The Science Behind Qigong & PranayamaThe old masters discovered centuries ago, that deep breathing practices like qigong and pranayama lead to long life and abundant health. I teach several of these traditional qigong sets as part of our local martial arts classes here in Tempe, AZ including a variation of yijinjing unique to I Liq Chuan, as well as a qigong for health set taught by GM Sam Chin, and the “five contemplations of breathing” taught by Venerable Jiru of the Mid-America Buddhist Association.
A new review article recently published in Frontiers in Psychiatry  reveals some of the mechanisms behind such practices, as well as their applications in treating both mental and physical disorders like anxiety, depression, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and Crohn's disease.
At over 15 pages, and full of scientific jargon, the original review paper is quite long and dense for many readers, so I will summarize some of the more important details below. Even as a summary, I’m going to break this post up into multiple parts:
- Part 1: some basic anatomy
- Part 2: The Immune system
The human gut has an estimated 100-500 million neurons. This is more neurons than the spine, and is the largest accumulation of nerve cells in the human body, and is often referred to as “the second brain”, but is more properly referred to as the enteric nervous system. Well known author of martial arts and qigong books, Yang, Jwing Ming has been writing about this since at least the 90’s.
The enteric nervous system produces more than 30 different neurotransmitters and communicates directly with the brain (and vice versa) via the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve originates in the brain stem, and extends downward through the torso connecting to all the major organs, including the brain, heart, liver, lungs and the gut. Due to the nature of its length and complexity, it’s called “the wandering nerve” (vagus means wander in Latin).
|Photo credit - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4367209/|
This “two lane highway” between gut and brain via the vagus nerve is referred to as the gut brain axis, or GBA.
From an “Eastern” point of view, the body tissues can be divided into yin and yang types like flexors and extensors in the muscles, or arteries and veins in the circulatory system. Nerves are similarly divided into two different fiber types: afferent (long “A” like hay) and efferent (long “E” like feel) fibers.
Afferent fibers bring information from the point of contact (stimulus) back to the brain and central nervous system, while efferent fibers bring information from the CNS back to the other end of the system. In other words, afferent fibers bring information “from out to in”, while efferent fibers bring information “from in to out”.
In the vagus nerve, a whopping 90% of the nerve fibers are afferent fibers, bringing detailed information about the gut, and the state of its internal environment back to the brain, then to brain stem and limbic system (more on this later), while the remaining 10% of fibers are efferent, communicating information about our external environment and mental state back to the gut. This intimate connection explains why you feel moody when you’ve eaten the wrong foods, or why you get butterflies in your stomach when you get nervous.
How It Works - RespirationSo that you don’t forget to do important things like breathe, say, after you fall asleep, by default, respiration (breathing) is hardwired into the autonomic nervous system. However, being able to voluntarily speed up, or slow down our breathing is an ability we all possess. (As a side note, I recently heard about a condition in which people lose the autonomic function, and basically can't sleep anymore. Every time they try to fall asleep, they wake up because they quit breathing, and eventually die of sleep deprivation!)
The nervous system can be divided into two main parts, the voluntary (somatic) nervous system, and the autonomic nervous system, which can be again divided into the enteric nervous system, the sympathetic (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system. The vagus nerve is the primary regulator of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. To make a rough analogy, if the nervous system was your house, and the autonomic nervous system your central heating, the vagus nerve would be the thermostat.
As you may have guessed by now, breathing practices can directly stimulate the vagus nerve, by increasing the vagal tone, leading to an improvement of autonomic regulation, clarity of thought, improved mood and ability to cope with stress.
Simple breathing exercises seem to restore vagal tone, at least in part, through heart rate variability.
Each of us naturally has a different heart rate between the inhale, and exhale, as well as from beat to beat. When you inhale, the heart rate speeds up a bit, and when you exhale, the heart rate goes down.
Good heart rate variability indicates that you're in a relaxed state, whereas poor variability indicates a stressed, sympathetic state. So by slowing down the number of breaths we take in a minute, and focusing on making the exhale longer than the inhale, we naturally cause the heart rate to drop, which restores vagal tone, and increases relaxation as we shift from a sympathetic, into a more parasympathetic state. Once in the parasypmathetic state, the gut then upregulates production of “feel good” neurotransmitters like serotonin, which go back to the brain, increasing relaxation and beginning a cascade that feeds forward into itself.
The old saying goes "happy wife wife, happy life" but "happy gut makes a happy brain" might be more accurate.
Although the effects of practicing various breathing techniques are at least initially global, masters of breath like Wim Hof have shown that conscious and direct, targeted increases in autonomic nervous functions like immune responses to pathogens like e. Coli can be achieved.
Slow your breathing, heart rate drops, and the gut starts doing all kinds of things beneficial to our health. We can do all this consciously because the forward, “thinky” brain is wired into the brain stem through the limbic system (the emotional center of the brain), which is in turn wired to the vagus nerve.
Part two will continue with how stimulating the vagus nerve through breathing exercises like qigong and pranayama help to regulate the immune system and improve blood pressure and gut health.
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Sigrid Breit, Aleksandra Kupferberg, Gerhard Rogler and Gregor Hasler
 Sudarshan kriya yoga: Breathing for health
Sameer A Zope, Rakesh A Zope  Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans
Matthijs Kox, et. al