Sunday, January 23, 2011

Using Tai Chi to Strengthen Your Immune System (Part 1 of 2)

There is considerable evidence that tai chi and qigong can help strengthen your immune system. It is not always clear what is really happening to your body when you practice tai chi. Doctors don’t claim to fully understand what happens, but they do agree that it helps. One way that tai chi may work is by activating your lymphatic system.

The lymphatic system works by circulating lymph through the body. Lymph is a fluid that carries white blood cells (lymphocytes) from the lymph nodes, through a network of lymphatic vessels, to the interstitial areas around cells.

We normally think of white blood cells being associated with your circulatory system, but they are moved around by your lymphatic system, too. However, there is a big difference between the two systems. There is no heart to pump lymph. Lymph circulates only when the lymph nodes are massaged and compressed. The nodes can be manually massaged by medical professionals, but are normally massaged when you exercise. One of the best types of exercise for this is tai chi.

Lymph is stored in lymph nodes scattered throughout the body. There are concentrations of nodes in your upper chest near where your arms join to your torso, in the center of your chest, in your lower abdomen where your legs join to your torso, and the bottoms of your feet.

The nodes in your upper chest are massaged when you move your arms back and forth and up and down. This happens in many tai chi forms, such as brush knee, white crane spreads wings, repulse monkey, etc.

The nodes in the center of your chest are massaged by deep breathing. Really focus on deep breathing when you are practicing your tai chi.

The nodes in your lower abdomen are massaged when you step, shift your weight, or open your kuas (hips). Tai chi emphasises using the waist to lead the movement. Any tai chi form that involves stepping should have the effect of opening and closing the kuas.

The nodes on the bottom of your foot are massaged when you step forward onto your heel and shift your weight forward, bringing the rest of your foot down on the floor. In the medical field, the term “pedal pump” is used to refer to methods that massage the bottom of your feet to promote drainage of lymph from the lower extremities.

This is the end of part 1. Next week, I will finish this post by describing how the meditative aspects of tai chi also help strengthen your immune system.

© 2011 Eric Borreson