Qigong and the Yin-Yang Nervous Systems
by Chun Man Sit, with Michael Ferrari
Qigong is not a single system, like Tai Chi or Bagua. In fact, there are literally thousands of different qigong methods, created by people from all walks of life, over the last 3000 years in China. Some Qigong methods, like the five animals frolic and the six healing sounds, were created over 1500 years ago. Others, such as the ‘flying crane Qigong’ and the ‘drifting cloud qigong’, are products of the 20th century.
Qigong is an art, as well as a science. After 3000 years of research and practice, Qigong experts have agreed on some principles and theories. Understanding these principles and theories can be useful for qigong students. All qigong methods focus on three elements: the mind, the body, and the breath.
1) The mind – the mind must be calm, peaceful and at rest.
2) The body – body-structure should be correctly maintained. Muscles should be relaxed. Movements should be precise, slow and gentle.
3) The breath – the breath should be soft and deep. Use abdominal breathing if possible.
These are the basic principles that promote safe and effective qigong practice.
There are two important theories for Qigong practice:
1. The Qi Theory
This theory claims that qi, or vital energy ,has the healing power. A person with strong qi gets sick less than a person with weak qi. By practicing qigong, we can improve the quality and quantity of qi within us.
2. The Yin-Yang Theory
The Yin/Yang theory states that:
a) All things and events in the universe are composed of Yin and Yang.
b) Yin and Yang are the opposite sides of the same thing.
c) Yin is the root of Yang and vice versa.
d) When Yin and Yang are in balance, there is harmony. If not, bad things can happen.
The important thing about this theory is the harmony of Yin and Yang, also called “the middle way”. Too much or too little of anything can be bad. For example, eating too much is bad for us. But eating too little is not good either. The key is moderation.
Let’s use the Yin/Yang theory to explore some western concepts. There are two nervous systems that act very close to the Yin/Yang theory. They are the sympathetic system and the parasympathetic system. The first one is the Yang system and the second in the Yin system. Studying these two nervous systems can help us to understand how Qigong and Tai Chi practice can benefit our health. Before we discuss the relation between qigong and these two nervous systems, let’s have a talk with Mike Ferrari, a neurobiologist, and also a Tai Chi and qigong practitioner.
Sit: Hi Mike, could you tell us a little about your background?
Mike: Sure, Sit. My name is Michael Ferrari. I have a Ph.D. in neurobiology from the University of Texas-Austin. Neurobiology is the study of form and function, or anatomy and physiology, of the nervous system. I then took a position at the University of California-San Diego doing neurobiological research. I’m currently an Assistant Professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where I teach biology and run a research laboratory.
Sit: Could you explain to us from a western biomedical perspective, what controls whether we are stressed or calm?
Mike: It is our mental state, which is a summation of all the activity in our nervous system. All the inputs to the nervous system – sight, sound, touch, etc.- affect our perception of a given circumstance. Higher processing centers in the brain then take this information and produce a bodily reaction that can be called tense or relaxed. Therefore, our mental state can significantly influence other parts of our nervous system, and hence the whole body.
Sit: Other parts of the nervous system? How many parts are there?
Mike: Actually, the entire human nervous system works as an integrated whole. It does not really have separate parts or subsystems. These are just artificial distinctions that we use to better understand and describe the functions of those “subsystems”. For example, the parts of the brain and all of the nerves that carry information to the muscles for movement are called the somatic nervous system. The subsystem that controls our digestive organs, like the stomach and intestines, is called the enteric nervous system. These systems can be further subdivided according to their anatomical location and function.
Sit: Okay, so our brain activity, or our mental state, determines whether we feel calm or stressed. Which system is involved in turning these feelings into a relaxed or tense body?
Mike: It is the autonomic system, which sounds almost like the automatic system! In fact, this system controls many of the body functions that are largely automatic. We don’t usually think about them or have voluntary control of how they work. This system controls things like heart rate, breathing rate, sweating, blood pressure, and other functions. This system has two subsystems – the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic system speeds up the heart and breathing rates, and directs blood to the muscles. This system is most active during fight or flight situations. We can call it the stress system. The parasympathetic system slows down the heart and breathing rates, and directs blood to the digestive system. It is most active during periods of rest. We can call it the calm system.
