Ever heard of ‘wellness fatigue’? It’s an exhausting condition, but an ancient Daoist text, The Ten Questions, has the remedies.
Over the last couple of years I’ve begun to notice a trend amongst many people who are conscious about their health and well-being. Whereas at one time I would see people turn up to my clinic who have not been looking after themselves at all, I began to see clients who were doing all the right things that healthcare professionals have been promoting for years yet they were still tired, rundown, having trouble sleeping, and getting sick.
I’ve started calling this syndrome ‘wellness fatigue’.
This may seem familiar to you…
Jo wakes up tired, runs to morning yoga practice, downs her brekkie smoothie and then rushes off to work where she must be ‘on’ all day. While there, she smashes a salad for lunch and leaves work feeling drained. But instead of resting she fills her evenings with exercise, workshops, ecstatic dance, or hops between appointments with her naturopath / acupuncturist / chiropractor / kinesiologist.
By the time she arrives home, it’s late and she should cook a healthy dinner, but she’s so tired that she just orders UberEATS and kicks back on the couch with Netflix because she’s just too exhausted.
It’s become somewhat of a self-perpetuating cycle of DO-DO-DO, GO-GO-GO!
Where’s the yin?
In Daoist medicine, the continual dance between yin and yang lies at the root of all approaches to health and well-being.
In the above example, Jo is in a constant yang state of doing. Other than sleep, there really is no down time. Even sleep is disturbed and thus not as restful as it could be.
There is no yin state during her day. There is no opportunity for the integration of what she has done or what she has eaten. It is like a constant seeking of perfection.
We do the yang very well. Our society functions on our capacity to get stuff done, and to be applauded for and in awe of what we can create. However according to Daoist wisdom, we also need to integrate the yin aspects of life amongst our activities. This integration leads to balance.
Eventually all this yang activity leads to burnout. When this happens, there is no more yang, and you are left with no choice but to rest. Anyone who has experienced chronic fatigue syndrome or adrenal fatigue will tell you how difficult it is to get things done when you are completely depleted. It also takes time to rebuild enough reserves to be able to function.
Inevitably, this is what drives people to pursue health/well-being practices – we want to stay healthy, vibrant, to thrive in our lives and perform well in our work.
We need to be able to strike a balance. And that means simplifying what we do to stay on top of our game.
So how do we simplify our well-being routines without sacrificing what we need?
The early Daoists of the 3rd to 2nd Centuries BCE were very clear on what was necessary for good health and well-being, and it didn’t involve medicine!
They believed that ill health was the failure of the blood and qi to circulate properly throughout the body, and needed to be rectified to promote a long and healthy life.
In one ancient text (author unknown) called The Ten Questions ( there are six key points mentioned, all of which are simple things we can integrate very easily into our lives, and for which we don’t need medicines, supplements, or treatments. Nor do we need to attend expensive workshops or gain university degrees to master them. In fact, these are activities we (hopefully) perform daily in our normal routine. If we don’t, then these are the things we should be focussing on instead of spending all our time, energy, and money on classes, courses, and treatments.
Sleep is first and foremost
The author of this ancient text states clearly that sleep is not just a human activity – all life forms on Earth engage in it. He states clearly that sleep enables food to be digested, and helps to disperse medicines through the body. He also says that if you do not sleep for one night, you will not recover for 100 days.
Modern research confirms the importance of sleep not just on the digestive system, but also on the nervous system and cognitive functioning. It is involved in the repair of heart and blood vessels, and sleep disorders are linked to increased risks of heart and kidney diseases, hypertension, diabetes, strokes, and obesity (NHLBI 2012).
Sleep also plays a role in the regulation of your appetite. Ghrelin is the hormone released that tells you you’re hungry, and increases on lack of sleep. On the other hand, when you’re well rested, leptin is released to tell you that you are full.
There can be any number of reasons for sleep to be affected, but the main one is the capacity to wind down in the evening, which leads us to the next point.
Let the brain relax
Regular downtime is well documented and researched in modern times to increase performance and improve memory and cognitive functions. The most elite, high-performing creatives and athletes have extended periods of waking rest between intense levels of performance, not including sleep.
Allowing the brain to relax replenishes its stores of attention and motivation and encourages creativity and productivity. The Daoists saw it as a vital part of maintaining a sense of self.
