers small measures that are simple, pleasurable and fit effortlessly into your daily life to keep blood and qi flowing and help us stay well.
5 easy ways to bring Yang Sheng into your life
1. Zap wrinkles and soothe stress face with a jade massage tool
No matter how much makeup we have, we can only be our most beautiful selves when we are in our most healthy state – be it physically, emotionally, socially, intellectually, professionally or spiritually. This aligns with what Chinese medicine advocates: namely that beauty is an external manifestation of our internal health.
The Chinese understand that skin problems generally have their root in digestive issues (see below for quick digestive fixes). Western science now seems to be aligning itself to this ancient thinking, with more evidence that psoriasis, for example, is linked to a leaky gut.
As we said, stress has a negative impact because the ‘fight or flight’ response diverts blood away from the skin and into the muscles. Signs of ageing we dread such as fine lines, dryness and sagging skin are worsened by stress. For example, sagging skin is the result of decreased blood flow and dehydration where the stress response has leached vitamins, blood and moisture from the skin and diverted it to the muscles.
To bring more circulation back to your face try Gua Sha. It’s a simple press-stroke technique, using a jade tool (such as the Hayo’u Beauty Restorer £35 ) on the face. This beauty treatment has been deployed across Asia for thousands of years, as it has a unique ability to encourage the circulation under the skin, bringing nutrients and boosting collagen and elastin. Rather than applying a cream or serum to nourish skin from the outside, you are activating your own body to do the work from the inside out.
Gua Sha stimulates the dermis to support collagen and elastin production, manipulates areas of tension to relax facial muscles, exponentially increases blood and aids lymphatic flow. All of which makes for a brighter, more radiant complexion.
Jade is revered for its restorative, cooling properties. Research studies show that certified jade radiates far-infrared rays, invisible waves of energy that have the ability to penetrate all layers of tissues, muscles and bone in the human body. These rays are believed to be deeply healing, increasing oxygenation and regeneration of the blood.
Try this Gua Sha ritual for one minute a day:
2. Soften up your exercise routine
Exercise does not need to be strenuous to be effective. Believe it or not, you can do too much exercise, especially if you’re feeling tired or unwell. It only takes a few minutes of low-intensity exercise, such as walking, to trigger the release of endorphins and increase your metabolism.
Excess stress is a big factor in weight retention. So, choosing mild forms of exercise such as yoga and Qi Gong can relax your body and mind to ease the stresses of daily life.
Qi Gong is the use of breath work for self-healing and is one of the pillars of Chinese medicine. If you visit China, every morning you'll see the public parks filled with locals moving as one in a languid, bewitching dance.
Tai chi has a positive effect on muscle strength, flexibility, and balance. It improves fitness and endurance levels of the heart and lungs. One study in the American Journal of Epidemiology concluded that tai chi was nearly as effective as jogging at lowering risk of death.
Gentle exercise helps improve breathing and move the qi (energy) gently, helping to strengthen organs and oxygenate the blood. In fact, if you are feeling tired or under the weather then half an hour of gentle breath-focused exercise is the perfect antidote.
3. Activate your ‘rest and digest’ mode with 'smiling breath'
There’s an ancient Chinese expression. “If you want to know what your thoughts were like yesterday, look at your body today. If you want to know what your body will look like tomorrow, look at your thoughts today.”
Chinese medicine believes that our mental state directly influences our susceptibility disease and healing and now the relatively new scientific field of Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) appears to be proving in Western terms what the Chinese have believed for thousands of years - that stress and anxiety can make us physically ill.
The vagus nerve acts as the mind-body connection, and it is the cabling behind the heart’s emotions and our gut instincts. It starts in the brain stem and lead to the gut via the major organs (heart, lungs) and is a key player in the gut-brain connection. Stimulating the vagus nerve is known to reduce induce a deeply relaxed state – it reduces heart rate, lowers blood pressure and relaxes the muscles - which benefits the mind.
This is can easily be done in the bustle of daily life by 'breathing' a smile deep into the abdomen. This simple technique automatically switches the nervous system into its rest and digest phase and overrides our fight or flight response and any negativity we may well be feeling in a stressed state.
Deep smiling breaths are not only easy, but can lead you one breath at a time into a simple meditation which we all know improves blood pressure, enables a positive mental outlook and reduces stress.
In ancient China, the Taoists taught that a constant inner smile, a smile to oneself, insured health, happiness and longevity. Why? Smiling to yourself is like basking in love: you become your own best friend. Living with an inner smile is to live in harmony with yourself.
Try the one-minute Rescue Breath Ritual for an inner smile:
• Expel. First, expel stale air by breathing in through the nose and purposefully out through the mouth three times whilst sticking out your tongue (if you are in public you may have to skip this step!) In Chinese Medicine this technique was traditionally used to physically expel heat (inflammation) via the breath, eliminating the need for the body to expel it via the skin.
• Descend. With eyes closed, inhale deeply for 8 counts, hold for 4 and then exhale for 8 counts and hold for another 4. Let the mental energy descend to calm the mind and relax the body.
• Smile. During exhalation, direct a smile into the lower abdomen. This sends a positive mental intention right to the energetic centre of the body.
