Health and Longevity
All human beings desire health and longevity. The further our society advances, the higher our standards of living, the stronger the desire is. There is no question that the increased sophistication of our society and the progress we have made in science and technology have given us more comfortable lives; however, they have also brought us additional physical and emotional challenges as well as new diseases. If we truly want to live a long and healthy life, it is imperative that we turn to effective methods of maintaining health.
The Chinese have a long martial arts tradition that emphasizes longevity and the nourishment of health. On the one hand, we need to develop and propagate what we have gleaned from traditional theories on healthy living; on the other hand, we should also put the fruit of modern medical science to effective use. Through bringing together the two, we will find our own unique way to health. Why do we need a way to health that is specially tailored for ourselves? The answer is simple. As human beings we share many commonalities, but we are also individuals with many personal differences – for example, personality, knowledge, situation in life, hour of birth, age, gender, constitution, occupation, and levels of self-cultivation. Even twin brothers and sisters have individual differences. This is the reason the knowledgeable physician bases the treatment of each patient on the individual’s needs.
How do we go about looking for a way to health that is most suitable for ourselves? There are two key considerations.
First, we have to understand ourselves; that is, we have to be clear about our physical and mental states, as well as our habits. In other words, we need to be familiar with our own “biological rhythms.”
Second, we should choose a simple method that we can adhere to in the long term. This is of supreme importance. In the first place, our bodies have a self-regulating system. As long as we live in accordance with our body’s natural tendencies and not do anything to harm it, we will be able to attain our natural life span. As well, most of us have careers and a variety of activities that we have to attend to everyday; some of us live extremely busy lives. If the method we follow is overly complicated, perseverance will become a problem. When we consider the examples of those who have lived a long life, we can see that most have really simple “secrets of longevity.” The Chinese believe that “there are no tricks in what appears to be trickery,” (奇術不奇) and “the true Way (or Dao) is never complicated” (大道至簡不繁). Take the example of the well-known centenarian calligrapher Sun Mofo (孫墨佛); he stated that the secret to his longevity was that he spent two hours a day totally focused on practicing calligraphy. Mr. Fujisawa (藤澤) in Japan, who lived to be 110, described his daily routine as one that involved getting eight hours of sleep each night, getting up at 6 a.m., and enjoying singing his favourite tunes and eating preserved plums and turnips. Many centenarians who live in remote areas live simple lives which are summed up by the Chinese saying “wake with the sun, rest when it’s sunset” (日出而作, 日落而息). Their only leisure activity might be practicing Chinese martial arts and qi gung wellness exercise, their only food, the vegetables and rice that their land yields. Lu You, the famous poet of the Southern Sung Dynasty summarized all that he did to live to a ripe old age
this way, “The populace keep themselves busy looking for routes to longevity without realizing that longevity is right in front of them; I follow the teachings of Wanqiu Pingyifa (宛丘平易法), porridge will be my way to immortality.” (世人個個學長壽﹐不悟長壽在目前﹔我得宛丘平易法﹐只將食粥求神仙).
Daoists believe that “my life is in my grasp and not in heaven’s.” Taiping Jing (太平經) states, “Whoever wishes to live a long life must constantly aspire to nurture and maintain self esteem, self-respect, love and faith in oneself. This principle of longevity keeps one away from ills.” (得長壽者﹐本當保持自愛﹐自好﹐自親﹐以此自養﹐乃可無凶害也). Based on the findings of scientific research, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that where a person’s health and life span are concerned, 60% of the factors are related to individual choice, 15% to genetics, 10% to societal influences, 8% to medical care and 7% to climatic conditions. From this, it is clear that our life is in our hands. If we would contribute more to the community, the easier it is for us to realize our dream of a long life.
The advancements in western medical science over the last century make it seem as if the average person is now living a longer life. However, many are actually living in extreme pain and helplessness, struggling with an unhealthy life. In ancient times, many people were able to achieve a life of a hundred years or even more, yet, in modern times, a far fewer number of people are able to attain that milestone. The reason is traditional ancient Chinese Daoists approached health and longevity from a focus on the temperament. The foundation of a healthy internal life was built on the cultivation of the spirit and the mind. Modern science, on the other hand, takes a materialist approach. It builds on the external and the physical and largely ignores the cultivation of the inner life. There is a chasm between the two approaches. The difference is evident from the lives of modern athletes. Many of those who participate in vigorous sports or who are professional athletes do not live a long life. For example, Yang Chuan-kwang (楊傳廣), known as the “Iron Man of Asia,” was plagued by numerous illnesses. He was, unquestionably, the embodiment of the irony inherent in the belief that “sporting activities lead to good health.” The sportsman’s focus on improving his physical capabilities is not accompanied by similar effort in promoting the mind and the spirit.
