Taiji and Qigong for Immune System Health
by Eric Borreson
There is considerable evidence that taiji and Qigong can help strengthen your immune system. Doctors do not claim to fully understand what happens, but they do agree that taiji and Qigong help. One way that they may work is by activating our relaxation response. Another way that they may work is by activating our lymphatic system.
Meditation has been shown to strengthen our immune system. The mechanism is not entirely clear, but it seems likely it is related to stress reduction. Dr. Herbert Benson studied the effect of meditation starting in the late 1960s and into the 1970s. He concluded that meditation relaxes our body and mind. He coined the term “relaxation response” to describe how our body responds to meditation and calms us after a stressful event.
Our nervous system consists of two parts. The sympathetic nervous system manages the stimulating activities related to the fight-or-flight response when we are under stress. The sympathetic nervous system keeps us alive when we are in danger.
The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the relaxing activities that calm us down. It is often called the relaxation response or the rest-and-digest response because it is responsible for the activities that happen when we are at rest.
Stress is known to damage our bodies in many ways. It appears that one of those ways is a weakened immune system. Taiji is a well-known method of developing a mind-body connection that can invoke the relaxation response and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn reduces damage caused by stress.
Many taiji teachers incorporate meditation as part of the class. This happens for a couple of reasons. Meditation is good for your health by itself. In addition to that, learning taiji is stressful for beginners. It is difficult to teach our body to move in the slow, precise ways used in taiji. No student ever pays attention to me when I tell them to relax and not worry about it. They still stress about it. If I put stress into their lives, I want to help them manage it properly.
Taiji can also be used to directly invoke the relaxation response. The basic principles of taiji say to breathe deeply, move slowly and continuously, focus on the movement, and imagine moving against a gentle resistance. These are effective in calming the mind and body.
This is too much for a beginning student to be able to do at first. However, it can happen once a student develops a basic level of knowledge of the taiji forms. Regular practice of the forms in a simple set can be used to practice the basic principles of taiji. This is very helpful in supporting the student in developing the relaxation response.
To the students, it may seem like they are “in the flow”, or “really focused”, or some similar feeling. In taiji terms, it means they are starting to develop some inner strength and intention. In medical terms, they are developing a mind-body connection and invoking the relaxation response, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system. However, this does not happen immediately as people are learning taiji. It takes time and practice to develop the feeling.
The lymphatic system has many functions. One function is related to our immune system. The lymphatic system works by circulating lymph through the body. Lymph is a fluid that flows through a network of lymphatic vessels to and from the interstitial areas around cells. Cellular wastes are expelled from the cells and return through the lymphatic system.
The lymph nodes filter out any unwanted materials from the lymph and removes them from the system. We normally think of white blood cells (lymphocytes) being associated with our circulatory system, but they are part of our lymphatic system, too. Lymphocytes collect in the lymph nodes and work as part of our immune system to attack invaders.
A big difference between our circulatory system and lymphatic system is that there is no heart to pump lymph. There are several ways that lymph moves through the lymphatic system. The primary way that lymph circulates is activated when the lymph nodes and ducts are massaged and compressed. The nodes can be manually massaged by medical professionals, but are natrually massaged when you exercise. One of the best types of exercise for this is taiji because the slow movements of the forms causes a gentle, slow massage of body tissues.
Lymph is stored in lymph nodes scattered throughout the body. There are concentrations of nodes in your upper chest near where your arms join your torso, in the center of your chest, in your lower abdomen where your legs join your torso, and the bottoms of your feet.
The nodes in your upper chest are massaged when you move your arms back and forth and up and down. This happens in many taiji movements, such as brush knee, white crane spreads wings, repulse monkey, etc.
The nodes in the center of your chest are massaged by deep breathing. As the diaphragm moves up and down, it massages the lymph vessels. Taiji and Qigong both emphasize the kind of deep breathing that promotes lymph flow.
The nodes in your lower abdomen are massaged when you step, shift your weight, or open your kuas (hips). Taiji emphasizes using the waist to lead the movement. Any taiji form that involves stepping should have the effect of opening and closing the kuas.
The nodes on the bottom of your foot are massaged when you step forward onto your heel and shift your weight forward, bringing the rest of your foot down on the floor. In the medical field, the term “pedal pump” is used to refer to methods that massage the bottom of your feet to promote drainage of lymph from the lower extremities.
If a lymph node has been damaged or has been removed during surgery, the interstitial fluids cannot readily enter the lymphatic system. The fluids collect and cause swelling and edema called lymphedema. In addition, bacteria can enter the lymph through the skin and cause infections. It requires daily effort to massage the tissue and ensure the lymph is flowing. Daily Qigong or taiji practice can contribute significantly to keeping your immune system healthy.[Eric Borreson – a student and teacher, finds teaching tai chi, qigong, and meditation to be a path to a more meaningful life. Eric is the founder and director of Meditation in Motion, specializing in teaching about living healthier and happier lives. He is a certified Instructor in Dr. Paul Lam’s Tai Chi for Health program. He teaches tai chi, qigong, and meditation at the prestigious Heartland Spa, a top 10 destination spa, located in Gilman, IL. In addition, he teaches tai chi (Sun-style tai chi, and Dr. Lam’s Tai Chi for Arthritis and Tai Chi for Diabetes, and Yang 24) at other venues. He conducts workshops and teaches private lessons on request. He writes a weekly wellness column at http://eric-taichi.blogspot.com. Follow on Twitter @eborreson]