Peter Deadman is an expert and teacher in Traditional Chinese medicine, who has practiced in this field for more than 40 years. He has taught in many different cities around the world and is the founder of The Journal of Chinese Medicine which he established in 1979. He is the author of numerous books including more recently ‘Live Well, Live Long’ which will be the focus of our discussion today. ‘The Manual of Acupuncture’ which he co-authored has been used as a primary reference in many colleges and universities around the world. He is also a teacher of the internal martial arts, Qigong.
We speak to Peter Deadman about ‘Yang Sheng’, the ancient Chinese art of nourishing your body:
- From illness to discovering Chinese medicine
- The origin of ‘Yang Sheng’ – Chinese longevity rituals
- Valuable teachings of ‘Yang Sheng’
- How to care for our mind and body
- How ‘Yang Sheng’ tradition has a different perspective on exercise
- Understanding Qi-flow in the body
- Understanding prevention in Chinese medicine
From Illness To Discovering Chinese Medicine
Out of the many various health modalities that exist what drew you to Chinese medicine in particular?
I came across it in a quite momentous way, I was very ill. I was in a tiny village in Morocco and I had an extremely bad case of hepatitis and thought that I might die. In the midst of my sickness and misery, I was looking for something that would work, and it was those moments and this book on macrobiotics, the idea of balance in eating that started me on that journey.
Written by a Japanese man called George Ohsawa, his ideas were different from the Chinese but broadly in the same direction. The philosophy behind macrobiotics was yin-yang and also some basic acupuncture, so eventually, I got more and more interested in that than the macrobiotic diet, so it was a natural progression to move and study Chinese medicine.
The Origin Of ‘Yang Sheng’ – Chinese Longevity Rituals
For people who don’t understand what Chinese nourishment is, how would you best explain it?
From the very beginning in Chinese culture, going back thousands of years to what we know about the 4th or 5th century BC, people were already discussing how to stay healthy and how to live in such a way to stay well and healthy, in order to live long and well. People sometimes spend the last 10 or 20 years of their life in misery. So the idea is how can we live as long as possible, as healthy as possible right up to the last moment, and live a life that is full of enjoyment, it is quite a big vision I would say. And what’s interesting is that China has a relatively unbroken history for health traditions, compared to some other places which for various reasons old knowledge was wiped out or had disappeared sometimes for centuries.
Valuable Teachings Of ‘Yang Sheng’
What do you find so valuable in the teachings of the Yang Sheng tradition?
First of all, they are tried and tested. You can go online now and find 20 different paths. There are thousands of people out there proposing their ideas about how you should eat, this is what you should do. There’s not always a lot of experience behind it. Yang Sheng is a time-tested tradition that you can start trusting. So this is the first really valuable thing about the Yang Sheng tradition. Second thing is that it is very broad, it does not just focus on one thing. Some people when they are talking about living a healthy life, they absolutely prioritize exercise. Exercise is wonderful but it’s like playing piano with one finger so it’s only one part. Diet is terribly important but if you totally emphasize diet and you ignore exercise for example it is incomplete.
Comparing this to the four legs of the chair analogy – when the chair has four legs it is very stable. Take away one leg then it already starts to become unstable; then two legs; three legs; and so the four legs make up the core of the Yang Sheng tradition. First of all and really importantly, how do we look after the mind and emotions? We would think that it’s simple and that we all want the best and to look after ourselves. However, for a lot of people, only part of them want the best for themselves and to look after themselves. Another unintegrated part is constantly undermining that. “I’m gonna stop drinking”, but it continues. “I’m gonna start exercising every day”, but we don’t. “I’m going to eat healthier”, but we don’t. So first of all, we have to try and cultivate our minds and emotions to get to know ourselves better, to learn to have some measure of control over the emotions that harm our well-being.
Our jealousy, fear, anxiety, worry, or anger, all these normal emotions are a part of our normal lives. That in itself is not healthy when they become excessive when they take over and disturb our body. They actually harm our health and they destroy our peace and equilibrium, then they prevent us from embracing ourselves, loving ourselves. You can really look after yourself if you really love yourself. So, that’s the first thing before anything else – we cultivate the emotions with the time-tested methods of meditation, mindfulness, qi-gong, self-awareness, and being honest to ourselves, so that is one really important part of the path of your life and serves as one leg of the chair.
How To Care For Our Mind And Body
Some of these ways would be meditation, qi-gong and what else would you recommend?
First of all, it’s being deliberate in our actions – I am now trying to look after my mind by sitting down to do meditation and cultivate my mindfulness, or as I move in qi-gong, I try to be present. We now know that this actually changes the structure of the brain when we practice meditation or mindfulness, where certain areas of the brain grow bigger. We have what is now understood to be brain plasticity. So when we do something a lot, certain areas of the brain develop and the areas that develop in the brain specifically through meditation, are areas that help us gain the measure of control in our emotional life.
But also on the other hand, are very basic things like spending time in nature. We now know that it has a very profound effect on the body and mind. When we walk amongst trees, or we look at natural things, it is a growing part of our understanding of what it means to have a healthy human life. When you plant more trees in the city, people are healthier. So, being in nature, cultivating good friendships and relationships, cultivating gratitude for everything. It’s almost a practice so that instead of being unhappy about what we don’t have, we are grateful for what we do have. So first of all, we’re alive – that’s something to be grateful for. Opening ourselves up to art and music, it’s all part of cultivating our minds and emotions. Practicing generosity is also great too.
