Christina asked me yesterday if I had any thoughts on why, or how, my daily practice helped me stay free of acute illness most of the time, and what, if anything, I could do to enhance my immune system further. It’s a complicated question. I do believe that tai chi has helped improve my immune system, and I believe I have a working theory about why that is, but I’m not versed enough in the language of tai chi, nor in the principles of Taoist alchemy, to be able to explain it in ‘eastern’ language.
Simply put, though, I think that the daily practice of tai chi exerts a subtle influence on the lymphatic system. It’s been a long time since I took a class which discussed this in any great detail. But to recap, the lymphatic system is a series of tubes and sacs running through the body. These tubes and sacs (called lymph nodes) are one of the core elements of our immune system. However, unlike other body-circulatory systems, the lymphatic system does not have pumps to circulate lymph. Lymph, of course, is the fluid containing white blood cell lymphocytes, and it is the substance and fluid which carts away dead bacteria from our limbs, which brings antibodies to areas of infection, and carts away the byproducts of infection to be dumped into the lower intestine, the spleen, and the bladder to be disposed of as waste. Each of us has around 500-800 lymph nodes, and a system of tubes? veins? ducts? to circulate lymph.
But the lymphatic system, as I said, has no pumps. It runs entirely on gravity and muscle pressure on the lymph nodes. The muscles around the lymph nodes expand and contract, lengthen and shorten — and the resultant pressure squeezes lymph out of one node and along a tube into the next. Accordingly, sitting in one place causes lymph to stagnate; while movement causes lymph to circulate. And deliberate movement — such as tai chi — causes lymph to circulate more effectively and deliberately from one node to the next.
When this is done through tai chi or through chi kung, particularly in a regular and deliberate way, the lymph is pushed and circulated from the top of the body to the bottom of the body — from the upper reaches of the system, to the lower reaches of the system. The gunk (I believe this is the technical term :-)) is pushed downward and flushed out of the body more rapidly. At the same time, the lymph fluids are allowed to circulate more completely, and thus the lymphocytes are circulated to the areas of the body that are at present under attack by colonies of bacteria. The result is a body that is much more able to stand up and defend itself against infection, because the lymphatic system is more regularly and systematically activated to defend the body against internal infection.
The challenge, of course, is that not every disease is so easily flushed from the body — because as systematically as the lymphatic system is pumped and circulated by the practice of tai chi, it remains the case that the lymphocytes have not developed a perfect defense against every possible ailment or infection.
But I think this is the reason that the Qi Gong forms that I know begin by lifting the arms above the head, and then move to twist the body at the shoulders, and then perform a series of motions to pump the arms, and then to twist and bend the torso, and then finally the legs. It’s all an effort to wash toxins and bacteria down out of the upper reaches of the body and the extremities, and push it to the lower core where it can be flushed more rapidly. Moreover, rare is the day when I don’t have a bowel movement within half an hour of finishing tai chi (and frequently sooner), which flushes the system even more thoroughly.
So I think that’s the essence of a first-pass through a theory of why tai chi is good for my immune system. I’m about to go have some tea with a friend of mine who’s a TCM practitioner, though, and so maybe I’ll get a different take on it.