What on earth is a Daoist?
Why train in this strange Daoist way?
After 20 odd years of training, it is often easy to forget that most people haven’t even heard of half of the things that I completely take for granted. Many of my friends are talented teachers in various niches and sub-niches of the ‘health and fitness’ world, so I already live in a ‘fitness bubble’, and I am even more removed from the mainstream popular ideas of health and fitness than they are. Many things I consider as ‘being so obvious that they are not even worth mentioning’ may be, in fact, worth mentioning. Hopefully this article can address that oversight and provide an introduction for people who have not even heard of the niches, let alone the sub-niches and the sub-sub-niches!
First of all some context and terminology. Daoism comes from China, and has its origins way back in tribal times when Fang Shi (lit. method masters, the archetypal village wise-man/medicine-man/sage) would teach methods for health and spiritual evolution to their people, and would pass these traditions down orally, generation to generation. After time, the lineages of these traditions grew more organized, some things got written down, others evolved with changing times. We have plenty of stories about how this went in our tradition, but generally today you can break Daoism up into a few major categories:
- Temple Daoism – A kind of mixture between clan Daoism and Buddhism, people recluse from daily life to go study full time at a temple, away from society while wearing cool hats and robes.
- Religious Daoism – People that go to Daoist temples or otherwise pray to Daoist deities for help or in devotion.
- Philosophical Daoism – People that read Daoist classics and talk about their meaning. This is more academic and has little to do with actual Daoism.
- Clan/Family Daoism – This is what I do. It’s an older way than those above, one that asks its practitioners to be immersed in mundane life but with a dedicated daily practice that will push us to evolve, learning more about ourselves and the world around us. We don’t have cool robes, hats or temples, we just stick to normal clothes or the society we live in.
The word Dao (道) means the “path” or “way”. There are two parts of Daoism that have entered popular culture.
The first you will recognize unless you’ve been living under a rock your whole life. It’s the yin/yang concept, and its associated symbol:
If you’ve ever been inspired to find balance in your life because of this symbol and its ideas, you can thank the various Daoist traditions.
The second is perhaps not household knowledge, but is, nevertheless, one of the most translated books of all time: a classic text called “Dao De Jing” (roughly translated as “The Classic of the Dao and its Manifestations”), mythologically written around 400BCE by an enlightened sage named Laozi as his last act before disappearing from the world mysteriously.
That might all sound pretty heavy and in-depth spiritually, or maybe new-agey, but if we remove all the fantastical elements from it, it’s basically a bunch of people who came up with good methods for learning about themselves and the world around them, and who passed these methods on to help guide future generations.
So now we have a method for learning about ourselves and living well that has come from a long line of people who were also interested in the same thing. It’s a lot of wisdom to draw from, and it makes sense for us to be inspired by the experience of those who came before us. Next we need to look at how this differs from the way the modern world views “living well”.
Let’s start with a low hanging fruit, a fundamental (mis)orientation that has somehow become integrated into modern, western society.
The modern orientation sees living well – health and fitness, ‘getting fit’ – as an activity that is primarily physical in nature, and that necessarily involves us getting into a state where we feel like we have ‘worked hard’, typically engaging in some activity to the point of being almost breathless, elevating the heart rate as much as possible, sweating profusely and generally entering states of physical high intensity or exhaustion. The idea is that we should train for our well-being in the same way a competitive athlete trains for performance, pushing ourselves constantly into high states of stress to reach peak performance. By extension here, there is the idea that if we can perform to a high degree, we will find ourselves living a happy, healthy life. I have to fundamentally disagree with this idea, as I have met plenty of people who are happy and in good health and are not at all competitive in any arena, and plenty of high performing competitive athletes who are physical, emotional and mental train wrecks. It may be possible to be high performing and live a good, healthy life, but these two qualities are certainly not required of each other.
To top it off, the modern world kind of demonizes rest: we are expected to wake up, work hard at stressful jobs all day (the harder you work, the better), then to come home, and perhaps work even harder at the gym (again, the harder you work, the better). We can only rest when we’ve earned it, when we’ve hustled long enough to have enough money to retire early, trained hard enough to deserve to relax, or some equivalent. Typically, if we haven’t earned ‘it’ through our hard work, we have no right to rest and should continue working indefinitely.
The good news is that we do not have to train like this if we are interested in health and longevity. There is another Way.
The Daoist views this approach as being very imbalanced, a recipe for many problems which are common in todays society. Necessary for competitive physical performance, perhaps, but this performance will very likely come at the cost of long term health. A balanced view sees states of deep rest and relaxation as being equally important to states of effort and work; one is not more or less important than the other, one should not be developed at the cost of the other, and a basic Daoist idea is that a healthy life should undulate fluidly between the two. Our training reflects this, and while we will certainly have moments of work and effort, we will also emphasize moments of deep relaxation and letting go from the very outset of the practice.