4. Boost your digestion
Digestion is a cornerstone of traditional Chinese medicine, where good digestion isn't all about calories, frenetic exercise and deprivation, rather balance, quality and enjoyment.
Stress compromises our digestion because it diverts circulation away from vital processes like the digestive system in order to supply more blood to the muscles. Feelings of stress or anxiety can mess with your digestive system because of the strong connection between brain and gut, which Western medicine is only now recognising, but Chinese medicine has known for centuries.
One key focus of Yang Sheng to support digestion is the importance of saliva. Here’s how to make mealtimes an act of self-care.
• Start your meal hungry. Hunger is a natural part of the digestion cycle and increases saliva production, yet many of us are afraid of feeling hungry. Ao Ying, a famous Chinese doctor, said that ‘Man should endure 30 per cent hunger and 70 per cent fullness.’
• Look at your food. Even in superfast-paced modern China, diners take a moment to just regard their food before it is eaten - and they do this to trigger saliva production. Taoists refer to saliva as ‘the foundation of youth’. It contains glucosamine, the amino acid that is naturally produced in the body for cartilage regeneration. This saliva contains vital enzymes for digestion – so the more you allow yourself to salivate, the better.
• Put the food in the middle of the table to feel a sense of abundance. This sends positive messages to your brain. Like all health-benefitting bodily functions, eating should be a pleasure. In Chinese medicine, the heart is the emperor organ and rules joy and the entire body. Feel joy and optimum digestion will follow.
• Drink fluids at room temperature or warmer. Cold food and drinks impede digestion and Chinese medicine believes they create fat. Cold water is disastrous to the energetic equilibrium of your body. The stomach is energetically hot, so glugging down vast quantities of cold fluid is the equivalent of putting steaming bowls of hot food endlessly into your fridge. Your gut has to work twice as hard just to maintain the correct temperature, which slows digestion down.
• Drink green tea throughout the day. It helps to boost your metabolism and dissolves excess fats by taking them cleanly through the digestive tract. I’d advocate green tea to anyone. Aside from its energetic properties, it can help lower your risk of cancer, protect your brain from diseases such as Alzheimer’s and kill bacteria. There’s an amino acid in green tea called L-Theanine, which is a psychoactive substance (like caffeine). This means it can cross the blood-brain barrier and directly affect the nervous system. L-Theanine is known to stimulate alpha waves in the brain, which induce a relaxed state.
• Use chopsticks and small bowls. This way you ensure you take small mouthfuls and avoid over-eating.
5. Add mini daytime rituals to give you better sleep
Chinese Medicine believes that the sleeping process is the movement of Wei Qi (defensive energy) from the exterior to the interior. That essentially means that when we are asleep, the blood penetrates down into the organs to do repair work. So, if you have toxicity in your bloodstream, your blood stays on the surface to avoid taking toxins deeper into your body. Any stagnation in the transport of Wei Qi will affect sleep, causing insomnia. Your body uses sleep to regenerate. Interrupted, shallow sleep disrupts this important mechanism of balance and healing in the body.
The balance between yin and yang energy is the key to good sleep. Yang is representative of the day, so is active and energetic, while yin is the night – a time of resting, regenerating and recuperating. It is important to have a good balance of the two throughout the day so you can go to bed balanced.
One way to do this is to practice proper breathing (such as the Rescue Breath, above) and mini relaxations throughout the day. These will keep your body primed for the night. It really is a great antidote to daily stress whilst you are rushing about your day.
Many of us wake up feeling tired and sluggish, which is often down to poor circulation. Regular practice of the Reset Ritual will rectify this and is brilliant to do on waking and, for example, every time you wash your hands throughout the day. (Tie it to something you already do to help remind you)
The one-minute Reset Ritual:
• Shake. Shaking from top to bottom refreshes the body by invigorating the circulation, loosening stagnated blood and qi.
• Drum. Drumming builds on this feeling of invigoration, but in addition it benefits the immune system. It’s also known as stem cell Qi Gong as it stimulates stem cell production. Stem cells have the potential to regenerate and repair damaged tissue. Pat down the outside and up the inside of the legs and arms, around the abdomen, lower back, head and thymus (in between your breasts).
• Twist. Twisting supports the digestion, one of the first systems to be affected by stress. Twisting at the waist compresses the digestive organs, which compromises function. When you release a rush of fresh blood flows in, bringing oxygen and fresh nutrients to the area. Twist at the waist and swing your arms so your hands firmly pat the lower abdomen and back.
If you only do two or three Yang Sheng practices a day, I’d advise one-minute of proper breathing, a quick burst of the Hayo’u Reset Ritual whenever you feel tense and to give Gua Sha a try.
Katie Brindle Katie Brindle is a UK born Chinese Medicine practitioner and founder of the Hayo’u Method. She has developed a range of rituals, products and tools and specialises in a combination of detailed diagnosis and self-treatment, drawing upon ancient Chinese Medicine. She studied Traditional Chinese Medicine and qualified as a Five Elements Chinese medical practitioner. Hayo’u is based on the aspect of Chinese medicine known as Yang Sheng (meaning ‘nurture life’).
Find out more about Yang Sheng and the Hayou Method at www.hayoumethod.com
Katie's new book, Yang Sheng: The Art of Chinese Self-healing, £15 is out now.