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Tai Chi & the Immune System - by Merlin Young - RDTC Birmingham.
At the end of a recent class, Alec was suggesting that some of us might like to
put pen to paper to offer our thoughts about what tai chi has come to mean to us
individually, with a view to publishing on the Rising Dragon Website. Roger (a
fellow student), who's been doing tai chi for some years, immediately shared his
thoughts with the class, telling us how he'd noticed that, whilst before starting tai
chi he'd been a sufferer of regular colds, he found now that he rarely suffered
from them, and he wondered if any of us had similar experiences, since he
attributes this to his tai chi.
His speculation has led to a lot of speculation of my own, since I tend to agree
with him, and I wonder if there might be good reasons for this, both from an
orthodox Western medical view point, and from a traditional Chinese medical
one. As an acupuncturist, I take a continuing delight in the way we tell stories to
explain how our bodies function - both in health and in disease. Whether the
stories are full of technical medical jargon, or are traditional allegories
incorporating the workings of the natural world around us, they can be equally
valid. In the end, no story can explain everything anyway - but if they manage to
facilitate any type of treatment, then their validity is self-evident.
In Western terms, I am wondering whether the movements of tai chi stimulate
(in a very fundamental and powerful way) the movement of fluids in the
lymphatic system. This system comprises a collection of organs, ducts and
tissues which have the dual role of draining tissue fluid (lymph, which is a clear
fluid) back into the bloodstream, while at the same time providing a barrier to
the spread of infections in the body through the efforts of the resident white cells
present in this lymphatic system. The system itself consists of a network of
lymph nodes (where the white cells concentrate), which filter the lymph fluid
and simultaneously destroy any harmful organisms. Most of the lymph nodes
are situated in the neck, the armpits and (most significantly) the groin.
The curious thing about the lymphatic system is that, unlike the blood (which
circulates through the pumping action of the heart muscle), it has to rely on the
movement of the body and the body's muscles to keep it moving. Nature is an
elegant engineer: every time we walk or move our arms and legs, the large
lymph collectors in the inguinal groove in the groin, and in the armpits, are
stimulated, thereby moving the lymph. This is vital to the health of the system -
it fundamentally depends on movement.
My proposition is that the focused smooth and slow movements of tai chi
(especially those in the more powerful yang cycle in the legs) have a particularly
profound effect in this respect. Certain movements in the tai chi form may in fact
emphasise this action. A few spring to mind - the closing of the hips, for instance,
in Roll Back, at the start of Single Whip and in Fair Lady - and the opening of the
hips in Single Whip, Embrace Tiger, and Fair Lady etc. The undulating rhythms
of the form forwards and backwards, and the regular turning of the hips within
the sequence must also be important.
Since starting to think about this, I have been conscious of it throughout my
practice, and I am almost certain that warm-up "swinging" exercises may be the
most important of all in this respect. While they may be faster and less focused in
their power, they nevertheless really seem to concentrate on opening and closing
the inguinal groove in the groin, thereby providing a particularly powerful
pumping action, whilst at the same time combining the loose swinging of the
arms through a wide orbit, stimulating the lymph nodes in both upper and lower
areas simultaneously. These exercises by themselves may well provide a
significant strengthening to any immune system.
The inguinal groove forms part of the kwa, which is an important energetic
crossroads of Qi in traditional Chinese theory. The movement of Qi is the be-all
and end-all of an understanding of health and disease when we look at the
functions of the body through a set of lenses ground out of the empirical
experience of two thousand years of Chinese medicine. In essence, where Qi
flows, there is health, and where Qi stagnates there is disease, and this concept
overflows into the way we play the form.
There are some important acupuncture points in the kwa, most particularly
"Stomach 30", named Qi Gong. This is variously translated as "Qi Rushing" or "Qi
Thoroughfare". It has various functions, but for the purpose of this discussion, it
has a particular significance - it is where the Gong Mai emerges. The Gong Mai is
one of the eight "extraordinary meridians" (which are more primal, in a sense,
than the regular meridians, which circulate Qi around the body). These
meridians are compared to reservoirs in the classic medical text the Nan Jing (or
"Classic of Difficulties"). The Gong Mai is described as "the sea of blood" and the
"sea of the twelve regular channels". The Qi of the Gong Mai emerges at the point
Qi Gong in the core of the inguinal area, to flow down into the legs (though not
all texts agree on this!), and to flow upwards through the abdominal area, before
dispersing in the chest.
Some modern scholars interpret the Gong Mai as being one of the earliest
blueprints in the formative embryonic organism, so that stimulating this area can
be seen to have profound effects on the energetic structure of the body.
The movement of the lymphatic system curiously echoes the movement of the
Gong Mai, connected to the legs by vessels collecting the lymph fluid, focusing in
the nodes in this area. This lymph fluid, separating from the cardiovascular
network of circulation, moves upward through the abdomen, filtering through
more lymph nodes, into the chest area where it collects (in the cisterna chyli - a
literal reservoir of lymph), before "dispersing" (like the Gong Mai) in the chest
back into the venous system, returning back to the heart for circulation in the
So....whichever way we look at it, those warm-up swings may never feel the
When I bounced these ideas off Roger a week or so after his offering to our class,
he speculated that it would be interesting to gather more information on this -
and The Rising Dragon Newsletter offers itself as a perfect vehicle for this, since
it provides access to the experience of hundreds of active tai chi practitioners,
who may be able to put our hypothesis to a simple test.
I would love to hear from you - Do you agree with us that tai chi has improved
your health and/or strengthened your immune system? Please let me know!
And if you want to discuss this, my telephone number is 0121-421-3480.
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