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There has existed for quite some time the distinction between current western medicine and ancient eastern "alternative medicine." Western medicine has dealt primarily with the study of the nervous system, the visceral organs, and "observable" behavior, treating illness with drugs, designed to alter the body's chemistry. A western doctor looks for pathological conditions manifested through physical symptoms. While eastern medicine focuses on these aspects as well, it studies these symptoms through an understanding of Qi-energy (also called Ki-energy) that flows through invisible meridians throughout the body as well as the universe. This energy is the vital elemental life force of Asian medicine. Practically every method of healing involves some rendition of this vital energy-except, of course, for mainstream western medicine. Why is that modern medicine has virtually ignored this force that has been studied for centuries? What is happening as these two faces of medicine are colliding? Is there truth to the idea that our bodies are not merely neurons firing, but that our very life relies on a mysterious undetectable force surging through our bodies? Are these two seemingly conflicting ideas one and the same?
Many westerners are familiar with the terms Yin and Yang. The balance between these two forces is the key to understanding Qi-energy. Yin refers to the passive/dark/inside aspects of the "body,i" while Yang is comprised of the active/light/outside of the "body" (1).Western medicine, therefore, deals primarily with the treatment of Yin, while Eastern medicine focuses on the balance between the two, predominantly, however, the Yang or energy that charges the body. There are 14 meridians (through which Qi-energy flows) that run throughout the body. When the balance between the Yin and Yang is disrupted in these meridians, sickness occurs. One of the Eastern methods of rectifying this problem is through the practice of acupuncture-the insertion of needles into specific points located throughout the body (2).
Another, although less well known in Western culture, practice is that of Qi Gong (pronounced chee goong). "Witness a child running onto the warm sands of the beach sometime. Notice how deeply they breathe in the salty air or how their arms open wide to embrace all the fun that lies before them. This is Qi Gong in its purist form. Children have a natural relationship with the energy of their environment. Adults have to learn what comes naturally to our offspring. Any argument as to where Qi Gong was "invented" misses the reality of what Qi Gong really is." (3). Basically, Qi Gong is a discipline comprised of breathing and mental exercises, sometimes coupled with physical exercise (4). Qi Gong is designed to balance the Qi-energy system throughout the body. The way that Qi Gong works is by coordinated breathingthrough which one achieves a mental serenity ultimately leading to an increase in the body's resistance to disease. The methods involved in Qi Gong emphasize using the abdomen while breathing, rather than the chest. Involved, are three different kinds of abdominal breathing. The first is "normal sequence breathing" in which the abdomen expands during inhalation and contracts when the person exhales. "Reverse sequence breathing" involves the opposite. The third type of breathing is "latent breathing" in which the abdominal movement is insignificant while the breathing is slow and soft. This process of breathing strengthens both the internal Qi-energy flow as well as the circulation of blood along the meridians. After some time, the individual will feel a sensation of heat in the abdomen. The source of this heat is the Qi-energy. It may then be directed to the caudal end of the spine and on towards the spinal vertex and finally up to the head (8). Interestingly, the mind and body cannot be separated when one is practicing Qi Gong. The flow of Qi is directed by the mind, and without it, Qi-energy cannot be felt and reinforced. When one is practicing Qi Gong, one must think of not thinking about anything. However, ultimately, the individual must actually be thinking of nothing-not just thinking about not thinking. Ultimately, the three principles of practicing Qi Gong are physical and mental relaxation, coordination of the mind and Qi, and achieving a rhythm of practice (8)
One highly publicized case was that of a 36-year old man who sustained injuries to his skull and spinal cord resulting in paraplegia. Seven months after the accident, he was unable to move his legs. At this time, a Qi Gong master treated him for 6 consecutive hours (transferring his Qi-energy to the patient). Immediately after these 6 hours, the man was able to walk with crutches. Two months later, escorted by the Qi Gong master, he walked up the Great Wall with only a limp-miraculously cured of his paraplegia (7).Was it time that healed his wounds, or was it the transference of Qi energy?
There has been documented scientific proof of the existence of Qi-energy transferal. Qi Gong masters have been known to emit the Qi-energy through their hands without touching the patient's body. A study conducted, indicated that Qi emission affected the physical, chemical, and biological processes-DNA polymerization, protein crystallization, and enzyme activities (5). The mechanism, however, remains mysterious. Thus, Western medicine is skeptical of its effects. One proposed mechanism for the process of Qi Gong is that of biofeedback. The signals-heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature-from the individual is sent back to him or her, resulting in self-regulation. Qi Gong, however, does not require electric monitors to achieve the biofeedback. Clearly, something must occur that has led this practice to alleviate such pathological diseases such as cancer, diabetes, hypertension, cancer, allergies, and tumors (7)
Another theory about the mechanisms of Qi Gong involves its relation to the field of psychoneuroimmunology, the idea that the immune system controls neural functioning, the central nervous system (CNS) controls the immune system, and the coordination of the two allows behavioral-psychological events to occur. If the pathways are ultimately connected, the field supposes that the brain can influence the immune system. Additionally, if this is true, then the pathways can be reversed and the immune system can influence the neuronal activity, therefore affecting such psychological aspects as emotion and thought (6).
