What is Yang Sheng? by Kevin W Chen, MPH, PH.D.

yangshengYǎng Shēng may be the most important concept in TCM and the culture of Chinese health.  The Chinese word “Yang” means to nurture, take care of, and nourish; “Sheng” means life, birth, and vitality.  Together “Yang Sheng” means to nurture or nourish life — fostering health and well being by nurturing body, mind and spirit in harmony with the natural rhythms, and with universal laws.  Sometimes Yang Sheng is also translated as health preservation, life cultivation, or life nourishment.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (1997) 1 defines Yang-Sheng as “Daoist practices, especially through breathing and directing the breath (ch’i) to prolong life and attain immortality.”  This definition reflects the fact that many books about and techniques of Yang Sheng have roots in Daoist philosophy or practice.  However, Yang Sheng is not just practiced by Daoism, but by many different schools of health philosophy, such as Confucianism, Buddhism and martial-arts traditions.  More importantly, some of the oldest classic works on Yang Sheng, such as Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic, appeared before Daoism was formed and represented the general wisdom of Chinese health and could not be simply labeled as Daoist practice.

Yang Sheng as a health discipline is taught in most TCM schools in China.  According to the definition in a recent textbook of “Life-nurturing Science in TCM”,2 Yang Sheng is “the type of subjective and objective behaviors with which people take care of their life consciously through various means and methods, which is the reappearance or application of their deep understanding of the law of entire life developments. …It is also a mind-body health activity achieved through material and spiritual unification.”

The Contents of Yang Sheng

There are many books on the subject of Yang Sheng in Chinese, and the contents may vary from one text to another.  In general, Yang Sheng activities can be applied through the entire span of human life; from birth, growth, aging to death.  It refers to activities used to enhance health and achieve longevity by various methods and comprehensive techniques, such as cultivating spirit, adjusting diet, exercising the body, regulating the moods, moderating sexual life and adapting to the climate, and so on

In a previous appendix I listed brief table of contents from a recent official textbook, “Life-nurturing Science in TCM” (Liu et al. 2007) 2 used in China, which may give the reader a general idea of how Yang Sheng science has been taught in Chinese medical schools.  I chose this textbook as an example because it was published in both Chinese and English by the most authoritative Chinese publisher in health (the People’s Medical Publishing House) for foreign students in TCM schools.  It is interesting to notice that Yang Sheng science is a required course for all foreign students who study Chinese medicine in China, but it is just an optional course for Chinese students who grew up in China.  This policy may reflect the fact that knowledge of Yang Sheng has been taught through the Chinese socialization process in daily life; young Chinese learn about Yang Sheng through osmosis and, therefore, do not need to take an academic course.

Unfortunately, if you read only the definition of Yang Sheng Xue (Life-Nurturing Science), or just the table of contents, you may be easily misled on what Yang Sheng is really about, since 70 to 80% of the contents in Yang Sheng books are about physical health or bodily preservation, such as diet, environment, adjusting to climate, sexual activities, exercises, bathing, leisure activities, medicinal, massage and techniques to take care of specific body parts and so on (some people even misspell Yang Sheng as body-nurturing.)  However, Yang Sheng inherently includes three interrelated components: nurturing body, mind and spirit, as all of them are necessary components of a healthy life.  As pointed out in Tina Zhang’s article, “nurture life is mainly accomplished by cultivating one’s mind. If the mind is calm and clear, the spirit is pure and healthy, when the spirit is healthy, how can the illness enter you?” However, cultivating the mind and nurturing spirit is the subject of Qigong study in TCM, which is covered by a different textbook 3 in medical schools. Therefore, I would like explore why the contents of Yang Sheng have mostly been bodily health, whereas the key to successful Yang Sheng is actually cultivating the mind and nurturing the spirit.

Since Yang Sheng is the common practice to cultivate health and harmony through daily activities, and maintain balance by concentrating on well-being rather than treating sickness, we need to first understand the Chinese concept of “health” before we can understand the key to Yang Sheng.  According to the Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic 4, good health is a state of “harmony” — a healthy life “takes harmony as ultimate, and takes peace as expectation”.   It also stated, “A peaceful man will not get sick”. What is a peaceful man?  Wang Bin in the Tang dynasty made a good note on this as “not excessive and not insufficient”, which clearly marked out a moderate and harmonious state in life.  The classic book Zhong Yong stated, “no expression of happiness, anger, sadness and joy, is called moderate, while being expressed with restriction, is called harmony.”  Here we can see the key to good health is a state of moderation and harmony.

