While a new study shows the effectiveness of “cyclical breathing,” Falun Gong has benefited millions by balancing the immune system, evidenced by a genomics study.
A study with over 100 participants, published in January of 2023 in the journal Cell Reports Medicine, tested the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation against three different breathing exercises.
This study: “Brief structured respiration practices enhance mood and reduce physiological arousal,” was done by a team of scientists at Stanford University from the departments of Neurobiology and Psychiatry, led by Professor Andrew Huberman, Ph.D.
The study found that one of those breathing techniques, called “cyclic sighing,” was more effective than mindfulness meditation and the other breathing techniques for helping reduce stress and promote good heart health.
The finding is convincing. However, the authors did not provide biochemical evidence for why the cyclical breathing technique appeared to work so well.
Another peer-reviewed study, published in 2005 in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, compared gene expressions of six Falun Gong practitioners to six healthy individuals who had never practiced any meditation.
Falun Gong (also known as Falun Dafa) is an ancient Qigong practice. Qigong is a general term referring to practices that cultivate and balance qi (life energy).
That study: “Genomic profiling of neutrophil transcripts in Asian Qigong practitioners: a pilot study in gene regulation by mind-body interaction,” used DNA microarray technology to determine the genomic profile and function of participants’ immune systems.
The researchers, who hailed from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and the prestigious Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, concluded that Falun Gong practitioners had enhanced immunity, with downregulation of their cellular metabolism, and alteration of apoptotic (cell death) genes in favor of a rapid resolution of inflammation. In other words, certain genes were found to be more “active” while other genes were less “active” among Falun Gong practitioners.
Mindful Meditation and the Valuable Vagus Nerve
Both mindfulness and meditation have become popular in the West in recent decades. Mindful meditation has been credited with helping people manage stress as well as helping them reduce the effects of stress on their psychological and physiological well-being.
Huberman’s study focused on how effectively different forms of meditation and breathing affected mood and anxiety levels, heart rate, and heart rhythm.
They posited that by stimulating the vagus nerve, breathing alone might help manage stress and yield other health benefits similar to those people experience while meditating.
To test this hypothesis, the researchers compared breathing techniques to meditation techniques that did not involve any kind of special breathing. Neurologically, this isolated the breathwork from the meditation.
It turns out that breathwork has a direct effect on the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve is the longest of twelve nerves in the body that connect the brain to other parts of the head, neck, and body.
Although we refer to it as the vagus nerve (in the singular), it is actually a pair of nerves that come out from the left and right side of the brain stem—the medulla oblongata.
The vagus nerve controls the autonomic nervous system to regulate both the heart and emotional stimulation levels.
In other words, it is the master switch for calming the heart and soothing the mind.
The study found that a five-minute daily practice, whether of breathwork or mindful meditation, improved mood and reduced anxiety.
People in both the mindfulness meditation and the breathwork groups reduced their anxiety and improved their mood. In addition, 90 percent of the test subjects reported having positive experiences while doing their exercises.
The study also found that breathwork showed more positive results than mindful meditation. And the most effective breathwork was cyclical sighing, a technique that emphasized prolonged exhales.
Sighing is usually taken as a sign of sadness, dissatisfaction, or exasperation.
But sighing is actually the body’s built-in way of regulating its response to stress.
So the technique of cyclical sighing, which consciously used the “physiological sigh,” is a way to deliberately use the body’s built-in, unconscious way of calming the vagus nerve.
Of all the techniques tested, Huberman’s team concluded that cyclical sighing yielded the most positive results.
An Ancient Qigong Practice: 5 Exercises
As a Qigong practice from China, Falun Gong is now practiced all over the world. Chances are that you may find a practice site close to you.
It consists of two main components: 1) self-improvement through the study of its teachings, and 2) a set of five gentle exercises and meditation.
The teachings encourage learners to let go of unhealthy attachments as they strive to attune their lives to three principles: truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance.
The gentle exercises and meditation are both easy to learn:
Exercise 1 is a stretching exercise. You stretch your body to 8 different positions that help open all of the body’s energy channels.
Exercise 2 is a standing meditation. You stand still and hold your hands in four positions for as long as you can. This exercise is easy to learn but very difficult to hold, as each position requires you to be still for a long time.
