Chances are, if you’re reading this post, you practice Yoga and know it makes you feel good, but do you know why?
Firstly, a little history and background: Yoga originated in India about 2,500 years ago. At around about the same time, and probably even earlier, China was developing a system of health care (now called Traditional Chinese Medicine) that included the practices of acupuncture, herbal medicine, dietary therapy, Tuina massage and forms of therapeutic exercise that became known as Tai Chi and Qigong. Ancient China also had a philosophy for life, or rather for nurturing life, in order to prevent disease and ill health rather than try to cure illness once established. This philosophy is called Yangsheng and the practices of Tai Chi and Qigong are very much part of it.
Tai Chi and Qigong continue to be practiced in modern China, although mostly by the older generation because of the growing popularity amongst the younger generation of activities like jogging, sports and attending the gym. There are also now Yoga classes in China, mirroring the growth in popularity of Yoga in the West over the last 4-5 decades. And meanwhile in the West, Tai Chi and Qigong have also been growing in popularity since the 1970s and ‘80s.
Recognising this growth in popularity, and with a view to testing the benefits claimed by the ancient traditions of China and India, the West has subjected Tai Chi, Qigong and Yoga to scientific study, developing a substantial body of evidence. The conclusions of research confirm that there are indeed benefits to health in regard to flexibility, strength, balance and co-ordination, stress, fatigue, mood disorders, sleep disorders, heart disease, blood pressure, inflammatory markers, and more.
The ancient Chinese definition of health and guide to healthy living
So, from the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine and the philosophy of Yangsheng, why are the practices of Tai Chi, Qigong and Yoga so good for your health?
The ancient Chinese defined health in two main ways. Firstly, there must be balance between the Yin and Yang aspects of the body’s processes; and, secondly, there must be free-flow of Qi, Blood and Fluids. The notion of balance between Yin and Yang might, very roughly, be understood in modern medical terms as homeostasis – the mechanism whereby the body regulates itself in order to maintain general health. And while there are no exactly corresponding substances for ‘Qi, Blood and Fluids’ in modern medicine, there is some overlap between the modern understanding of blood and its circulation and that of Qi and Blood, and also between the synovial fluids that are found in healthy joints (acting as a lubricant) and the Chinese notion of Fluids.
These concepts about balance and free flow are, as indicated above, at least 2,500 years old and are at the heart of Yangsheng. The matters described by Yangsheng as being essential to maintaining balance and free flow are diverse, and include advice concerning: proper diet (not only what to eat but how to eat), sufficient sleep, moderate use of alcohol, cultivation of the mind and emotions (meditation), enjoyment of nature, music and dance, sex, pregnancy, care of children, old age and, of course, exercise (specifically Tai Chi and Qigong).
The importance of appropriate exercise to the ancient Chinese
About exercise, the famous 7th century (CE) doctor, Sun Simiao, wrote:
“If people exercise their bodies the hundred ills cannot arise” and,
“The way of nurturing life is to constantly strive for minor exertion but never become greatly fatigued and force what you cannot endure.”
It is worth pointing out that for many Chinese in ancient times their lives consisted of long hours of labour in order just to survive. And it was through observation of the destructive effects of overwork (and lack of nourishment) on such people that the advice about not over-exerting the body arose. And for the upper classes, who were not obliged to work and did not lack food, warmth, or leisure time, the lesson from observation was the opposite: too little activity (and over-indulgence) leads to illness and early death. The advice in Yangsheng about exercise (in fact, about most things) is therefore about finding the middle way – not too much, and not too little.
But there is more to the practices of Tai Chi and Qigong than mere physical activity and certain movements; both the breath and the mind are engaged to make the movements a meditative practice with similar benefits to pure meditation and while enhancing the experience of movement e.g. allowing tense muscles to relax and soften, or becoming more aware of alignment and misalignment.
Of course, it could be argued that other activities besides Tai Chi, Qigong and Yoga provide physical exercise and all the benefits that go with it. There can also be a large element of mental focus and breathe control in some sports, especially when played at professional level.
However, the mechanisms by which these other forms of exercise work is different to those of Tai Chi, Qigong and Yoga. In the former there is emphasis on strength, speed, endurance and mental focus usually in order to achieve a goal. In the latter, the emphasis is on softness alongside strength, relaxation after effort, and mental stillness and presence in the midst of bodywork. This is what makes Tai Chi, Qigong and Yoga different from other physical activities and similar to each other in terms of benefits.
The Chinese understanding of the Body
We can also understand how practices such as Tai Chi, Qigong and Yoga benefit our health by considering the Chinese understanding of the body: its tissues, Channel pathways and the location of Acupuncture points.
Chinese medical theory asserts that five key Organs in the body – the Heart, Lungs, Spleen, Kidneys and Liver – are connected to each other and all other parts of the body by means of the Channels. The Channels are not structures; rather, they are spaces between the skin, ligaments, tendons, and muscles, and it is within these spaces that chemical messages, nutrition and waste products are conveyed. In other words, the Channels are where physiology occurs, and their functions involve control, regulation and balancing.
This understanding of the Channels can be dated to the 1st century BCE and a medical text called the ‘’Divine Pivot, which says:
The Channels determine life and death and are involved in all disease; they regulate excess and deficiency and must not be blocked.
This simply means that they are involved in all life processes and are active and alive, rather than being passive pathways or just places to find acupuncture points. It also emphasises their importance – without them the Organs cannot carry out their functions and life is not possible.
The Divine Pivot also states that:
“The Channels move qi and blood to nourish yin-yang, moisten the sinews and bones, and benefit the unimpeded movement of the joints.”
This statement clearly links the functions of the Channels to the notions introduced above, namely that health is dependent on the balance of Yin and Yang, the free flow of Qi and Blood, and movement of Fluids in the joints.
As the image beside shows, the 12 Channels run through the tissues of the body on all sides, and it is along these routes that the 360 plus Acupuncture points are found.
Yoga poses work the joints, muscles, tendons, ligaments and skin of the body – twisting, pressing, stretching, flexing – and in so doing they are ‘massaging’ the Channels that run between and through these structures, helping to ensure that Qi, Blood and Fluids flow freely.
Particularly important Acupuncture points (Source points) are found around the joints on the hands and feet where most of the pressure (and hence stimulation) from poses such as Balancing and Standing poses will be experienced.
Other important points (Backshu) are found on either side of the spine and these are activated by Spinal Twists, Down Face Dog, Forward and Backward bends.
The effect of stimulating the Source points is to provide energy to all areas of the body, while the effect of stimulating the Backshu is to stimulate the functions of the Organs noted above.
The feeling then, at the end of a well-balanced yoga routine, is of being energised (yet relaxed), and a general sense of ‘wellness’ and improved functioning (e.g. sleep, mood, digestion, bowel movements).
Ancient Chinese recommendations about appropriate forms of exercise, in the context of a comprehensive system of health care and health cultivation, and a highly sophisticated understanding of human physiology, have been confirmed by modern science to have many benefits for health. What matters is that the exercise should combine fluid movement with the breath and awareness. In these respects Yoga is very much consistent with the Chinese view of healthy exercise and nurturing of life.
Peter Deadman, ‘Live Well, Live Long: Teachings from the Chinese Nourishment of Life Tradition’, 2016
Professor Wang Ju-Yi, lectures in Dublin 2012-2013