Many holistic health practitioners use their knowledge and experience with the brain, mind, and awareness to guide patients to heal themselves in their healing work. In my practice with natural healing and natural medicine, I have seen many miracles; it is as if anything is possible if you put enough effort, intent, and energy into the work. The many cases of healing from cancer are especially important examples of the power of this mind-body approach.
The brain is composed of some one hundred billion cells called neurons. The neuron, unlike other cells, has many arms or branches like an octopus. These millions of branches are like tentacles radiating in all directions. The tentacles are called dendrites. Each of these dendrites has thousands of tiny protuberances, much like the suction pads on the tentacles of the octopus but protruding from all sides. These form communication pathways between nerve cells that form the basis of learning and memory.
In the past, intelligence was thought to be related to the number of brain cells and poor memory to the loss of brain cells. We also believed brain cells could not be replaced. But scientists have now determined that the adult brain not only can grow new cells but can also sprout new dendrites. Scientists know now that it is not the number of the brain cells that determines a person's intelligence, but rather intelligence is associated with the protuberances on the brain cells' tentacles. Crossing the protuberances of each brain cell, electrochemical impulses form patterns with individual cells and groups. To put it another way, it is like a human social network: if you know one person, you may learn something from that one person. And if you know many different people and communicate with them all, you may learn a lot more.
These dendrites on the nerve cells receive and process information from other nerve cells, thus forming the basis of memory. When our minds are underused or inadequately challenged, we risk losing a great deal of our brainpower. If the dendrites don't communicate regularly, they can atrophy. This reduces the ability to put new information into memory and makes it difficult to retrieve old information. This also reduces other brain functioning such as cognitive ability, spatial orientation, and logical ability.
The Brain Can Stay Young and Healthy
It is usually assumed that the brain declines with age. This decline is supposed to include memory, attention span, mathematical ability, creativity, alertness, learning ability, and language. It is said that once you reach a certain age, your ability to grow and learn new things bottoms out— "you can't teach an old dog new tricks." But that's wrong. New data indicate you can teach an old dog new tricks if the old dog is willing to learn. It is true that our bodies degenerate with age. But the brain is not the same; this mysterious organ does not get old side by side with the body. New findings from science show that if the brain is consistently stimulated, no matter at what age, it can remain young and healthy.
It doesn't matter if you are forty or seventy. When stimulated through various activities, the brain will generate new connections far more rapidly on average than it will lose brain cells. Keep this in mind: it's the connections and the communication between the brain cells that keeps our brains young, keeps our memory working, makes our brains function well, and keeps us intelligent and creative. Many experts agree that the adult brain can actually improve with age, and this has been demonstrated through scientific study.
The human brain is a biological supercomputer. Even though we have learned a great deal of information about the brain to date, there is so much more for us to explore.
Taiji and Qigong Can Help
As we age, our bodies slow down, and we tend to become forgetful. The good news is that research has shown that it is possible to maintain and even restore our memory function and learning ability. I have been experimenting with ways of doing this my whole life in an effort to support my health, my learning ability, my overall improvement, and my memory. My goal is to avoid dementia and physical disability and be able to enjoy my life for as long as I can.
Practicing taiji and qigong is very effective in preventing physical decline and brain aging. Over the centuries, countless people have used these arts to improve their physical and mental health. Over time, what has no value is left behind, and what has value is retained. From thousands of years of experience, the Chinese know what methods are effective for achieving good health, and they use them. In the West, on the other hand, people seem to require scientific evidence for everything. For instance, I would guess that many, if not most, people living a Daoist lifestyle in China would be hard put to explain the Dao. Some of them probably don't even know what the Dao is. Recently, more and more research has been done to support Daoist conceptions scientifically, so perhaps people are becoming better educated about it. But they made great practical use of the philosophy of the Dao even before.
The use of taiji and qigong to prevent brain aging is presented here from my own experience, including the changing behavior and attitudes seen in my students, as well as the observations of many masters.
Here are a few important points that you should be aware of to prevent brain aging and memory loss.