How ‘Yang Sheng’ Tradition Has A Different Perspective On Exercise
How is exercise viewed in the Ancient Tradition of Yang Sheng?
As far as exercise is concerned, you really have quite a range of perspectives on exercise, not only in the Chinese tradition but in Asian tradition. All of the people who wrote about Yang Sheng were what we would call gentlemen. They were quite wealthy, educated, they were scholars, so they lived a life similar to most people today – they’re not using their bodies all day long. So you have people who think we spend a lot of time sitting down, and that we have to move the body. The other perspective is that they looked around at people who did excessive hard manual labor all their life, but they often died young and they aged very fast.
You want to find the right amount and the right type of exercise that builds health, strength, and well-being, but does not exhaust you. Extreme exercise, high-intensity training, a lot of heavyweight training, lots of aerobic exercises, it’s got many advantages that make us feel good, but perhaps over our whole lifetime, it’s not the most optimal exercise.
In Chinese exercise tradition, you have qi-gong, which can seem a bit strange to Western eyes, because it’s slow. People think, why would you do slow exercise? It’s true, it’s challenging to do tai-chi and qi-going when you’re young. Because people have restless bodies and they want to jump around, and it’s better to do more aerobic exercise when you’re younger. But when they reach their late 30s, early 40s, the exercise regime that they’ve done can often result in injury. So it’s probably true that these traditional Chinese forms of exercise, such as qi-gong, tai-chi, and other internal forms of martial arts are more suitable as you get older. The knowledge of how to use the body in qi-gong can also be used in martial arts. Through this very slow attentive movement, you learn how to align the body, and how to connect movements through the whole body. These things are actually useful if you do sports, martial arts, or other activities.
Understanding Qi-flow In The Body
For myself, especially when it comes to yoga I notice there is definitely more emphasis towards slowing down each moment to bring greater awareness to the body. I haven’t tried Qigong many times, however I am fascinated by this idea of Qi & Prana.
It’s only when we really slow things down that we can really feel our body, and what is or what is not happening in our body in terms of movement. When you do fast exercise you don’t have time to check your joints or all the alignments, whether you’re tensing up or do not need to tense. So when you slow things down, you can really feel and observe. Qi is a rather difficult area because it’s difficult to define, there’s not one word in English. If you look at Qi in the Chinese dictionary it’s got 150 meanings and mostly, its contextual words attached to something else. So to say what Qi is, causes people lots of problems. I would say probably, the nearest thing we say in terms of qi-gong, is to say Qi is flow – free flow. ‘
There’s this idea in the Chinese tradition that when everything is flowing freely in the body, to put it simply, it’s Qi and blood, but we can also say Qi, blood, body fluids, movements of fluids and the flesh of the body through the meridians. When everything is flowing freely, unobstructed, that’s means the body is healthy. So a lot of what we do or what we call internal arts of China are qi-gong, nei-gong, tai chi, and they help the body to release. So for example, when you do movements, we want the whole body to go into the movement, but we often find there are places in the body that are stuck. They’re not moving. They’re not releasing. That’s another reason why we do things slowly, so we can be aware of that.
We also discovered that we tense our muscles unnecessarily. How often are you tensing when doing a task like chopping a carrot or thinking hard on the computer? When working on your computer, you may have tensed up your core, your neck, or your shoulders, and it’s really unnecessary. So a lot of the emphasis on the training is relaxing the mind and releasing the body and when the body is released, then all the tissue in the body is released. Free flow just happens naturally. We might wake up one day, and for some reason, we just feel great. You know, our body feels loose and comfortable, our mind is loose and comfortable. That’s what we want. So, that’s what we call Qi, and that is how we can help heal ourselves.
Understanding Prevention On Chinese Medicine
I love the quote that you shared about this idea of the vital importance of prevention is one of the most integral aspects of Chinese medicine from the Yellow Emperor’s Classic. It’s this idea that you don’t try to put in order what was already in disorder, but try to prevent the disorder from arising in the first place. ‘Treating disease after it has already surfaced or risen, it’s like starting to dig a well when one is already thirsty or only starting to cast weapons once the battle has begun.’
This is fascinating because 2,500 years ago there was already an emphasis on prevention and many people say today we don’t have health care, what we have is sick care, but there is definitely a growing movement where people are turning to this idea of preventative medicine.
If your aim is to live a long healthy life, the best thing you can do is not get sick. And the Yellow Emperor’s Classic was the most famous book in Chinese medicine during that era. The heart of the idea of Chinese medicine is prevention at its highest level. We all get sick and we all need medicine inevitably, but the aim is to do what you can to not get sick.
Now everywhere you look you see rapid increases in diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, depression, strokes, and so on. And the numbers of these diseases are rising everywhere in the world, not just in developing countries but in developed countries. The rate of most of these diseases will double in the future, with twice as many diabetics, twice as many people with dementia, twice as many strokes. And this is a catastrophe, it’s a health catastrophe.
If you look into the statistics, the problem with medicine is once this disease has arisen, it’s very hard to kill. You can take medicine every day, but the best it can do is control it, but it doesn’t remove it. And even if you take Chinese medicine, it’s very, very hard to cure cancer. It’s virtually impossible to cure dementia.
So, this idea is laid down in the Yellow Emperor’s Classic – don’t wait until there is disorder, but prevent the disorder before it comes. Don’t wait till you’re thirsty to then try and dig a well.