To accomplish this, we approach the whole concept of ‘doing something to help us live a better life’ in a completely different way.
Firstly, training for self-cultivation in the Daoist way must be a daily affair – no breaks, no holidays. We are looking for a consistent, firm-but-gentle effort sustained over a long period of time, ideally the rest of our lives. It sounds extreme, but really basically everyone is capable of carving out time in their day to go on social media or watch netflix, why not instead use this time to understand ourselves and the world better?
There is an old saying that goes something like “for every day missed you lose 10 days of progress”. We don’t have to train in the way of the maniac as the western world typically asks of us, but we still need a regular effort of daily training that we find enjoyable. Generally we look to work up to about 70% every day, bringing about a light sweat, and slightly elevating the heart rate. Only very occasionally would we push into more intensive training to test ourselves.
Next, to promote balance (and by extension health and longevity), we look at the training as having 3 general aspects that need attending to, and each aspect should not be trained at the expense of either of the other aspects. Each part is just as important as the other, so naturally they must each be given equal attention, splitting our training into 3 equal parts:
- ⅓ of the practice time dedicated to exploring and calming the mind
- ⅓ of the practice time dedicated to increasing energy and regulating breath/emotion
- ⅓ of the practice time dedicated to physical training
Already, you can see here that two-thirds of all of our practice time will be spent either in seated meditation, or with a breathing exercise, both of which require minimal physical exertion. It means that if I have 30 minutes of time to dedicate to working on myself each day, 10 minutes will be physical, 10 minutes will be breathing, and 10 minutes will be meditation.
It should become quickly apparent that there are some compromises that must be made. If you’re the kind of person who likes to do physical exercise, and you do an hour or so a day, you will either have to add 1 hour each of breathing and meditation, or reduce the amount of physical exercise you’re doing.
Perhaps you’re the kind of person that enjoys doing 2 hours of seated meditation per day. Again this will need to be reduced to allow time for the physical practices and work on the breath/energy.
Or maybe you’re kind of sedentary or not used to daily training. In this case you’re going to need to work to find some time each and every day to actually practice.
Whatever your position, with this balanced approach you will be guaranteed to work on some aspect of yourself that have previously neglected.
Next, we can look at how the individual practices themselves are approached. You will often find a kind of scale-variance all through Daoist thought – concepts that apply to the bigger whole also apply to the smaller pieces. In this case, the idea mentioned above about having a sustained effort for our practice in general over a long period of time also applies to individual practices on any given day. We take simple exercises and repeat them for sustained, uninterrupted periods of time. A beginner might work a single exercise for 5 minutes non-stop, more intermediate practitioners will be working with diving into single practices for 30-60 minutes, and occasionally more advanced practitioners may attempt sustaining a particular practice for many hours without pause or break.
The long efforts reveal the parts of us that aren’t working so efficiently, bringing to light areas of tension, weakness and disharmony so that they may be resolved and returned into connection with the rest of our human systems for a united functioning. The physical exercises are much closer in their mechanics to western rehabilitative training than performance based training, which perhaps hints at its usefulness in maintaining and improving health and longevity.
Being far less intense than standard occidental training (at least in terms of making you a sweaty, exhausted mess), I often find new students or onlookers can easily dismiss the exercises as not being useful or worth time to investigate. Many of my students have trouble breaking out of the “you must finish exhausted for exercise to be effective” mindset, but shouldn’t our practice for better health and well-being energize us rather than exhaust us? Doesn’t it make more sense for our health to be able to sit, stand, or walk for hours and feel energized afterwards rather than being able to perform some feat of physicality for a very short moment and then spend the rest of our time shattered and recovering?
The Daoist approach is also a slower approach. It really looks at change as coming in months, years and decades rather than days and weeks. The idea is to continuously infuse the qualities in so that they are available to us no matter the context. The more they are infused, the more available they will be in our daily lives. The more we make use of the qualities in our daily lives, the more they will become infused. It’s a cycle that’s a lot like a dynamo, one that takes a bit of time and effort to get going, but that feeds itself and accelerates in the longer term.
The 8 week programs for rapid results that are often seen in western fitness marketing schemes are completely contrary to the Daoist approach. They are stained with the strong implication that if you just do this short period of suffering you will reach some kind of imaginary finish line where you will have the body and health you wanted, and therefore you can finally stop your work and indulge in your ‘deserved’ retirement from it all. It sets the whole thing up to be a kind of chore, something that is other than life that needs to be dealt with so we can finally get on with life.
Daoism is more about an ongoing curiosity about ourselves and the world around us. It’s an exploration of what’s here and but also of what else is hidden in potential, one that never ends and continuously reveals more layers of depth.
It’s not for everyone, that’s for sure, but it is a complete system of human development – one with a long history of producing healthy, vibrant students.