Living a long life is one thing; staying healthy and fit with your faculties intact and with the ability to enjoy your life is a much more demanding goal. We know of a number of populations that have or historically have had exceptionally long and vital lives.
The video above takes a look at the very long-lived elders of rural Okinawa.
But when it comes to looking systematically at the factors behind truly resilient longevity, no medical tradition in history has done so much research over such long time scales as Taoist medicine. An excerpt from Daniel Reid’s excellent introduction to the Taoist approach can be found here.
Here are a few of the most basic elements of the Taoist approach to lasting physical and mental health.
1. Mindset: One thing you’ll notice immediately about the Okinawan elders is their complete lack of worry and neurosis. They take a purposeful, cheerful, even-keeled and optimistic approach to life that many Westerners living in far greater material comfort would envy. This inner discipline is possible for them because their culture supports it.
For us, establishing emotional equilibrium may require a more involved process of clearing emotional traumas and their associated energetic blockages from our energy systems. We must also learn the habits that support a positive mindset- meditation, proper breathing, exercise and a healthy diet- everything physical impacts our mental reality.
2. Preserving Jing: Jing, the potential energy which the body uses to create Qi or life energy, can easily be scattered, diminishing our energetic resources. Energy follows attention, and if our attention is taken up by worry, if we focus on the past or the future instead of the present, if we constantly allow our attention to exit through the senses in pursuit of pleasure, we disperse Jing.
Learning to recall that attention through the practice of abdominal breathing is the most basic longevity practice. Mental discipline is essential. Beyond that, of course, taking in poor quality foods or neglecting to take in other forms of energy like sunlight or energy from the natural world reduces the quality of our energy supply.
3. Reduce Grains: While Taoists certainly used herbalism extensively for health maintenance (as with all ancient cultures, they recognized that food is medicine), their main dietary longevity practice was the restriction of grain foods. They recognized that grains consumed in quantity have a negative effect on the entire digestive system, putting great pressure on the body.
This is confirmed today by the increasing manifestations of gluten allergy and its associated intestinal ailments. We also know that grains raise blood sugar levels and insulin production almost as badly as eating raw sugar. The human body was not set up to live primarily on a grain-based diet.
4. High-Quality Natural Foods: Taoist diets have generally emphasized a majority of plant-based foods, many of them fresh, and a reduction of flavourful but unhealthy foods. Today, of course, we must consider the poor quality of much of our abundant food and choose wisely.
5. Fasting: Periodic fasting to cleanse the system of toxins and allow the body to reset is an important longevity practice.
6. Meditation: The benefits of meditation for maintaining calm and relaxation are only the beginning. Taoist teachings contain many meditative practices especially developed to improve the health of the energy system and the entire mind-body organism.
7. Movement: External exercise, vigorous daily physical exertion, is an important part of maintaining vitality, but equally important is taking your body through its full range of motion, stretching all the tissues and improving joint and organ health.
8. Energy Work: Directly developing the resilience of the body’s energy system was another important key to longevity. Qigong, the series of systems developed by the Taoist tradition for this purpose, has incredible health benefits. Prisoners held in terrible conditions during China’s civil war and Cultural Revolution periods were able to maintain their health through this practice.
The Taoist longevity tradition has produced amazing results, and is available to help us live out our lives in superb physical, mental and emotional health, IF we’re willing to invest the effort needed to learn it and live the kind of life that will create these incredible results.