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Physiological Effects of Qigong and Yoga/Pranayama

Roger Jahnke O.M.D.

The three major areas of physiological mechanisms initiated and enhanced by Qigong and Yoga/Pranayama practice are:

Chart of Physiological Effects of Qigong

The most ancient and refined systems of health self care, Qigong and Yoga/Pranayama, originated in China and India. Both systems have similar activities which include breath practice, postures, motion, self massage, relaxation, concentration, visualization and meditation. Science is currently recognizing the value of investigating such ancient health care systems. It appears that a broad spectrum of physiological and bioenergetic events are triggered by Qigong and Yoga and that these mechanisms can be modified and refined by conscious and concentrated practice. This review will explore some of the major physiological mechanisms activated by the practice of these simple, self applied health enhancement techniques of China and India.

Actual research on Qigong and Yoga in the western world is in its infancy although some work has been done on the physiological parameters that may be influenced by voluntary control of the body's self regulating systems.(1,2,3) There is, however, substantial research from numerous disciplines of western science, (exercise physiology, behavioral medicine, psychoneuroimmunology, neurology, hematology, immunology and lymphology) that explores states or responses that are similar to states or responses initiated by Qigong and Yoga practice.

Techniques such as meditation, progressive relaxation and autogenic training have been found to alter heart rate, blood pressure, brain wave activity (EEG), neurotransmitter profile, peripheral blood volume, skin temperature and muscle control. (EMG).(1,2,3) Exercise that initiates only minimal to moderate body movement has been found to be effective and beneficial. Moderate body movement that occurs within a context of deep relaxation, for example, is common to both Qigong and Yoga. Western research on exercise, relaxed states and other triggers of specific physiological responses are clearly implicated as useful resources that may help to begin to build a body of scientific information on the self applied health maintenance methods of the Asian systems of traditional medicine. Key words such as "breathing exercises", "respiratory muscle training", "respiratory relaxation training", "correction of breathing", "physical training", "exercise therapy", "mild exercise", "dynamic exercise", "relaxation therapy", "autogenic training" and "meditation" lead to useful sources in the literature. This paper will draw actively on the recent literature of western research to point toward mechanisms which may be operating in Qigong and Yoga practice.

Research from the Asian cultures is more ample, however, much of it remains untranslated. In addition, until recently, the rigors held as essential to research in the western model of scientific inquiry were generally misunderstood in the more empirical model of the Asian sciences. In 1988, The First World Conference on the Academic Exchange of Medical Qigong was held in Beijing, China. The abstracts of 128 papers, many of which are on scientific subjects with necessary controls, have been translated into english.(4) Further, excellent controlled studies on Qigong, from China, and Yoga, from India, have begun to appear on the Med-Line data base, primarily under "breathing exercises."

A major stumbling block in writing on subjects from the traditional Asian systems of medicine and health care is the "Qi" of the Chinese and the "Prana" of the Indians. These words are not generally considered to have english equivalents. There is a broad array of possible translations including: bioelectromagnetic energy, bioenergy, subtle energy field, sum of all optimal human function, vital energy, awareness, intention and others. Over half of the scientific research articles from the 1988 conference in Beijing have the word "Qi" in the title. Until Western science has either come to accept "Qi" and "Prana" into the scientific language, or to have generated agreeable definitions, research literature using these words will probably remain somewhat inadmissible in the west.

Bioenergetic research is not unknown to western science. Harold Saxton Burr in 1935 described a system of electro-dynamic fields.(5) He worked with the electromagnetic currents in the bodies of salamanders and then in humans which he finally named L-fields (life fields).(6) Robert Becker reconfirmed Burr's work and applied DC current to regenerating salamander tails and healing human bone fractures. In his work with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Becker clarified that the perineural (nerve sheath) network is highly conductive.(7) B.E.W. Nordenstrom has described the Vascular interstitial closed circuit as a system of preferential ion conductance pathways comprising a network of biological circuitry.(8) There is some suggestion that even more subtle energies resonate in the human system and may be projected over substantial distances.

One of the most interesting features of the Qigong tradition is the phenomenon known as "Qi emission" or "external conductance of the Qi." Besides the self applied aspects of Qigong through breath, movement and meditation there is an application of Qigong to others performed by a Qigong master or Qigong doctor over a distance. This same phenomena has a rich history in the west as psychic or mental healing. Healers in the Soviet Union have been observed exchanging energy and heat into patients to help balance their biological function.(9)

This area is of great interest and raises fundamental questions in the interface of biology and physics. Such expert applied techniques are a potential distraction from the possible revolution in health care and medicine that self applied Qigong, Yoga and other forms of self care could provide. Whether self applied or procured from masters the benefits of Qigong and Yoga/Pranayama, to be embraced by Western science, will have to have a clear physiological basis. Such a physiological foundation may actually comprise the conductive media for the "Qi" and "Prana." In any case an exploration of the physiological mechanisms activated by the practice of Qigong and Yoga/Pranayama is needed. In instances, where it is clear that a particular mechanism is highly probable but not assured through specific research on Qigong or Yoga practitioner subjects, we will refrain from absolute statements and defer to "may", "possibly", "seem", "likely," etc with these words pointing to areas where research is needed to demonstrate the mechanism clearly.

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