Anna was too busy to attend my usual class: she was flying abroad the next day and was not yet packed. No problem, I responded, safe travels. Yet, she did come to training. “I missed that deep calm I knew I would feel – she explained afterwards. “And after QiGong, I had so much energy and I packed so quickly, that I still had the time to clean the whole house!”

She had a great time away when she left the next morning.

Anna’s experience illustrates that relaxing deeply is not only of great importance for our  well-being. It is also indispensable for effective action and decision making. This, my friends, is the famous interplay between Yin and Yang in practice. I will show you here how you can use the prism of Yin-Yang to understand our Central Nervous System, and thereby match your lifestyle – and your QiGong practice – to the needs of your mind-body and your health.

Your brain and you: Understanding the Central Nervous System

Our autonomic nervous system has two mutually antagonistic modes: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. You might know the former referred to as “Fight and Flight”, and the latter, as “Rest and Digest”. These are convenient monickers which quickly identify their main characteristic. But the actual effect of each reaches much further! The balance between your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system will translate into your energy levels as well as your mood. It can even determine whether you age healthily or suffer cognitive decline (Knight et al, 2020)! It is quite safe to say that every aspect of our physical existence as well as emotional landscape is touched by the balance of the Central Nervous System.

Therefore, understanding it holds such power. And learning how to use QiGong to influence it is so transformative.

Yin and Yang in daily life

Eons of evolution made us perfectly and wondrously adjusted to the lifestyle that people led for thousands and thousands of years. It involved loads of small repetitive tasks, such as gathering herbs or chipping a block of flint, interwoven with some quick and often dangerous action, such as hunt for the weekly feast or a neighbourly skirmish. Yet, while our bodies are largely the same as those of our ancient ancestors, our modern lives are nothing like.

Let me ask you this first:

  • How many hours in a day are you awake?
  • How many of those hours do you work, including being busy with keeping a house?
  • How many hours do you drive?
  • In the remaining free time, do you go to the gym or for a run?
  • Do you watch television or movies?
  • And equally importantly, do you have times when you sit and sip your tea (coffee, or poison of choice), but mentally, you are problem-solving, planning the next project, or worrying about something, whether future, past or present?
  • And finally, are you aware there are traumatic or emotionally painful experiences which are still weighing you down?

If you are like most of my friends, students and patients – including myself not long ago – you are likely to have realised by now that close to all of our waking hours are spent on one of the actions above. Welcome to the club!

Do you know what all these have in common?

They all engage our sympathetic nervous system, or our body’s Fight-and-Flight readiness. Whether taking action, analysing data, or empathising with a screen protagonist, our body responds with a series of fine-tuned adjustments which will allow us to run away from a tiger or fight an adversary. It does not matter that the “tiger” is on screen. It can even be only in our imagination, such as when stressing about whether you will catch a train or whether your project will be met with approval. There are some slight differences, but for the current analysis this level of detail suffices.

Those processes need to be balanced out with the action of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is nicknamed “rest and digest”.

Together, they are a Yin-Yang pair.

Sympathetic is the Yang: allowing action, decision-making, quick response to stress and rapid processing of sensory data.

Parasympathetic is the Yin: allowing the ever so important inner work of digestion, reproduction, tissue repair, as well as inward reflection and intimate socialisation.

The full biochemical picture is quite complex. Just like in Eastern Medicine, there will always be a Yin within the Yang, and a Yang within the Yin. Please keep in mind that this is an overview.

In our modern daily lives, we often have too much of the Yang stuff. And way not enough Yin!

Read on to learn why this is a problem and how we balance it through QiGong.

woman walking

What happens in the “fight or flight” mode

Let’s see what happens in the body when the sympathetic nervous system is activated.

  1. Blood is needed in muscles and lungs, so that they can power action.
  2. The Sympathetic Nervous System acts on the heart to increase heart rate, so that it can pump sufficient blood where needed.
  3. At the same time, blood circulation is diverted away from the reproductive and digestive systems, because those are not prioritised by the body in a “Fight-and-Flight” state.
  4. At the same time, the hormone Cortisol releases glucose from the liver and muscles, making blood sugar levels rise. This, again, is necessary for quick action, such as a sprint.

Several other biochemical reactions happen during acute stress, too. For instance, cortisol initially stimulates the release of Human Growth Hormone, which is needed for tissue repair. This is in response to the expectation of bodily harm in a potentially dangerous situation.

None of this is bad in itself at all. All the above mentioned processes are wonderfully useful when we are preparing for physical action or need our analytical skills top-notch, fast.