The Thalamic Neuron Theory (TNT) has also been proposed as a possible explanation for the efficacy of Qi Gong practices. This theory is comparable to the psychoneuroimmunology theory in that it maintains that the CNS is involved in all disease processes. Disease, is a result of unbalanced central neural circuitries, reversible through physical means such as acupuncture (physical neuromodulation) or chemiconeuromodulation such as Chinese techniques aimed at mimicking the habituation process. These processes are described as five assertions:
"1. Every dysfunction arising from the periphery,...,will either immediately or eventually lead to an equivalent derangement in the equivalent neural circuitries within the CNS.
2. The CNS then responds by instituting corrective measures, resulting in the normalization of these neural circuits which then correct the deficiencies in the diseased part of the periphery to end the disease process.
3. If the normalization of the physiological programs embodied in the neural circuitries in the CNS is impaired, the initial derangement may remain status quo or can cause other neural circuits to go awry. Hence the disease either stays chronic or progresses.
4. Any event that can adversely affect any central circuitry is therefore capable of inducing pathological changes, resulting in diseases. Overly intense emotions such as anger, grief or fear can cause the central circuitries to malfunction. ...Likewise, devastatingly strong physical stresses such as excessive heat, cold, humidity, etc. are equally capable of setting up neurophysiological derangements within the CNS. These resultant malfunctions in the CNS can not only themselves cause physical illnesses, but can also set up such conditions as to increase the individual's susceptibility to other pathogenic processes.
5. The CNS itself can also malfunction due to aberrant biochemical reactions stemming from say, genetic diseases like manic depression, Huntington's, chorea, etc." (6).
Qi Gong and other techniques are thus explained by Western medicine. But is this the whole story?
One factor that makes the concept of Qi-energy difficult to digest is that it exists throughout the universe. One can receive and give energy to a tree or rabbit, for example. Human beings are taught to understand themselves as superior beings, our mechanisms and intellect unlike, or at least more advanced, than that of other lower beings. How is it that what makes us tick, is essentially the same as the "vital energy" found in the earthworm, flower, or perhaps even bacteria?
What is it about the practice of Qi Gong that is able to cure diseases? Does the answer lie in the biological explanations proposed above, or is there something immeasurable that merely exists in the world? I find it difficult to fathom that we will never understand the mechanisms behind alternative medicinal practices, but we need to think beyond what we already know. Our minds have tremendous capabilities relating to our behavior. Undoubtedly, the mind's control of the energy within our bodies is more complicated than we yet understand. However, it is also intrinsically connected to the pathways connecting the vast system of "smallest boxes"-the neurons. Given this, it is not unreasonable to propose that the reason that a stimulus in the form of pressure placed on an acu-point in the foot results in the alleviation of stomach pains. Specifically how these exercises cure paralysis, however, remains a mystery.
It is fairly accepted that mental and physical exercise leads to a healthier life. But how can such dramatic results as curing paraplegia and cancer be explained in more "scientific" terms? Because Western medicine is so skeptical of the influences and mechanisms of Qi Gong, little research has been done on its biological correlates. It is clear that something is happening, but it does not appear scientific enough to be advocated by Western doctors. One of the main problems involved in this dilemma is the separation of mind, brain, and body. There are physicians who treat the body; there are psychotherapists who treat the mind; and there are psychiatrists who treat the brain. Eastern "alternative" medicine emphasizes the need for a non-dualistic standpoint. Not onlydoes brain=behavior, but mind=brain=body. This connection has such wide implications that it must be further explored. The key to fully understanding behavior may lay buried in the nuances of this centuries-old Eastern practice.
2) Acupuncture.com, A chart of the 12 main meridians and their acu-points.
3) Explanation of Qi Gong
4) Shendong.com, A guide to Qi Gong techniques
5) Qigong.net, The Effect of Short and Long Range Qi Emission on Three Biochemical Processes: Nucleotide Polymerization, Protein (Fab Fragment) Crystallization and Enzyme (Phosphatidylinositol-3 Kinase) Activity (abstract and figures).
7) McGee, C.T., Sancier, K., & Chow, E. P. Y. Fundamentals of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, ed. M. S. Micozzi. New York, Churchill Livingstone, 1996, 225-230.
8) Ziyan S & Zelin, C. The Basis of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Boston, Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1994.
YUASA, Yasuo. The Body, Self-Cultivation, and Ki-Energy, transl. Nagatomo, S & Hull, M. S. New York, State University of New York Press, 1993.
1 I place the word "body" in parenthesis because western conceptions of body are different than eastern connotations. Western medicine focuses on the actual substrate of the body, while Eastern medicine includes the energy that gives life to this body.
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i I place the word "body" in parenthesis because western conceptions of body are different than eastern connotations. Western medicine focuses on the actual substrate of the body, while Eastern medicine includes the energy that gives life to this body.