Words by Steve Thomas
B.A. (hons), Lic. Ac, Registered Accupuncturist A.H.P.R.A., A.T.M.S.
What would happen if you stopped going harder and faster and started going softer and slower?
The ancient Chinese art of Qigong may well hold the answer.
In the days beyond pandemic, lockdown and social distancing, if you’ve ever walked through a city park on a warm spring morning you may well have seen a group of people: outwardly serene and measured, flowing through a series of controlled movements.
In all likelihood you were witnessing the practice of Tai Chi – the more famous relation of Qigong. Although less well known, Qigong is now practiced all over the world and by many millions of people in China each day to assist their mental, physical and spiritual health.
There are hundreds of different Qigong styles yet in most cases they are underpinned by the same important set of principles.
It is generally well understood that as an individual places more demand on the physical system, parts of the brain respond by signaling to increase physiological activity and also the supply of resources, to power and fuel those activities. This is known as a catabolic process.
What is less well known is that the same feedback mechanisms can also signal decreased physiological activity, leading to anabolic or restorative processes.
Qigong capitalises on these feedback mechanisms to change the body’s state to one optimised for rest, relaxation and repair.
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Time To Relax?
These flowing Qigong movements are also linked to slow rhythmical abdominal breathing. This style of breathing is called belly breathing, diaphragmatic breathing or sometimes Buddha breathing. It activates the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) producing relaxation and creating a positive feedback loop i.e. slower and deeper breathing leads to more relaxation, which leads in turn to slower and deeper breathing.1
Take A Breather
Not surprisingly, one of the primary principles of Qigong is relaxation.
This principle is enshrined in the whole of Qigong practice right down to the initial warm up exercises, where the practitioner attempts to relax each group of muscles and joints in turn throughout the whole body: at the same time observing areas where there is particular resistance due to long term tension. These warm up exercises also contain static stretching to increase flexibility.
Once the body is relaxed through the preliminary set of exercises, then Qigong moving forms can be practiced. These flowing movements are practiced very slowly and with relaxed muscles to encourage and develop fine motor movement.
This explains why experienced practitioners often look so graceful and fluid.
Movements that seemed easy when practiced fast often become much more demanding when practiced very slowly, leading to greater muscular control and increasingly fine motor movement.
Less Stress, Better Health
It is clear from studies on stress and neurological arousal that the body’s ability to heal itself is adversely affected by prolonged stress.2 In fact the optimum state for healing and tissue repair in most cases is relaxation.3
Long term stress is considered to have a negative impact on most diseases. Immunity also seems to be adversely affected by chronic stress leading to increased risk of susceptibility to viruses and bacteria. Therefore, relaxation is an essential skill to have in order to encourage better health and recovery.
Relaxation can also help manage performance anxiety and improve performance. When stress is perceived as overwhelming, performance inevitably suffers.
Relaxing the muscles and the nervous system tends to have a calming effect on the flow of thoughts in the mind. Qigong practitioners also direct the mind to focus on the interior state of the body, like a meditation practice. This mental focus or mindfulness also serves to encourage a peaceful sense of being present, although it can take many repetitions before these skills become ingrained.
In a study examining psychological and behavioral changes in relation to slow breathing practices, participants reported feelings of increased comfort, relaxation, pleasantness, vigor and alertness and reduced symptoms of arousal, anxiety, depression, anger and confusion.4. Several studies on Qigong and Tai Chi have also reported reduced levels of anxiety in participants.5 6
Likewise, there is evidence that regular practice of Qigong can lower an individual’s level of sympathetic neurological arousal. Simply put, practitioners can teach their nervous systems to be calmer.7
Find your strength
Qigong can, perhaps surprisingly, increase strength. The classic standing position with its particular set of body alignments and bent knee posture increases leg strength very quickly.
Similarly, even slow gentle relaxed repetition of a flowing movement when performed for many minutes strengthens the muscles8, much like doing many repetitions with light weights. Yet the risk of injury is very low. In fact, none of the studies examined reported any adverse effects from the practice of Qigong.
Qigong practice also increases flexibility, partly due to releasing tension in muscles and partly due to the gentle lengthening of muscles over time.