A surge in cortisol is meant to spike and then wane, allowing our parasympathetic nervous system to take over. Activities which would foster this parasympathetic shift used to be at the heart of many traditional communities. As the monicker “Rest and Digest” suggests, it is the time when body and mind can recover. Blood is directed towards the reproductive and digestive systems, fostering good absorption of nutrients through the membranes of the small intestine.  Physical reserves and emotional reserves are replenished.

We are biologically meant to go hunt, and then relax singing by the fire.

Run, then laze in the sun or weave a basket.

However, this is rarely the case in our modern lives. When stress goes on for a prolonged period of time without the expected shift to parasympathetic activity, things sort of… break down. And I emphasise, watching a film or driving is also stress for your system!

The constantly elevated cortisol levels in the blood continue raising heart-rate and blood pressure, while the digestion and nutrient absorption is impaired. But other processes go hay-wire too, in biochemical processes too complex to simplify here. Paradoxically, the sensitivity to cortisol decreases, and metabolising it out of your bloodstream becomes actually more difficult. It is especially difficult if you have gained weight due to the constant stress and poorer absorption.

Being on the go too much, whether physically or mentally, is very dangerous. It can be detrimental to our health as well as leave us feeling more vulnerable emotionally.

Why it is important to relax fully

To feel refreshed for a new day, we need a good night’s sleep.

To generate energy for action (Yang), we need calm and relaxation (Yin).

To be ready to fight the next tiger (sympathetic nervous system activity), we need to first replenish the muscles by resting, digesting and absorbing nutrients (parasympathetic activity).

The Yin-Yang symbol illustrates this well.

Yang (being on the go) is meant to peak, and then give way to Yin.

Once the dark, restful Yin becomes insufficient, the new Yang cannot be born.

You may have experienced times in your life when you have been on the go so much, or under so much pressure, that even taking a simple decision became a problem. You may have also been catching every cold around. Or a small thing, which would normally make you shrug, became a trigger for frustration or tears.  In Yin-Yang terms, this happens when your Yin is so deficient that you cannot generate more yang. It can happen due to disease, shock or trauma. When it happens due to too much Yang for too long, the world knows this phenomenon as burn out.

Why it is difficult to relax – and how you can!

Have you ever been told to relax, and yet, you just couldn’t?

When I first started practising martial arts, telling me to “relax more” was one of my sensei’s most common feedback. How the heck are you meant to relax in the midst of action? I could not understand it back then. A similar difficulty often happens when we try to meditate. It does not take long for the brain to shift to its customary mill-run of racing thoughts.

Paradoxically, the more tense you are, the more constantly on the go is your nervous system, the more difficult it is to relax. And all the more important to do it!

A good, deep relaxation requires us to:

  • Let go of physical tension – which might need conscious adjustments,
  • Switch our breathing to the pattern that naturally a relaxed homo sapiens would have,
  • Empty the mind of analytical thoughts, including both aspects of worry and stress as well as creative problem-solving.

QiGong is so excellent precisely because it targets all three of those areas. There are several things that you can do to relax deeply, but they often do not engage all three aspects listed above. Here are some ideas:

  • Take a warm bath with a splash of essential oils. Turn off any electronics and light some candles to dim the light. This can be very effective in helping to release physical tension. You will need to train your breathing and your mind to achieve a deep effect.
  • Sitting or standing meditation – Meditating is great for the mind. But it does little to address physical tension. And when that is high, it will influence your breathing, too, together sending biofeedback to the brain that it is not safe to fully let go.
  • QiGong movements and QiGong meditation:

Meditation is integral to QiGong. Some of the most frequent forms of meditation in my Wednesday online class are “standing like a pole” and “standing like a tree”. Students without fail feel deeply calm and grounded, yet often also with energy rushing through their body.

Any QiGong movement has a meditative aspect, too. We employ breathing and intention to help the nervous system relax, while at the same time strengthening muscles in a way which supports and nourishes such deeply relaxed state. For most of us, this means reversing the effects of too much sitting!

When meditation is practised as part of QiGong, the tension in your body is first addressed and loosened. Thus, it becomes easier to leave your “fight and flight” readiness behind. Depending on how and when those physical tensions got formed, with time you may find your QiGong practice dissolving past traumas, which can be much deepened by individual Daoist mentorship some of my students take up with me.

OK, time to finish up this article. Let the brain rest.

Take a slow breath right into your belly and tell me – in the comments below – how will you relax today?

And if you want to get hooked on the feeling of deep, healing, parasympathetic bliss, join us Wednesday night (UK time, or afternoon EST) online.

With this button here, I have a special present for you, as a thanks for reading my blog: a coupon for a trial class for the price of a coffee!

Click here and enter COFFEE: Swap my coffee for some Qi

It would be great to see you there and help you leave your “fight and flight” behind.

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