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Qigong and the Autonomic Nervous System


Most of what follows was written some years ago in response to a paper on psychoneuroimmunology. It really was me thinking aloud and was written for no other purpose than to explore and clarify my own thoughts. I come to no conclusions. More recently I read an article about long covid and its similarities to conditions lumped together under the rubric of dysautonomia (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia also seem to have interesting similarities to these conditions). What interested me was that Doctors at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York were using breath work to help the most debilitated sufferers and the results of this were very encouraging. Correct breathing can affect the Vagus nerve and through it the autonomic nervous system – it was this that led me back to the things I was thinking about a few years ago and wondering I there’s something here that could help some of my patients.


Mind, Illness, The Autonomic Nervous System and the work of Dr Shen Hongxun


I recently read a paper on psychoneuroimmunology (see here) and I found myself thinking about the work of Dr Shen Hongxun and Taijiwuxigong, although the link between these isn’t immediately clear to me. The paper mentions the crucial role of the vagus nerve in the body’s sickness response and in its response to stress, a response that physiologically is very similar to its response to infection (Azar, 2001).


The vagus nerve is a central part of the parasympathetic nervous system which together with the sympathetic nervous system makes up the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system governs the involuntary processes of the body, things like the regulation of heart rate, peristalsis or the constricting of blood vessels in order to maintain our blood pressure when we stand up. Another way to understand the autonomic nervous system would be to say that it is concerned with the maintaining homeostasis within the body. These processes and the muscles associated with them are not under our conscious control.


Dr Shen Hongxun was both a trained medical doctor and Qigong teacher who developed Taijiwuxigong: A system of Daoyin and Qigong exercises designed to induce Spontaneous Movement. His journey to this began in 1957 when he was teaching Taiji to a group of pensioners who struggled with a range of health problems. Finding they were struggling to remember the Taiji form he began teaching a limited range of postures as static exercises. Practicing in this way some of his students began to experience various types of spontaneous movement. These ranged from vibration to more elaborate movements all of which seemed to manifest without conscious intent from the students. What Dr Shen noticed was the marked improvement of the health of these students. Later, in clinical practice he came across patients who had been treated with both western and eastern medicine but who continued to suffer from symptoms for which no cause could be identified. However in many cases standing exercises designed to induce spontaneous movement relieved the symptoms. (Shen, 2004, p. i)


In light of this Dr Shen made several observations. Firstly that much of, if not most of the movement of our body is spontaneous and outside of our conscious control, i.e. those movements and processes controlled by the autonomic nervous system. The second observation was that the exercises he was using were opening up the intervertebral spaces of the spine and he concluded that it was this that was improving the health of his patients. He identified what he called a double vicious cycle which led to the contraction of those spaces. The first part was that we accumulate and hold stress and negative emotions within the body; often in tension within the joints and that this alone can lead to poor posture. The second part is simply bad posture itself, which may have its roots in a variety of causes, work, injury, carrying too much body weight etc. The impact of this is to lead to the narrowing of the intervertebral spaces. The exercises Dr Shen developed were designed to both release the stress and unresolved emotion held in the body, and to stretch the spine and he notes that after a period of regular practice of Taijwuxigong many students are measurably taller (Shen, 2004, p. ii). The Neigong teacher Damo Mitchell records similar changes in some of his students.


In his book on Taijiwuxigong Dr Shen cites a study presented to the All China Qigong Science Congress in 1994 showing the effects of the practice on sufferers of a range of conditions. With the exception of Hypertension and Rheumatism which had 243 and 188 patients respectively, the sample sizes are too small to draw firm conclusions, but the results seem impressive enough to have warranted further research.



The link to the autonomic nervous system lies in the fact that many of the nerves associated with it, primarily those of the sympathetic nervous system have their roots in the intervertebral spaces of the lumbar and thoracic vertebrae and these nerves link to many of body’s major organs. To anyone who’s ever suffered from sciatica the idea that pressure on these nerves could have a major impact on their function and the functioning of the organs associated with them seems fairly self-evident and it’s not that hard to find both anecdotal and research to support that conclusion (Srihari et al., 2011). However although Dr Shen was trained in both Western and Chinese medicine he chose to explain his results in the language of Qi.


Zhan Zhuang (Pole Standing) has a long history in China. The Hexagram Xian in the I Ching depicts a standing posture and the commentary on it says “if the upper part of the body is soft and the lower part of the body is strong then there will be an exchange between two energies and certain sensations will arise” (Shen, 2004, p. 6). Dr Shen’s explanation of spontaneous movement mirrors this and these movements are ascribed to an interaction between the Dantian and the Qi gathered there, and the force of the Earth (ibid, p.145); more specifically the Earth’s pushing force, which, in a cosmology based on the concept of Yin and Yang, is a logical correlate to the Earth’s pulling force, i.e. gravity. Dr Shen takes this idea of interacting with the world during the practice further, suggesting that practicing near trees will produce different sensations to practicing in the open or to practicing inside.


