Traditional Eastern medicine can be traced back thousands of years; well before the advent of science as we know it – many of the ideas found across Asia can be traced back to the Upanishads of around 1200 to 900 BCE. Rather than cast these ideas aside because they do not conform to the Western idea of science, I think of them as mechanisms for explaining patterns that were observed over hundreds if not thousands of years, but have yet to be explained in Western terms.
Generally speaking, traditional Eastern medicine deals with imbalances in one’s internal energy. Whether it is the “chakras” of traditional Indian medicine or the “qi” meridians of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), illness is believed to be the result of imbalances and blockages in one’s internal energy (prana in Yoga, and qi (pronounced chee) in TCM). When it comes to correcting these imbalances, several methods are found in most eastern healing arts; herbalism, manipulation (massage or acupuncture) and exercise (yoga, qigong, taijiquan).
While I do believe that we have an internal energy system, the lack of consistent thought on how this works leaves me thinking about how one might explain the how traditional eastern medicine might be explained in a contemporary way. Herbalism and natural medicine are obvious; most drugs today are based on medicinal plants. There are many theories of how acupuncture works, and these are usually based on the interruption of pain pathways and the release of endorphins (acupuncture works on animals so I would rule out the placebo effect). I am going to focus on yoga and qigong as I am most familiar with these traditional methods.
One thing is clear; the difference between Western and Eastern medicine is that the former is reductionist and the later is holistic. In TCM, of the various causes of illness, most are psychological. In all Eastern medicine, the body and mind are interconnected. To treat the body one must also treat the mind, and visa versa. And it is for this reason that he field of PsychNeuroImmunology (PNI) excites me a great deal. As you might imagine, PNI is about how the mind (psyche), the brain (neuro) and the body (immunology) interact. My theory on the positive impact of yoga and qigong on body and mind is influenced by the field of PNI. Hence, my theory is not what the gurus and masters of yoga and qigong would tell you.
Some qigong masters, and I suspect that this applies to yoga too, would say that in order to cure specific illnesses one needs to do specific postures (or exercises) to correct specific energetic imbalances, while others would say that a more general approach will correct imbalances in a holistic way. I lean towards the more general approach, and here is why…
There are three factors, which for me, play an important role in the efficacy of yoga and qigong as healing arts. The first of these is breathing. In both yoga and qigong proper breathing is of utmost importance. Most adults do not breath properly, as babies do. Breathing deep into the abdomen expands the lungs and draws in much more oxygen than the shallow chest breathing most of us do. Obviously increasing the flow of oxygen has a beneficial effect on body and mind, but the impact breathing is so much more than that.
I have written about the power of being present in the moment, and when you focus on your breathing, you focus on the present moment. Qigong based on Chan (Zen) Buddhism specifically emphasizes the focusing on breathing with the intention of bringing about a state of “wuxin” (no mind). For many Christians, their misunderstanding of the concept “wuxin” has led them away from the benefit of meditation. To understand the nature of “wuxin” one must understand the concept of “wu“. One might think of “wu” has being that state between active and passive states – it is neither full nor empty, positive or negative – which is another way of saying that in “wuxin“, thoughts are not tagged with positive or negative emotion. And this is where qigong meets neuroscience. Meditation has been shown to improve overall immune functioning, and this because through meditation one is able to “reset” the emotional centre responsible for initiating stress response – the amygdala. As Rita Carter says (I recommend her Brain Book); the amygdala “tastes” all incoming stimuli and determines whether it is a threat or not. When a threat is perceived, the amygdala initiates sympatho-adrenal response which prepares the body for fight or flight. Unfortunately, the body does not distinguish between real and psychological threat and so any negative thought leads to some degree of stress. Chronic stress has been shown to impact on the immune system and so anything that reduces the constant stream of negative thought should lead to an improved immune system. Not thinking about negative things then is what counts towards the benefit of yoga and qigong (and in this context those who are uncomfortable witht the notion of an “empty mind” can rest easy and work towards having happy thoughts).
Now you might ask, “if just sitting and not thinking about negative things will improve my immune system, why do I need to stand in those funny postures?”. Yoga and qigong postures and movements require that you flex and contract your muscles, and twist and bend the spine. One system critical to immunology is the lymphatic system (which responds to, and fights against any infection). One of the major mechanisms for lymphatic circulation is through muscle contraction; so gentle yoga and qigong movements facilitate the circulation of infection fighting lymphatic system. In addition, traditional medicine focuses on the benefits of massaging (through twisting and bending) the internal organs and stimulating the nervous system (I have read at least one scientific article suggesting that massaging the organs is beneficial to the system).
In summation, you do not have to buy into the esoteric explanation of the benefit of yoga and qigong; there are some good psychological, neurological and physiological reasons for the efficacy of yoga and qigong as healing arts.