Sit: It sounds like these two different systems control Yin and Yang aspects of the internal organs. Is that a fair conclusion?
Mike: Absolutely! The calm system controls Yin aspects and the stress system controls Yang aspects
Sit: Are the two systems consistent with the concept of yin and yang? That is, can one be activated 80% while the other is 20%, or is it only on or off?
Mike: These systems do behave like yin and yang in that they are complementary. For example, if the sympathetic is at 60%, the parasympathetic would be about 40%. In other words, you can’t have both systems at 100%, since they control each organ in an opposite, or complementary manner. In some extreme situations, such as the adrenaline rush during the fight or flight response, the sympathetic almost completely dominates, and might be close to 100%. But like with any yang activity, this cannot be sustained, and sooner or later it must change back into yin. After a fight or flight, we have to rest and recuperate!
Sit: Fascinating! It seems these systems have a lot of ground to cover. If they affect many of the internal organs, and in opposite ways, how is this achieved?
Mike: These systems are directly connected to the lungs, heart, liver, and other digestive organs by clusters of nerve cells found alongside the spine. There are separate clusters for the sympathetic (stress) and parasympathetic (calm) systems. Most of our organs receive connections from both the sympathetic and parasympathetic, and so the organ’s activity depends on the balance between the two systems. Lastly, the sympathetic system can simultaneously affect many organs by releasing a chemical into the blood. This chemical, called adrenaline, is responsible for the high heart and breathing rates, sweating, high blood pressure, and other reactions which we call an adrenaline rush. It is also called a fight or flight reaction, because it occurs in extremely stressful encounters.
Mike: Good question. By definition, stress is a non-specific activation of the sympathetic system. Various psychological or social stressors can produce similar increases in blood pressure, breathing and heart rates, and other changes that are useful in true fight or flight situations. But one difference between non-specific stress and high intensity exercise is that stress responses are both wasteful and harmful when no physical activity will result. For example, the sympathetic system tells the liver to release sugar for the muscles during a fight or flight situation. When this is not accompanied by muscular activity, the released sugar becomes a problem. But by far, the most studied and perhaps worst aspect of increased stress levels is the direct suppression of the immune system. The immune system is largely responsible for maintaining our health. This is why people under constant high stress are often sick. Over 5000 articles have been published in western biomedical journals on the relationship between stress and the immune system.
Sit: In other words, if we increase parasympathetic activity and decrease sympathetic activity, we can improve our health, right or wrong?
Mike: Absolutely right! Activation of the parasympathetic system boosts the immune system and leads to robust health and longevity. Any exercises that emphasize slow, deep breathing, calming the mind and relaxing the muscles are of immense health benefit.
Sit: How does the western view of exercise fit with these two systems? Isn’t a high heart rate generated by aerobic exercise considered beneficial for the cardiovascular system?
Mike: Yes, aerobic exercise confers enormous benefits. In fact, Tai Chi is an aerobic exercise of moderate intensity. Several studies have shown that during Tai Chi form practice, regardless of age or gender, heart rate reserve and oxygen utilization are 50 to 60% of their maximum values. In contrast, vigorous aerobic exercise can activate the sympathetic system and cause elevations in stress hormones. In general, increasing the intensity of any exercise will create more physical stress, which in turn will activate the sympathetic system.
Sit: But is it possible for us to perform intense exercise without activating the sympathetic system?
Mike: Great question! The biomedical and sports studies to date suggest that the answer is no. For example, an aerobic exercise by definition is working beyond the body’s oxygen utilization capacity. This means the body cannot get oxygen to the muscles quickly enough for the workload. This produces actual physical stressors, such as muscle injury and lactic acid buildup. These physical stressors, as well as the psychological and emotional stress of the activity, significantly activate the sympathetic system. Even high intensity aerobic exercise appears to be detrimental, and is often called over training syndrome.