What are we harmonious with?  What will happen if the harmony is broken?  These are the broad questions of the entire TCM system – good health is the result of harmony with the heaven, earth and humanity.  To be harmonious with the heaven, we need to change clothing and adjust to the environment to synchronize with different climates or seasons; otherwise, our body may be invaded by wind, damp, cold or heat qi and become sick.  To be harmonious with the earth, we need have a balanced diet, and restrain ourselves from any excessive consumption of the five tastes (sour, sweet, salty, bitter and spicy – TCM considers all foods or tastes the combination of these five basic tastes), otherwise, our body will lose balance, and develop illnesses such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes.  To be harmonious with our fellow humans, we need to adjust or constrain the five poisoning (negative) emotions – complaining (blame), hate, sorrow (annoyance), anger, anxiety (worry or fear) [1] so that we can get along with others peacefully.  According to TCM, many sicknesses are the consequences of excessive emotions, which can hardly be treated by any known medicine.  Complaining hurts the spleen, hate exhausts the heart, sorrow depletes the lung, anger hurts the liver and fear/worry affects the kidney.

When our lives are in discord with the heaven, we could catch a cold or suffer heatstroke, which can  easily treated.  When our lives are in discord with the earth, imbalance in the intake of the five tastes, we may end up with high blood pressure, high blood sugar and/or high cholesterol — very common in modern society.  We could develop chronic sicknesses, which are more difficult to heal, but still treatable by medicine.  However, when our lives are in discord with other humans due to the five poisoning emotions, it becomes a personality and character issue, and there is simply no medicine or formulas that can effectively treat these disorder(s).

Recent studies have reported that 80% of all visits to primary-care doctors in the U.S. were related to psychological distress,5 and 70% of all cancer patients had emotional disturbances 2-3 years before their diagnosis. The only known ways to treat the symptoms due to discord with humans is through mind-body cultivation, such as meditation, Qigong, Taiji, Reiki and Yoga practice, to develop a detached attitude and to cultivate an empty mind.  This was why there were so many different mind-body cultivation traditions in Chinese history as most of them tried to achieve balance and harmony with the inner self through cultivation, which may have eventually led the practitioners to the level of emptiness or nothingness.  I have heard many stories of personality changes after qigong or mind-body practices. In the addiction treatment facility where I worked, counselors told me that the clients tended to be much less likely to become angry or to fight with each other after starting the daily qigong meditation program.

The Purpose of Yang Sheng – Health & Longevity

The purpose of Yang Sheng is always to maintain health and achieve longevity. Regarding the subject of longevity, those who are familiar with Chinese literature may notice three important areas or “secrets” that frequently appear in Chinese classic Yang Sheng works, they are nutrition (food), circulating qi (qigong) and within-bedroom (sex).

Nutrition is obviously about what to eat as we are what we eat. However, for the purpose of slowing down the aging process, it is important to know not only what to eat, but also what not to eat, as well as how we can live well without eating much – fasting or Bigu.  Modern medical research has confirmed that reduced calories-intake or energetic fasting can significantly slow down the body’s aging process.

Circulating Qi refers to the mind-body exercises that are popular practices in Chinese history, including many forms like Qigong, Taiji, meditation, breathing work, guided imagery and so on.  These exercises focus on the integration of body-mind-spirit, cultivate oneness or emptiness through regulating breathing, body and mind, and intend to eventually achieve a state of harmony and peace within, or reach a high level of spirituality.  Some Daoist schools directly call their mind-body exercise or techniques “life-nurturing arts”.

Within-bedroom is a civilized Chinese term for sexual intercourse, which emphasizes the importance of sex in human health while restraining excessive sex. Modern medical research has confirmed that a good sexual life will help increasing immune system, producing significant hormones, reducing stress or depression, and burning extra calories.  However, according to the Yang Sheng principal, excessive sex will definitely hurt life force, especially for men.  The important key to this secret is how and when to have sex that really matters to your health.  What modern medicine has not proven, but Chinese culture has recorded, is that there is a significant yin-yang qi exchange in sex, Daoist techniques of lasting intercourse without ejaculation, and the hormones produced during sex, if utilized properly, could nourish the brain and slow down the aging process…

These three secrets for longevity are highly correlated, but not equally important in practice. According to most experts in Yang Sheng, circulating Qi should be the key or the dominant technique for all longevity practices.  If you can circulate Qi well through mind-body exercise, you will be able to achieve harmony in body-mind-spirit, and reach balance in your internal qi system, which will automatically adjust your diet or nutritional habits (the body knows what is good or bad for it), and offer you the capability to fast naturally (energetic fast is important part of Daoist and Buddhist practice).  If you mastered the qigong techniques, you would be able to effectively absorb Yin to supplement Yang for man (or absorb Yang to supplement Yin for woman) during sexual intercourse, and return the body essence (special hormones) to nourish the brain.  Although the arts of Yang Sheng for longevity in Chinese history have always had three branches or components, the mind-body exercise, qigong, has always been the key to mastering the other two components, and is the crown of the longevity secrets.