Exercise 3 is a standing exercise with slow-moving hands. It is thought to help purify the body by exchanging qi (energy) with the universe.
Exercise 4 is also a standing exercise, which involves using your hands to gently trace over your body. This exercise helps heal any abnormal conditions your body might have.
Exercise 5 is a sitting meditation without mind or breathing techniques.
Practitioners normally listen to gentle music when doing the exercises. The music also helps calm the mind and prevent thoughts from disturbing a peaceful state.
Falun Dafa books and exercise instruction videos are freely available online. Most people, however, start practicing Falun Gong by going to a local practice site to learn from fellow practitioners.
Falun Gong: Improving Health on a Molecular Level
When I first joined a pharmaceutical company as a research scientist, I started learning Falun Gong in Toronto from a Sicilian family in order to ease my stress at work.
The impact was quick and significant and I have been practicing it daily for the last 24 years.
I searched the scientific literature to find out why and was fascinated to discover that the 2005 study I mentioned above found that Falun Gong positively impacts an essential part of our innate immune system, the neutrophils.
Neutrophils make up 40 to 70 percent of all of our white blood cells. Gene expression (genes are being transcribed into mRNAs and then translated into proteins) profile of neutrophils from six Falun Gong practitioners were compared with those from six healthy non-practitioners.
Neutrophils are the elite troops of our body’s defense system. They are fast-moving cells in the bloodstream and can reach the frontline (that is, the site of injury, or of a bacterial or viral infection) within minutes.
When they get there, these elite troops essentially eat enemies alive. This is a process called phagocytosis. They can also kill infections with powerful weapons by releasing chemicals (degranulation), or releasing traps (neutrophil extracellular traps) to capture and then kill invaders.
As a powerful force in our body, one can imagine that their activity must be well-balanced. Neutrophils must be active enough to fight enemies, but not too active to avoid hurting the body itself.
This balance seems to have been improved among Falun Gong practitioners when compared to non-practitioners.
The Texas scientists examined the activities of 12,000 human genes in all 12 study participants. They found that the activities of most of the genes were similar between the two groups. However, 250 of the 12,000 genes were consistently different between the two groups, with 132 genes downregulated (less active) and 118 genes upregulated (more active) in the six Falun Gong practitioners compared to the six healthy people who did not practice Falun Gong.
Among the 250 genes, the most interesting groups of genes were functionally associated with protein degradation and synthesis. That is, they are important for disposing of misfolded or damaged proteins present in our cells. A less efficient disposing system can result in many disorders, including genetic diseases, neuronal degenerative diseases, cancers, muscle wasting, diabetes, hypertension, sepsis, autoimmune diseases, inflammation, and aging-related disorders.
Apoptosis (cell death) is another important function of our body’s metabolic system. The researchers further found that under pressure (such as in the presence of lipopolysaccharide, a proinflammatory agent) the apoptosis-related-genes Bcl-2, Bcl-xL, and FKBP 38 were significantly downregulated, resulting in accelerated neutrophil apoptosis, which may lead to a more rapid resolution of inflammation.
Given this, Falun Gong practitioners would suffer less self-injury during inflammation.
Interestingly, gene activities were also found to be different in the absence of pressure (such as lipopolysaccharide), giving neutrophils in Falun Gong practitioners’ blood a prolonged lifespan.
In other words, under normal conditions, Falun Gong practitioners’ neutrophils lived longer. No wonder they appear to enjoy better immune systems! And that my own health improved so much once I started practicing it.
Although this was a small study, the results should intrigue anyone interested in improving their health: It seems that practicing Falun Gong actually allows neutrophils to find a more balanced activity level, both in normal conditions and under stress.
Millions of Falun Gong practitioners have benefited from the practice, with many regaining health from terminal illnesses.
However, seeing the popularity of Falun Gong as a threat to its power, the Chinese Communist Party outlawed the practice in 1999. Yet, despite their brutal persecution against Falun Gong practitioners inside China, the practice has been gaining popularity globally.
More information about Falun Gong, its health benefit, the CCP’s persecution, and practitioners’ fight for human rights can all be found at www.faluninfo.net.
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