I did the first two sets of exercises outside on the ground. Yesterday’s snow, though, has left the ground so cold that I couldn’t do it in bare feet. I got through the first form, started the second form, and then gave up and restarted the second form indoors on warmer floors — and I continued to do the tai chi form indoors.
Yesterday, I started to lay out some of my thoughts regarding why tai chi boosts the immune system and is successful at keeping me free from acute illness. Christina had asked about this a few days ago in the comments, and it seemed right to try to answer her. My friend who knows more about TCM than I do wasn’t able to provide a chi-based recipe or explanation yesterday, but I didn’t inquire too deeply about this; he’s working on other things right now.
However, he pointed out that we have two nervous systems that operate in conjunction with one another. One of these is the sympathetic nervous system, which controls things like muscles and joints; and the other is the parasympathetic nervous system which does things like regulate hormone balances and immune systems. The two nervous systems, he said, cannot run at full power all the time; in fact, they barely run at the same time at all. When we engage in full-on body movement, the sympathetic nervous system tells the parasympathetic nervous system to turn off — “we’re fighting right now, we’re moving, we’re engaging in difficult action. We don’t need you right now.” And so it shuts down.
Americans, said my friend, don’t really know how to relax.
The result, he pointed out, was that the parasympathetic nervous system has a tendency to remain off, most of the time. The result is that our immune systems are poorly regulated and poorly managed by our adrenals, our thymus, and our other glands. The other glands never really have a chance to turn on and stay on long enough to manage the body to peak efficiency.
However, said my friend, the slow-moving nature of tai chi movements, and the formal repetition of the movements day after day, may be awakening the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s movement, but it’s meditative movement designed to stimulate the flow of energy through the body. Or, tai chi combined with a sitting meditation may help awaken the parasympathetic nervous system to manage and awaken the glandular systems that improve the natural capacities of the immune system. I’ve been doing both tai chi and sitting meditation, so it may be that these two practices are working in conjunction with one another.
So, Christina, I hope that helps lay out a possible explanation of why tai chi works to improve immune system function: it pumps the lymphatic nodes and ducts, and causes the body to flush itself more efficiently; and its relative slowness and deliberate movement system helps to stimulate, gently, the parasympathetic nervous system to provide a higher degree of improved immune function. You’ll note that in the days and weeks leading up to my bout of acute illness, I was having a lot of trouble doing tai chi slowly enough; I think I got sick because I didn’t give my parasympathetic nervous system enough downtime to figure out what it was doing against the illness. And so I got sick.
It makes at least as much sense as any other explanation I’ve heard.
Update: If you’re reading this after about 8:00 am, chances are better than average that you helped push me over the last 5 readers — my blog has had 100,000 views (of course, it took six years to get there, but…) anyway, THANK YOU for being part of the journey!