I would like to introduce a past Daoist qigong practitioner, Master Li Qinyun of Sichuan, as an example of achieving longevity by applying the three secrets. This photo of master Li was taken in 1927, he claimed to be 249 years old at the time.  The then-governor of Sichuan province, General Yang Shen, who had invited him to Wan County, had this photo taken. Having some doubts about Li Qinyun, the general collected more stories about Li, and even found a book that was said to be written by master Li on secrets of longevity.  General Yang published a book in Taiwan many years later, entitled “Factual account of 250 years old good luck man.”6 I was lucky to find this book in the National Taipei Library. The book tells many detailed stories about master Li by people who had interaction with him.  The key points may be summarized as follows:  Master Li left home to become an herbalist at the age of 13, travelled through many mountains in China to gather herbal medicines, frequently took herbal roots as daily food, mastered fasting technique; joined the army at age 53 (he knew the details of some historic events), married one wife at a time, but sequentially married 14 times (I guess the wives did not practice qigong), and started learning Daoist longevity arts from a much older Daoist sage at the age of 103. He taught life-nurturing courses and longevity seminars in the Er-mei Mountains, and most of his students lived beyond the age of 100 (120 to 150 years).  He was 6 feet tall and walked 30 li (15 km) from his residency to the Wan County faster than most young people….

Last summer I visited Wan County (now it is part of Chongqing city, called Wanzhou) with a copy of this book, and tried to find some clue or information about the truthfulness of these stories. Unfortunately, nobody in the downtown area had ever heard about Li Qinyun since his last visit to Wanzhou was more than 80 years ago. It will become harder and harder for us to verify the truth about this old Master as time goes by.  Although I do not have any evidence to prove he actually lived 250 years,  I can share the ten secrets explained in his book “Formula for Longevity and Immortality” (which was most likely written by his students), as a way to examine the relationship between Yang Sheng and longevity.  Mr Li stated: “The arts of longevity have ten ways: sitting meditation, reducing desire, refining personality, over the boundary, respecting belief, cutting-off relations, closing mind, simplifying life, truthful observation, and great Samadhi.” (Note that my translation reflects my understanding of the Chinese, but may not reflect the true meanings of these secrets)

In summary Yang Sheng is the root of Chinese medicine, and the foundation of human health. To become a true Yang Sheng expert or a mind-body cultivator one needs the guidance of good teachers. When good teachers are not around, we can learn from each other by sharing and exchange.  Traditionally, teachers and students interacted with each other through long-distance travel and face-to-face meetings, which was the key to their personal cultivation, life fulfillment and truth illumination.  However, with our modern technology and communication tools (especially the development and widespread use of the Internet), we can be much better connected to one another, and have our own voices heard and our own platform of sharing.  More importantly, there are many emerging health-related issues that may not be addressed in the ancient literature but which need our current inspiration and understanding; for example, the effects of high-rise buildings (away from grounding qi), electric lights (breaking the boundary of day and night), over use of antibiotics and hormones (creating drug-resistant infections), computer screens and cell phones (strong electronic magnetic field) on our health, to name only a few.


1.     The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religion (1997). http://www.encyclopedia.com/The+Concise+Oxford+Dictionary+of+World+Religions/publications.asp

2.     Liu ZW, Ma LG, et al. (eds) Life-Nurturing Science in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Beijing: People’s Medical Publisahing House. 2007.

3.     Liu TJ, Chen KW et al. (eds)  Chinese Medical Qigong. London: Singing Dragon. 2010.  http://www.wishus.org/chinesemedicalqigong.asp

4.     the Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic (Huang Di Nei Jing, 黄帝内经), Beijing: People’s Medical Publishing House. 1963.

5.     Sobel, D. S. (1995). Rethinking medicine: Improving health outcomes with cost-effective psychosocial interventions. Psychosomatic Medicine, 57(3), 234–244.

6.     Yang Shen, Factual account of a 250-year-old good luck man. Taipei, Taiwan: Zhong-Wai Wen Ku.

[Educated in both China and the United States, Dr. Chen has many years of experience and training in blending eastern and western perspectives, and in the practice of life-nurturing methods.  As a long-time practitioner of Qigong Yang Sheng, he is one of the few scientists to have both hands-on knowledge of mind-body practice, and an active research career in mind-body medicine, which is funded through grants by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and various foundations.  Dr. Chen devotes his life and career to the practice of Yang Sheng, and promotion of self-healing and mind-body-spirit integration]

[1] The five poisoning (negative) emotions and their effects on health are based on Wang Fengyi’s theory of Personality-Law Healing Philosophy, which is slightly different from the popular TCM theory of seven emotions leading to sickness.