Peter Deadman ~ Live Well, Live Long
Your book ‘Live Well, Live Long’ is a culmination of 45 years practice and teaching in the field of Chinese medicine. As a British male growing up in the 60s and 70s, how did you first become interested in these Eastern practices and why did you stick with them throughout life’s ups and downs?
A fascination with Eastern art and culture has been part of European thought since at least the 19th century. The Impressionists, for example, were influenced by Chinese and Japanese painting and all kinds of spiritual/mystical groups looked to India and to Buddhism for inspiration in the early 20th century. This already strong trend was taken up by the growing hippie culture of the early 1960s and that was the time – aged about 16 – that I first encountered yoga, Buddhism, Tibetan religion and culture and so on. For me, that progressed to an interest in the macrobiotic diet which was based on a version of Japanese yinyang theory and very much influenced by Japanese and Chinese medical culture.
Whilst that led to my co-founding of Infinity Foods, it was the medical and health cultivation side that became more and more important to me as the years passed, and once I’d decided to study acupuncture in 1975, my path was pretty much set. As for ups and downs, the wisdom of the Chinese health cultivation tradition and its associated philosophies – especially Daoism – have shaped my understanding of the world, and my appreciation of them has only steadily deepened as I’ve navigated life’s unpredictable paths.
You co founded Infinity Foods in the 1970s; what was the mindset towards health and wellbeing like back then? What health products or foods did you sell that were seen as ‘out there’ at the time?
It’s hard to believe now, but orthodox medical opinion in the early 1970s was that other than deficiency diseases (for example of vitamin A), diet had no significant influence on health. The suggestion that the food we eat might influence the onset or progression of diseases such as cancer was met with outrage, hostility and even legal action. Of course a pioneering natural and health foods movement had existed in the UK for some decades, particularly influenced by ideas brought back from the British Imperial days in India, but it was a real minority pursuit and felt very unfashionable to we (arrogant) youth.
Health food shops at the time mostly concentrated (as they still do) on supplements, and real food such as brown rice tended to be sold in tiny packets in the back of the shop. After all, it hadn’t been many years since the only place you could buy olive oil was at the chemist’s – for earache. Our (Infinity) vision was to provide readily available, affordable, sustainable, natural and organic foods and we worked with other newly appearing natural food shops to buy them in bulk, pack them ourselves and sell them as cheaply as possible. ‘Out there’ foods were probably the Japanese products that went along with a macrobiotic diet – seaweed, miso, tamari etc. Incidentally, the attitude to exercise in the 1970s was similarly backward. In general people played sports, went dancing or did nothing. There was barely any jogging, yoga, Pilates, tai chi, gym or any of the multiple ways of exercising the body that we take for granted today.
Tea seems to be one of your passions; what’s your favourite and do you change your tea habits according to the time of day or the seasons?
Tea (the leaf of the camellia sinensis tree/bush – not herbal teas) has been studied fairly intensively over the past decade or so and has been shown to have remarkable health benefits. In fact it appears to be the single healthiest drink we can consume. This is what the Chinese and Japanese traditions always taught, and once again they have been proved to be bang on the nail. I love black, green, oolong, white and puerh teas and drink them according to my mood, and to some degree according to the season.
Dark teas (black, highly oxidised oolong and puerh) are considered more warming and are drunk more in winter. Green teas are cooler and are drunk more in the summer (if we every have one!). One important thing to remember is that tea has as much variety and variation in quality as wine and you get what you pay for. Bottom-end green tea of the kind found in the average tea bag or cheapish pack is just like buying the cheapest wine. Tea offers not only great health benefits but also the chance to enjoy a wonderful range of types and flavours. But to access these you need to buy good tea.
There is currently a lot of conversation around the topic of ‘wellness’ in the media, with the term ‘orthorexia’ being used to describe the obsession with being healthy. What is your opinion on the modern health industry? Do you think we’ve taken things too far when it comes to striving for wellbeing?
As the American humourist Redd Fox said, “Health nuts are going to feel stupid some day, lying in hospital dying of nothing.” If we are suffering from illness, it may be natural to become preoccupied with our health behaviours for a while, though if this becomes tight and obsessive it may do more harm than good. But if we want to cultivate and maintain health and wellbeing in the long term, the key is to be kind to ourselves and follow the middle way. On the one hand that does mean committing long-term to a good diet, regular exercise, mental and emotional cultivation, healthy sleep and sex and so on, but on the other it also means that we have to enjoy what we are doing – love our exercise and our way of eating, have lots of fun and relish and embrace life. Preoccupation with health can easily get tied up with issues such as guilt, self-punishment, excessive self-control, obsession, fear of impurity and contamination, clean versus dirty and so on.
This is why the Chinese health tradition puts cultivation of the mind and emotions first. Without a wise, balanced and self aware mindset we can easily end up causing ourselves misery and even harm. Two other features of the modern wellness trend are that it is usually trying to sell us something (a superfood, a detox spa, a range of expensive yoga wear – a narcissistic obsession with wellness as consumerism) or it’s constantly changing and deeply faddish. When we look at the Chinese health cultivation tradition we find both a 2500-year old history (ample time to work things out) and some core principles that provide wise guidance in navigating competing and often hysterical health claims.
A large part of your book covers the topic of exercise, and from reading it, I understand you have a daily practice of Qi Gong. Having tried a range of other practices, what is it that appeals to you most about this way of moving?
Well, I was fat and massively unsporty at school and seemingly not cut out for yoga (I tried hard for a few years) but I took to the Chinese internal arts tradition like a duck to water. It would take too long (hence a whole chapter in my book) to say exactly why but for shorthand I’d say it cultivates muscle, bone and sinew strength, flexibility, balance, rootedness, mental resilience and stillness, emotional stability, deep and healthy breathing, youthfulness and more. Some, indeed many, of these can be found in other Asian practices such as yoga, but the Chinese internal exercise tradition is much older than modern yoga and has (yes I know it’s controversial and only my opinion) some wise differences.
Have you always been ‘healthy’?
Absolutely not. I led a fairly wild and reckless like in my late teens and early 20s and anyway was never especially robust as a child. I’ve had my fair share of health problems and in fact that’s why I became so interested in this tradition. There’s a Chinese saying, “Better to have one disease than no disease.” We learn a lot from the challenge of illness and one of the things available to us when we confront it is to seek the reason for it and adapt our lifestyle accordingly. This is actually a continual process of learning as we navigate life, which never stays the same (apart from anything else we are constantly ageing). Everything changes and as Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”
What three things do you do every day to take care of yourself and your health, and how do you find balance?
First, I generally aim to practise qigong for an hour a day. I cannot emphasise how deeply I understand now that the untended body and mind will decay and fail more rapidly than the cultivated body and mind. And what’s great about qigong (and suchlike) is that it can be practised for one’s whole life and deepen all the time. Second I drink a lot of tea. Thirdly I eat well – mostly organic foods, tons of vegetables, whole grains etc. and I try (I emphasise try) that single most important of dietary practices – to eat less.
How can you sum up your message to the world in one sentence?
Our health, wellbeing and longevity partly derive from our innate constitution and the fortune we encounter in life, but the rest is in our hands and if we love and cherish ourselves and others, let’s practise and teach each other how to live well and long.
[Originally published on emmanewlynyoga.com]