Nervous System

Much of what is described in traditional medical
systems as the “balance” of forces, such as yin and yang in
the Chinese system, can be associated with the dualistic
components of the nervous system. In the central nervous
system yin is rest and yang is action. Balance is the state
between rest and action called dynamic equilibrium. This is
the state that training in Tai ji and Qigong seeks to
refine. In the autonomic nervous system yin may be
associated with the parasympathetic and yang may be
associated with the sympathetic. The balance of yin and yang
is associated with homeostasis.

Because the western world view has generally had a
difficult time understanding and accepting the concepts of
Qi (chi), prana or vital force from the Asian systems, there
has been a strong trend toward explaining the effects of
yoga, qigong, acupuncture, etc through the mechanisms of the
nervous system.(25,54,55) While while these practices do
have a definite effect upon neurological function, with
consequent effects on body systems, the neurological
mechanism may actually be an intermediary for a more refined
and less quantifiable system of subtle energies. However, a
great deal of research has been done that reveals the
neurological mechanisms that may be activated in Qigong and
Yoga and it is appropriate to explore them here.

There are a number of mechanisms associated with the
brain, nervous system and other related systems that Qigong
and Yoga/Pranayama practice enhance including:

  1. Initiation of the
    “relaxation response” (RR), para-sympathetic aspect of
    the autonomic nervous system or resting aspect of the
    basic rest activity cycle (BRAC).

  2. Shift of the neurotransmitter

  3. Dilation of blood capallaries
    initiating increased microcirculation in the periphery,
    brain and organs.

  4. Supports the
    brain/neurological aspects of immune function.

  5. Balance right/left brain
    hemisphere dominance.

  6. Induction of alpha, and
    sometimes theta wave forms in EEG.

  7. Affecting neuroreflex
    mechanisms through the stimulation of acupuncture
    response points.

  8. Generating an affect on the
    function of the hypothalamus, pituitary, pineal, third
    ventricle complex within the brain.

1. Initiation
of the relaxation response

When the predominance of autonomic nervous system activity
is sympathetic the human system is working, expending energy
and breaking down tissue. This is associated with the action
phase of metabolism, and referred to as catabolic. This is
associated, in it’s extreme, with the “fight or flight
response” with increased heart rate, breath rate and blood
pressure. It is also called the stress state and has been
associated with adrenal exhaustion and collapse (56).

This state, when overactive and not balanced to
homeostasis by ample parasympathetic activity, contributes
to the production of positively charged hydrogen ions. As
mentioned in an earlier section on free radicals these
hydrogen ions bind with oxygen. This can cause a net oxygen
deficit and a general acid ph in the internal environment.
Biological stress is conducive to the proliferation of a
number of diseases or syndromes including hypertension,
pain, depression, immune deficiency and

The opposite aspect of autonomic activity,
parasympathetic, is a phase of rest and tissue regeneration.
It is associated with the conservative phase of metabolism,
anabolic. In its extreme this state is associated with the
“relaxation response” (RR)(57), characterized by decreased
heart and breath rate and a lowering of blood pressure. This
is also associated with the resting phase of the basic
resting activity cycle (BRAC).(58) Conscious deactivation of
the sympathetic function with the activation of certain
parasympathetic features of autonomic activity can
neutralize the negative effects of “fight or flight”
overactivity. The primary steps to initiate this state are
deep, slow breathing coupled with the intention to
relax.(57) These are the identical initiating steps for the
practice of Qigong and Yoga. The literature alludes
liberally to traditional Asian health maintenance practices
as the historic source of techniques for generating the
relaxation response(RR) and the typical biofeedback

With the addition of gentle movement and stretching
extra oxygen is demanded from the blood, which may help to
reduce the presence of hydrogen ions and initiate a swing
toward a more anabolic level of activity. This may help to
produce a less acid internal environment and a net greater
availability of free oxygen with increased energy
productivity and tissue regeneration.

Controlled, deep, slow breathing accompanied with the
intention to relax initiates the RR and the resting phase of
the BRAC, which are para-sympathetic/anabolic/alkaline
responses, generally recognized as healing and regenerative.
Increased oxygen to hydrogen ion ratio is also recognized as
conducive to healing and regeneration.