More importantly, the brain’s resting state networks allow the brain to make sense of what has recently been learned and to allow a degree of reflection and self-introspection (Jabr 2013).
Going from one class or workshop to another without allowing yourself the time to integrate what you’ve learned is simply wasting your time (and money). You don’t need to fill every spare hour with more learning. Take a weekend off, stay home, cook a meal, listen to some music, or go hang out with friends.
Use intelligence for guidance
Relaxing the brain helps us create the space to come to know who we are, and we come closer to understanding our true nature. The Ten Questions text states that, “without intelligence there is no way of discerning whether one is inwardly empty or full”.
Self-awareness was one of the virtues that Confucius stated was vital for a person to cultivate in the process of becoming ‘perfected’. Wisdom comes from being able to understand the self, what is important to the self, and the reflection and integration of past experiences and learning.
According to Confucius, this awareness then helps to make choices that are appropriate for us. This is important, as many of us go from practitioner to practitioner or from one yoga class to another without really comprehending if what we are undertaking is benefitting us.
When you can sense what you need, you can then seek that which is going to serve you the best. If you’re ‘empty’, you can then fill yourself. Once you have discerned you are ‘full’ you can stop the practice.
Eat a varied diet
In Daoist medicine, food is considered the source of our daily energy, required not only to perform our tasks, but also to power all physiological functions. The Ten Questions states that, without food, “there is no way to fill the stomach and develop the frame”.
This is referring to the fact that our muscles, sinews, bones, and all cells in all tissue and organs require the nutrition we gain from the food we eat.
In modern times, we have become so caught up in the science of nutrition that we think about our nutritional needs in terms of molecules. But we don’t eat molecules – we eat food. And our meals are combinations of foods, which alchemically and synergistically unite to bring us pleasure as well as nutritive requirements.
Instead of following dogmatic rules and diets, consider having meals that are varied, using different fresh ingredients. Organic and seasonal foods are great, but let’s not get dogmatic about that either.
Eat all foods, in moderation. Put all the colours on your plate (not just the beige ones), eat without stress, anxiety, guilt, or shame and enjoy meals with friends and loved ones.
Use work for exercise
The author of The Ten Questions explains that without work there is no way to “exercise the limbs and get rid of their afflictions”. Many of us nowadays don’t have physically demanding jobs, so doing something to move the body is important.
But we can still do simple things like stretches at the desk every hour or so. We can walk instead of using elevators and escalators. In fact, walking is highly underrated as a form of exercise.
Of course, yoga, qigong, and tai chi are all wonderful, well-rounded forms of exercise that work on multiple levels, including being great for the limbs. As a qigong teacher I encourage my students to do something, even if it’s not a full routine. Even five minutes of one movement will have a benefit if you don’t have the time to do an hour-long practice.
Engage in plenty of sexual intercourse
There are several ancient Daoist texts that go into great detail about the health benefits of sexual practices. Not confined to hedonistic pleasure or the pragmatic concerns of procreation, sexuality was seen as a potent practice for promoting good health and longevity.
The practices described allow the full flow of sexual energy to course through the channels and prevent ‘pathological blockage’. Chronic illness was believed to be due to a leakage of sexual vitality, congestion of the channels, and emotional instability. Sexual practices were, therefore, seen as ideal, as they took care of all three of these causes.
The practices described, referred to by some later Daoist schools as ‘dual cultivation’, were essentially qigong practices, combining breath and intentional movements in the context of intercourse.
And let’s face it, it’s fun. And practised in this way, it is also a wonderful way to connect with your partner and open the heart. The Daoists would say that when the heart is open and we are able to freely express joy and elation, then our qi flows freely and easily.
Maintaining health and well-being doesn’t have to be a chore. It doesn’t have to involve massive amounts of our time, energy, or money. If we keep it simple, balance activity with rest, eat a varied diet, have some quality downtime, and enjoy lots of good sex we can live well and live long. And most importantly, live our own way rather than someone else’s.
Jabr, Ferris, 2013, Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime, Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/mental-downtime/, accessed on June 7, 2017
NHLBI, National Institute of Health, 2012, Why Is Sleep Important?, https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/sdd/why, accessed June 7, 2017
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