The health and longevity of the body and a comfortable, happy life are the pursuit of humankind. They are the life’s work of scientists, biologists and philosophers of the world. Life and death are inevitable. This is the fate of all, be they kings and emperors, saints and heroes, the poor and the foolish. This is the natural law which we have no choice but obey. The advancement of science will never give us eternal life. The only way to stay healthy and live a long life is to ensure we are mentally and spiritually prepared; otherwise, even if we have the elixir of life in hand, it still will not do us any good. Improvement of physical health begins with improvement of the mind; before we strengthen our bodies, we must first strengthen the spirit. The key to fostering the spirit is to be optimistic and positive. Through developing insight into our fellowmen, we learn to live life with tolerance, understanding, and kindness to others and to ourselves. This enables us to take whatever changes in our environment, in human relationships, in changes in fortune with equanimity. Only then do we have the right sense of values, only then can we attain the balance of mind that will enable us to develop a positive attitude in our lives. Objectivity and acceptance free us; this is how we can truly become an
integral part of nature. This is the core and foundation of health. This state of mind, supported by various healthy-living practices and modern medical science, will be our ticket to a happy, healthy and long life.
Where traditional Chinese life-nourishing training methods are concerned, all orthodox schools, be they Buddhists, Daoists, Confucians, traditional Chinese medical practitioners, or martial artists, have kept a portion of the training secret. By tradition, the secret training methods are passed on only to legitimate disciples and kept away from the general public. The following is a little-known, simple, life-nourishing internal dan tian (or cinnabar field丹田) breathing exercise. It has obvious life-nourishing and fitness benefits, and it can raise the body’s self-healing power. It is a safe training method.
Internal dan tian breathing is natural abdominal breathing. This method is safe and has no side-effects. When doing the exercise, it is important to relax the entire body. It can be done lying flat or sitting upright. Focus on the dan tian (one can also keep the mind blank) while letting the body go into a relaxed state. Make an attempt to free the mind of thoughts and keep the chest still. Breathe in slowly through the nostrils, and focus on the breath reaching the dan tian. When breathing in, try tightening the abdominal muscles so that the lower abdomen sinks in (figure 1). At the start, try to keep the pace of the breathing to 10 times a minute. As one progresses, the breathing can be slowed to 4 or 5 times a minute. The breathing should be natural and relaxed. After 5 minutes, imagine a ball the size of a ping pong ball or one’s fist at the dan tian revolving forward. Keep breathing for 10 more minutes. Do this exercise twice a day, once in the morning and once at night. (Figure 2) At the beginning it may be difficult to maintain focus, but that is fine. Practice every day so that the habit is formed. It is fine too if one falls asleep while doing the exercise.
Why is internal dan tian natural abdominal breathing effective? At least 9 meridians pass through the lower abdomen; these are the kidney meridian, stomach meridian, spleen meridian, liver meridian which are arranged in pairs on the two sides, and the conception vessel (任脈) in the centre (figure 3). The stomach meridian and the spleen meridian are the seat of the acquired essence, they govern digestion and nutrition. The liver meridian is the seat of the innate essence; it governs the energy, the brain and endocrine system. The liver meridian governs the emotions and the nervous system. The conception vessel governs all the yin meridians in the body. When we do internal dan tian abdominal breathing, with the rise and fall of the abdominal muscles, the 9 meridians are stimulated and this, in turn, stimulates the flow of energy and blood in the body. Both the innate and acquired essences are strengthened, resulting in the various bodily systems being stabilized and balanced. It also aids in readjusting and calming the brain. For these reasons, internal dan tian abdominal breathing is the easiest way to relax the body and the best way to return the body and the meridians to their optimal conditions. The reasons for focusing on the dan tian during the exercise are, first, by concentrating our minds on the region three inches below the naval (or dan tian), we can easily drive out distracting thoughts. When we keep our chest still, the lower abdomen will naturally rise and fall following our breathing. Second, Chinese medical practitioners believe that the dan tian is closely related to kidney qi (energy) because it is where the kidney essence is stored. When the store of kidney essence is substantial, the body will naturally be healthy. Third,
modern scientific research has shown that the dan tian is the centre of the body’s magnetic field. By focusing on the dan tian, we can minimize the damage done to the human body by sunspot activities.
In addition to stimulating the nine meridians in the abdomen and raising the level of the innate and acquired qi in the body, internal dan tian abdominal breathing can also strengthen blood circulation and lymphatic circulation, increase our lung capacity and, through the natural massage action, stimulate the movement of blood and energy in the internal organs in the chest and the abdomen, thus improving the functioning of these organs.
The relaxation of the body and the driving out of all distracting thoughts are the key to the effectiveness of abdominal breathing. Only when the mind is still, can there be stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system which, in turn, reduces the tension in the blood vessels in various parts of the body, and quickens the removal of epinephrine (the hormone that elevates tension in the body) and other metabolic substances that are harmful to health. The benefits to the body are the regulation of the blood pressure and the reduction of heart palpitations. Achieving stillness (入靜) is a positive readjustment technique; it is also when the meridians are operating in their best conditions. Daily practice in achieving stillness and in slow, deep-breathing nourishes the body through activity, and the mind through stillness. Activity and stillness are used in combination. This method of Internal and external training allows our body to attain harmony and our organs to operate at a more efficient level, thereby strengthening our body’s ability to fight off disease and self-heal.