Neurotransmitter profile

Much of the new science of psychoneuroimmunology is founded
upon findings in the area of neuro-hormones, neuropeptides
or neuro-transmitters. It has already been mentioned that
neurotransmitter receptor sites have been found on
lymphocytes. A particular profile of neurotransmitters is
present in a person who is experiencing pain, anxiety or
depression. (59) In contrast joy, comfort or celebration
produce unique neurotransmitter profiles as well. (60)

In hypertension, pain and inflamation, which which
have been associated with the hyperactivity of the
sympathetic aspect of the autonomic nervous system, a number
of specific neurotransmitters are present in the blood. In
patients suffering from pain increased norepinephrine,
reduced cholinesterase and depressed beta endorphine were
found to be typical.(59)

When methods are employed that regulate the
sympathetic function through the hypothalamus a
neurotransmitter profile characterized by decreased
norepinephrine, elevated cholinesterase and elevated beta
endorphine emerge.(59) The neurotransmitter profile present
in the parasympathetic and usually more anabolic (alkaline)
environment is recognized as able to reduce pain and
depression(59), reduce cravings for addictive substances(61)
and promote healing. Chinese research has quantified
neurotransmitter activity specific to Qigong exercise. It
was found that the Qigong effect is associated with specific
shifts in the monoamine neurotransmitter content of the
blood.(62) 5HT and 5HE generally tend to be decreased by
Qigong practice. Noradrenaline and dopamine tend to
increase. The aspects of Qigong and Yoga that quiet the mind
and relax the body induce a neurotransmitter profile that is
conducive to healing.

3. Increased

A classic body response in Qigong and Yoga is the elevation
of skin temperature. In the fight or flight state,
hyper-sympathetic, the arterioles in the skin, muscles and
certain organs constrict. During the systematic deactivation
of sympathetic function, typical in Qigong and
Yoga/Pranayama, vasodilation occurs with the accompanying
warmth of the surface of the skin. This is one of the
primary goals in biofeedback training and was found as a
typical response when the skin temperature of meditators was
evaluated in research.(3)

A number of studies from China explore the
microcirculatory mechanism very thoroughly and conclude that
this mechanism is a major reason for the continued
successful application of such an ancient health maintenance
method. (63,64,65,66,67,68)

In traditional chinese medicine it is said “the blood
is the sister of the Qi”. (28,29) Because Qi and blood are
in a direct relationship the inhibition of the circulation
of one tends to inhibit the circulation of the other. In
addition, the theory suggests that when the blood is
optimally circulating in a part of the body that the Qi or
vitality is circulating there as well. If the Qi is a
bio-electrical, electromagnetic or subtle energy aspect of
the human being, the presence of increased blood circulation
and its accompanying heat may also signify the presence of
increased electromagnetic or other subtle energy potential.
This may be a key to explain how Qigong practitioners and
mental healers are able to support the healing process in a
person from a distance through “Qi emission” or “external
conductance of the Qi”.

Brain/neurological aspects of immune function

In the classic tradition of Western science it has been
thought that the immune system was an autonomus self
regulating system, operating on its own. A tremendous amount
of reseaearch has demonstrated that this view was incorrect.
Mental emotional states have been found to effect resistance
to disease and infection.(60)Immune organs including the
thymus gland, spleen, lymph nodes and bone marrow have been
found to be invested with nerve endings.(60) Lymphocytes and
macrophages have been shown to have receptors for
neurochemicals, including catacholamines, prostagandins,
serotonin and endorphin.(60) There is a definate
relationship between brain and nervous system function and
immune capability.

In the practice of Qigong and Yoga, as has been
discussed, the hypothalamus regulates the autonomic nervous
system function toward a lessening of the sympathetic
activity, which is associated with the stress
response.(3,57) A number of studies have demonstrated that
the hypothalamus has an influence over immune function.(60)
Meditation, progressive relaxation, deep breathing and slow
relaxed movement all tend to move the practitioner out of
the sympathetic state and induce the relaxation response.
Research on the effect of relaxation and visualization sheds
some light on the effect that the Qigong and Yoga states may
have on immune function. Groups of elders who recieved
relaxation training had significant increases in the
activity of “natural killer cells” while control groups did
not. Chinese research has corroberated the positive effect
of Qigong practice on the status of the immune system.

5. Brain
Hemisphere Dominance

Thousands of years ago the oriental practitioners of self
care disciplines intuitively developed an awareness of an
alternating cycle of the predominance of body activity from
the right side of the body to the left side. One particular
Qi Gong practice, Tai ji, is founded on a constant, flowing
of the limbs in circular motions, alternating from right to
left. The side of the body that bears the weight is planted,
stable, and associated with the Yin. The side that is free
to move and kick is active and associated with the Yang.
Constant alternation of right and left side activity are
thought to balance the forces of yin and yang in the body.
Focusing on the right and left sides alternatively
activates, and reputedly balances, the right and left motor
centers in the brain.