In his formulation of the ‘double vicious circle’ Dr Shen placed the accumulation of unresolved negative emotion first, ahead of bad posture. While to western mind this might seem strange it makes perfect sense from the perspective of Chinese medicine where the emotions are “often described as the first expression of the movement of qi within the body” (Hill, 2014, p. 34). In keeping with this focus on Qi, the Daoyin that form part of the Taijiwuxigong system are designed not just to stretch the body’s deep musculature, but also to open the meridians, with the primary aims of improving the circulation therein and expelling Binqi or pathological Qi from the body. The practice itself is designed to create not just physical health but also, should the practitioner pursue it that far, a means of spiritual cultivation.


All these ideas take us well beyond the realm of western science and it’s tempting to fall back on or limit oneself to the scientific explanation and to dismiss the aspects of all this that lie beyond that. If one had just one source for any of this, that might be the most prudent course. However as already noted Zhan Zhuang has a long history in China and some form of spontaneous movement is a common feature of that practice (Cohen, 2013, pp. 222, 306–307).


In the early 1980s B. K. Frantzis travelled to China to train in the internal martial arts, including Ba Gua. Ba Gua Chuan translates as ‘Eight Trigram Palm’ or ‘Eight Trigram Fist’ and Frantzis describes it as the only purely Daoist internal martial art. Describing his experience of spontaneous movement resulting from his Ba Gua training at that time he describes his body vibrating vigorously, jumping in the air, spinning and performing movements that even with twenty years training as a martial artist he didn’t believe he was capable of. He goes on to say that in spontaneous movement “your energy starts mixing with the energy in the surrounding environment and you can tap into the primal energies that originated the Ba Gua lineage” (Frantzis, 1998, p. 225). He goes onto say that spontaneous movement releases bound emotions and is seen as part of the spiritual side of Ba Gua practice. These comments closely resemble those of Dr Shen.


Having written all this it’s still quite possible to say that none of it takes us beyond the explanation that might be offered from the conventional western perspective, i.e. that the releasing pressure on the nerves in the spine that form part of the sympathetic nervous system improves the function of associated organs and so the health of the individual. Perhaps it’s in the different conceptions of health that Western and Eastern medicine have that the role of Qi and of mind and spirit become more apparent.


The Western view of health is more limited and within it it’s quite possible to for someone to be considered healthy while lacking stamina, dealing poorly with stress and being prone to outbursts of inappropriate emotions. Or an individual could be considered to have superior health and fitness while storing up problems that will inevitably impact upon them as they age; rugby players come to mind. Within Traditional Oriental medicine none of those things could be true but a person could be considered healthy despite being overweight or frail looking or lacking in great cardiovascular fitness (Frantzis, 1998, p. 272). I even wonder if the conception of a ‘cure’ is common between them.


Bruce Frantzis writes about a Chinese man with whom he practiced Ba Gua in the 1970s in Hong Kong. The man had a form of Rheumatism and Frantzis says that it was possible to observe changes in his health over periods of weeks, days or even just a few hours depending on how he was practicing. The man was fluent in English and so was “able to share his experiences. He provided tremendous insights into how the middle aged body works with chi for maximum health….” (Frantzis, 1998, p. 273). In the terms of Western medicine the man was not cured, he was however able to live a healthy life within the limitations of the illness which he carried.


Unsurprisingly I, like most other people who try to make connections between two very different medical paradigms and their very different ways of looking at and understanding the body, have reached no firm conclusions. But I do think that if practices developed within another cultural context prove to be of benefit then they should be assessed and understood on their own terms. And it does seem that practices that at their most developed aim at spiritual cultivation appear to have an impact upon the health of those engaged in them and that even for those who practice them in a more superficial way there are impacts on health, emotional balance and mental clarity.


Azar, B. (2001). A new take on psychoneuroimmunology. Retrieved November 18, 2017, from http://www.apa.org/monitor/dec01/anewtake.aspx

Cohen, M. (2013). Inside zhan zhuang (First edit).

Frantzis, B. K. (1998). The power of internal martial arts : combat secrets of ba gua, tai chi, and hsing-i. Berkeley Calif.: North Atlantic Books

Hill, S. (2014). Chinese Medicine From The Classics. Monkey Press. #

Shen, H. (2004). Taijiwuxigong : Spontaneous Movement for Health and Happiness. Bristol: BUQI Institute.

Srihari, G., Shukla, D., Indira Devi, B., & Sathyaprabha, T. N. (2011). Subclinical Autonomic Nervous System Dysfunction in Compressive Cervical Myelopathy. Spine, 36(8), 654–659. https://doi.org/10.1097/BRS.0b013e3181dc9eb2



 

Bruce Bell is a fully trained 5 Element Acupuncturist working in the Midsomer Norton / Radstock area, and also from a clinic on the edge of Bath.



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