Basically speaking, any exercise that is too intense will cause performance decline and activate the sympathetic system to the point of obstructing the immune system. Therefore, a moderate aerobic exercise that does not produce physical stress is optimal. However, since stress is mostly psychological or emotional, a person can become stressed even by performing mild to moderate exercise, depending on his prior experience.
For example, riding a bike for the first time can be stressful for any beginner. Here the fear of falling down creates a big stresser.
We can see why the emphasis on calming the mind in tai chi practice can be a perfect way to decrease sympathetic activity while still performing mild to moderate exercise.
Sit: Can these two systems be controlled by the mind? In other words, can we train to control them?
Mike: Yes, we can. The common western biomedical term for this would be biofeedback. Often, this involves using an instrument to monitor the heart rate. We train ourselves to control our heart rate by using the monitor as a visual aid. Biofeedback has been used to a limited extent for some disorders. But it is fair to say that most western doctors still do not recognize the importance of exercises to reduce tension and stress. However, I think this is slowly changing, as the evidence continues to grow, showing a direct relationship between stress and disease. In my opinion, exercises such as meditation, qigong and tai chi are optimal for reducing sympathetic activity. These exercises are beneficial to health and longevity.
Sit: Thanks, Mike. I think we have learned a lot about the yin and yang nervous system.
Mike: You are welcome. Hope this will help.
We live in a world that is complicated and full of stresses. Simple things such as driving through rush hour can trigger our fight or flight system easily. Now that we have learned how these yin and yang nervous systems affect our health, the question is simple:
Can we manipulate these two nervous systems to benefit our health?
According to the yin/yang theory, the answer is yes. Yin and yang is the opposite sides of the same thing. This theory also includes the body and mind. The mind affects the body and vice versa. The principle is simple: decrease the yang and you will increase the yin. In other words, decrease the level of fight or flight and you will immediately increase the level of rest and heal. To achieve this, there is no other better way than qigong practice.
In qigong practice, students always learn simple and easy moves, which they will practice repeatedly, in a slow and relax manner. Simple and easy moves help them to breathe softly and deeply. Practicing slow moves and soft breath repeatedly will help their minds to become calm and peaceful. When these three things are in harmony, the yin system will be activated.
Even though in classic Chinese medicine there were no such terms as nervous systems, doctors and qigong masters had a good understanding of the healing mechanic of the human body. For example, Grandmaster Ma Li Tang (1903-1989) mentioned in his qigong book that after practicing over hundreds of different qigong methods, he found out they all have the same characters. They are: be loose (song), be calm and be natural.
In his book “Entering the gate of Chen style Taiji”, Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang repeatedly talks about the importance of nurturing the qi. He said, “In order to nurture qi you should practice taiji (tai chi)slowly and calmly. If you practice quickly and excitedly, you will only hurt your qi. Slow and quiet training is the best taiji training.” It is obvious that Grandmaster Feng was referring to the two nervous systems. Qigong, after all, is a science![Master Chun Man Sit was born in 1951 in southern China. His family moved to Hong Kong when he was six. He lived in Hong Kong for twenty years. In 1976 he moved to the United State. He lives in Overland Park, Ks. with his wife Mary Ann. Master Sit began his martial art training in 1969. He has learned and practiced continually for forty years, learning many styles, such as: Karate, Tai Chi, Qigong and Kungfu. He is the expert on Wu style Taiji, Tai Hui Six Elbows Kungfu, and many Qigong methods, including 6 Healing Sounds, Drifting Cloud Moving Qigong, Nei Gong, Silk-reeling Gong, etc. Master Sit has been a chief judge in many national Tai Chi and Kungfu tournaments in the USA for the last 18 years. He has taught workshops on Tai Chi, Qingong and Kungfu. His articles appear regularly in Tai Chi and Kungfu magazines. He is currently writing a book on Tai Chi.]