The channels or circuits that conduct the human
resonating energy field, according to yogic medicine, are
called nadis. Ida nadi and Pingala nadi associate with right
and left brain activities.(72,73) In addition this
association effects right and left nasal passage activity as
well as the physiology of the right and left body. These
channels alternate in their predominant activity over a 2-3
hour cycle causing the dominant nostril to be clear and the
non-dominant nostril to swell and become congested.(73) This
phenomena was not noted in the Western world until 1889 when
the German physician R. Kayser recorded his observation of
the “nasal cycle”. (74) Much of the research on this
phenomenon up through the 1980’s was motivated by the quest
to develop pharmaceuticals for nasal congestion. (72)

It has been demonstrated that the nasal cycle is
coupled with the alternating lateralization of cerebral
hemispheric activity. (73) It was found with research
subjects, that when a shift occurred in either nasal
dominance or brain hemisphere dominance there was an
associated shift, within moments, in the other as well. The
right nasal cavity, associated with pingala nadi tends to be
more open and the left more congested when the left
hemisphere of the brain is more active. This is associated
with the active phase of the BRAC and increased general
sympathetic tone.(72) In contrast the right brain hemisphere
is more active when the left nostril is open and dominant
and the individual is in the resting phase of the BRAC or
the para-sympathetic mode.

A number of different physiological states have been
found to be associated with the dominance of one or the
other nostril.

  • deep sleep is initiated more quickly with left
    nostril dominance.

  • appetite and digestive ability are enhanced during
    right nostril dominance.

  • sexual intercourse is most satisfying when the man
    is dominant in the right nostril and the woman in the

  • left nostril, right brain dominance is more
    conducive to recieving new ideas, while right nostril,
    left brain dominance is an advantage during

  • it is possible to alter the pattern of “thought
    waves” by consciously alternating nasal dominance by
    exercising the congested nostril by forced nostril

A specific Qi Gong and Yoga breath technique which has
been practiced for centuries is the right and left singular
nostril breathing. Dr. Shannahoff-Khalsa of the Salk
Institute has done extensive research with this technique,
originally prompted by his work with the Kundalini Yoga
tradition. The studdies done by he and his associates has
shown that forcing the breath through the constricted
nostril can increase the EEG amplitude of the contralateral
hemisphere of the brain.(76) It has been demonstrated that
certain psychopathologies are brain hemisphere
specific.(77,78) It may be possible, therefore, that the use
of single nostril breathing may be applicable as therapy in
cases where lateralized dysfunction has been found.

It was discovered that there is a direct correlation
between nasal dominance, brain dominance and the lateralized
biochemical activity in the peripheral body parts. Recent
studies of the nasal cycle comparing plasma catecholamine
levels in the venous circulation of the right and left arms
found that levels of norepinephrine alternated with the
rhythm of sympathetic dominance of the nostrils.(79)

6. Induction
of alpha/theta brain wave activity

The intention to relax and deepening of the breath are the
classic initiating actions that trigger the relaxation
response(RR). Research with practitioners of Yoga(3) and
Qigong(4) has shown that during practice brain wave
frequency tends toward the alpha range and in certain cases
theta frequency brain activity is achieved.

Alpha level brain function is a result of relaxation
and is conducive to healing. The slowing of heart rate,
reduction of blood pressure and elevation of skin
temperature are common physiological features of the alpha
state. Theta is a deeper trance like state that has been
found in research with individuals with extraordinary
capabilities to be associated with paranormal skills like
sitting on beds of nails and immediate wound healing without

In Qigong and Yoga it is a goal to bring the lowest
frequency of brain wave activity to the practice. In the
quiescent Qigong, where there is no movement, deep states of
consciousness with low frequency brain waves are more easily
attained than in the dynamic (moving) Qigong. Similarly, in
Yoga, there are methods involving movement and methods that
primarily involve stillness. The pure meditation state lends
more easily to the theta range of brain activity.

EEG studies from China have concentrated on the
quiescent state, meditation with no movement (80,81,82).
However, it is very likely that the dynamic or moving
methods are most effective if the alpha or theta state can
be simaltaneously achieved. In both Qigong and Yoga it is a
primary focus to “allow the body and energy to sink and
relax” and to “relax into the posture”.