1. Lifelong Learning
Learning should never stop. I always tell my family—and say the same thing in my lectures and other speaking engagements—"the day you stop learning is the day you stop living." Learning is a big part of healing; healing is a big part of learning. Taiji involves learning. When you start to learn things you didn't know, you begin to shift your focus to new knowledge, new approaches, new movements, and a new lifestyle. Taiji learning is continuous and multileveled in skill, depth, and meaning. Through continuous learning and practice, you will get the meaningful part—the true nature of taiji. If you are just starting as a beginner, you will feel good immediately from the practice of relaxation. If you are an advanced student, you will feel good continuously from the sustained practice of energy fluidity. Either way, you get benefits. Even people who do it incorrectly still get benefits. As you practice for more than a year or two, your taiji form will become more graceful and beautiful, and you will feel like you are dancing on the clouds. This gives you an added feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction. Learning taiji is challenging, but the challenge will help you enhance brain plasticity, which will support you as you age.
2. A Break in Your Routine
Routines can be brain deadening. When something unusual happens that gets us out of our routine, we get anxious; we don't know what to do. We feel like our brains are not working. Just think, many of us go to work every day, come home, eat, sleep, go to work the next day—our brains are programmed in such a way that we don't even have to think anymore. Our brain cells don't get stimulated and certain neural pathways shut down. Breaking the routine is a brain fitness workout. This allows new activities for the brain to be activated and encourages brain cells to communicate, opening new neural pathways.
Physical burdens have been replaced with mental ones. We need tools to help us to relieve these mental burdens. In other words, even exercise in this modern lifestyle should be balanced—fast and slow movements. The yin energy (receptive, slow) and the yang energy (active, fast) should be evident everywhere to keep our lives balanced. Many of our problems are caused by the imbalance of yin and yang.
3. Better, Deeper Sleep
We know sleeping disorders can accelerate aging, especially brain aging. The first thing you notice about people with sleep problems is that they look tired. The next thing you notice is that their speech is slow. This indicates that the brain language center is sluggish and less active. The same is true for other parts of the brain. We have all had the experience that if we don't sleep well the previous night, our minds are not clear, our memory is not sharp, and we cannot concentrate. The sleep-deprived brain has less ability to store new information and retrieve old information
With regular practice of taiji and qigong, your neurochemicals are brought into balance, and your body's electricity and sleep become regulated. Your brain is no longer exhausted, and you are more alert. Now brain healing can begin.
4. Increased Oxygen
I mention oxygen so many times in my lectures, classes, trainings, short talks, and conversations. This is because it is so important to life and health. The brain, although only about 2 percent of your body weight, consumes roughly 20 percent of the oxygen you breathe in! When the brain is nurtured with adequate oxygen, it helps to bring better function to the respiratory and vascular centers and vice versa. If you have problems with your heart and lungs that affect your oxygen level, it will also affect the oxygen level in your brain. Cognitive power declines when there is a decreased supply of oxygen to the brain.
As we know, the brain must consume oxygen to be able to function. It is the lungs that help us get oxygen through the breath. If your brain lacks oxygen for six to nine minutes, your brain can be damaged. If you lack oxygen for twenty minutes, you will die. If your body lacks food for fifteen days, you may still live. The oxygen to our brain is very important. If your brain has enough oxygen, you are most likely alert; if your brain lacks oxygen, you feel tired, lethargic, and overwhelmed by the mental fog. You will also notice that when you are tired or feel sleepy, you feel a little clearer after a big yawn. Yawning is the deepest breath we can take; we do it to get oxygen to our tired brains.
Adequate oxygen intake is crucial for preventing brain aging. Practicing qigong and taiji involves deep breathing, which helps to bring more oxygen to your body and your brain; you will notice the change in the way you feel overall. You will feel less cloudy, fresher, more alert, and more energetic.
The above is an excerpt from Brain Fitness—The Easy Way of Keeping Your Mind Sharp Through Qigong by Dr. Aihan Kuhn CMD, OBT.