Qigong practice can also improve respiratory capacity by breathing deeper, more slowly and for longer. These increases can take many weeks of gentle practice to develop.
Slow breathing has also been seen to improve respiratory efficiency9. More of the lungs’ alveoli are able to fully dilate, capturing more of the incoming breath and leading to greater oxygen saturation in arterial blood. This phenomenon does not occur during normal breathing or increased breathing, an observation that could be important when considering preparation for competitive activity.
“If you are interested in exploring a new route to relaxation & health or seeking to complement your existing training regime then perhaps Qigong can provide the answer”.
In All Things Balance
It is fairly clear that Qigong can benefit health but can Qigong cure illness?
Traditional Chinese medicine (of which Qigong is one branch) has always maintained that it is much easier to prevent disease than to cure it and whilst it certainly appears that the regular practice of Qigong has many benefits, there is no guarantee that it will cure any particular disease.
Despite this, some Chinese hospitals provide daily medical Qigong classes for patients with a variety of conditions and claim significant success rates.
Qigong is not a reason to give up on ‘hard’ exercise. Martial artists in China have often used Qigong as a cross training method and to improve mental and physical performance. Similarly, some western athletes have been introducing Qigong into training sessions to assess its benefits.10
Naturally, there is much more to say about Qigong than can be written here, but if you are interested in exploring a new route to relaxation & health or seeking to complement your existing training regime then perhaps Qigong can provide the answer.
It’s a novel form of exercise: one that can increase lung capacity without running, improve strength without lifting weights, increase flexibility and also calm the mind. Plus you’ll get to look more graceful and serene. All without breaking into a sweat.
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Steve Thomas (B.A. (hons), Lic. Ac, Registered Accupuncturist A.H.P.R.A., A.T.M.S.) has been practicing, studying or teaching Qigong for over thirty years. He is also a nationally registered Acupuncturist in Australia and has been in practice for twenty-five years. He has special interests in chronic muscular skeletal disorders and stress, anxiety and trauma.
1Jerath, R., Edry, J. W., Barnes, V. A., & Jerath, W. (2006). Physiology of long pranayamic breathing: neural respiratory elements may provide a mechanism that explains how slow deep breathing shifts the autonomic nervous system. Medical Hypotheses 67:566–571.
2Segerstrom, S. C. & Miller, G. E. (2004). Psychological stress and the human immune system: a meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry. Psychological Bulletin, 30:601-630.
3Gouin, J. P. & Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K. (2011). The impact of psychological stress on wound healing: methods and mechanisms. Immunology and allergy clinics of North America, 31(1), 81–93.
4Zaccaro, A., Piarulli, A., Laurino, M., Garbella, E., Menicucci, D., Neri, B., & Gemignani, A. (2018). How breath-control can change your life: a systematic review on psycho-physiological correlates of slow breathing. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 12, 353.
5Abbott, R. & Lavretsky, H. (2013). Tai Chi and Qigong for the treatment and prevention of mental disorders. The Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 36(1), 109.
6Ma, X., Yue, Z. Q., Gong, Z. Q., Zhang, H., Duan, N. Y., Shi, Y. T., Wei, G. X., & Li, Y. F. (2017). The effect of diaphragmatic breathing on attention, negative affect and stress in healthy adults. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 874.
7Pal, G. K. & Velkumary, S. (2004). Effect of short-term practice of breathing exercises on autonomic functions in normal human volunteers. Indian Journal of Medical Research, 120(2), 115.
8Kanda, K., Mori, Y., Yamasaki, K., Kitano, H., Kanda, A., & Hirao, T. (2019). Long-term effects of low-intensity training with slow movement on motor function of elderly patients: a prospective observational study. Environmental health and preventive medicine, 24(1), 44.
9Russo, M. A., Santarelli, D. M., & O’Rourke, D. (2017). The physiological effects of slow breathing in the healthy human. Breathe, 13(4), 298-309.
10Wright, P. A., Innes, K. E., Alton, J., Bovbjerg, V. E., & Owens, J. E. (2011). A pilot study of qigong practice and upper respiratory illness in elite swimmers. The American journal of Chinese medicine, 39(03), 461-475.