7. Neuroreflex

Pressing points, holding reflex areas or thumping and
stroking “energy pathways” are all aspects of health
maintenance systems of ancient cultures. The ususal
explanation for the mechanism of these effects involves what
were originally called Head’s zones named for Dr. Head who
originally researched the relationship between sensory areas
on the surface of the body to organ function.(83) In a
similar and more current approach to a like idea, dermatomal
zones are the segments on the surface of the body that are
innervated by sensory neurons from specific segments of the
spine which also have links to the autonomic ganglia. For
example, the dorsal aspect of the foot is innervated from
the 5th lumbar spinal nerves and the central area of both
the dorsal and palmar aspect of the hand are innervated by
the 7th cervical spinal nerves. The spinal nerves from the
2nd thoracic to the 1st lumbar innervate the dermatomes
directly adjacent to their areas of the spine on the front,
back and lateral aspects of the chest, abdomen and

A stimulus at the dermatome is carried to the the
spinal segment where it has the oportunity to effect,
through a reflex arc, neurons from the autonomic
ganglia.(84) Surface stimulus may effect organ function
through this neuroreflex mechanism. This mechanism has been
cited as a rational for how acupuncture works. (54)

In Qigong especially, and to a certain extent in Yoga,
there are numerous techniques for massaging, thumping and
stroking the surface areas of the body. When twisting to
loosen the spine and warm up to do Qi Gong the practitioner
hits the hands against the lumbar space in the back and the
lower ribs in the front. This is done to stimulate the
function of the kidneys, liver and spleen. It is likely that
one mechanism through which this may occur is the
neuroreflex mechanism.

Certain methods of Qigong practice focus totally on
techniques of self applied massage or stimulation of
channels and reflexes. One method called Mei Yin Jian Shen
Gong is comprised primarily of self massage gestures. In
another method the hands stroke near the acupuncture
channels: up the inside of the legs, out the inside of the
arms, along the outside of the arms and on to the head and
finally down the lateral side of the torso and legs to the
lateral aspect of the feet. In the western model this would
be referred to as reflex stimulation. However, in the
oriental energy model this method is referred to as a form
of “Qi” circulation.

8. Interface
of Neuro-endocrine Structures of the Brain

In both Qi Gong and Pranayama a primary goal is to circulate
the “energy” to the crown of the head. In Qigong this is
referred to as the “point of one hundred gatherings” (Bai
hui, GV or Du 20). In Yoga/Pranayama this point is the
target of the kundalini energy and is known as the Crown
Chakra or “thousand petaled lotus”. This area has had
recognition in the christian tradition through the halos of
angels. In the Jewish tradition this same area is where the
men wear the yalmuka.

Science has corroberated the significance of this
region with its identification and investigation of several
anatomical structures thought to be the primary hierarchy of
neurological and endocrine function. These include the
pituitary gland, pineal gland, hypothalamus and third
ventricle of the cerebrospinal fluid system.

In the ancient traditions it is suggested that these
structures function as antenae-like conductors for the
electrical, magnetic and subtle energy bio-fields. It may be
premature to agree with this theory but it is very clear
from the current literature that the hypothalamus and the
pituitary are structures that participate in the subtle
endocrine modulation of many physiological and emotional

Earlier we explored the research that links
cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), the lymph and immunity. The CSF
has the richest mixture of neurochemicals in the whole body.
It interacts directly with the hypothalamus whose lateral
walls and floor comprise the third ventricle, an important
resevior for CSF. Research has found over 60 neuropeptides
or neurotransmitters. Candace Pert and her team at the
National Institutes of Mental Health demonstrated that there
are 40 times more neurotransmitter receptor cites in the
hypothalamus than in any other location of the brain or
nervous system. (85, 86)

Neurotransmitter activity has been found to be in a
direct relationship with pain and depression (59) and to
have a specific relationship to immune function (51,87).
Focusing one’s attention on a physiological outcome has been
shown to have a potential effect on physiological
function.(88) Therefore, it is a strong possibility that the
intention to circulate the Qi or Prana to the “crown” has
the potential to effect the levels of neurotransmitter and
endocrine activity, not only in this section of the brain,
but throughout the entire body. In work with voluntary
control of biological function it has been found that
deminishing or quelling sympathetic function is accomplished
by regulating the activity of the hypothalamus.(3) When
practitioners of Qigong circulate the Qi in the Ren and Du
vessels, “circulate the light in the microcosmic orbit”(89),
or when Yoga/Pranayama practitioners bring Prana up along
the spinal in the Kundalini channel, the focus of the method
is to achieve peace, or in more scientific terms, reduce
sympathetic activity and slow brain wave frequency toward
the theta range. The anatomical structure which is the
target is the the anatomical hypothalamus, which is the
sympathetic control center.

©1996 Roger Jahnke,

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Written by Roger Jahnke OMD

Explore Wellness in 2021