Cognitive and Physiological Effects of Falun Gong Qigong

This Ph.D. dissertation research was conducted by Benjamin Warren Bendig at the University of California, Los Angeles. It is one of the few academic studies on Falun Dafa (Falun Gong) practice. This study considered Falun Gong as a form of qigong. Qigong in the academic field is known as within a family of “movement meditation” practices originating in China, which involve slow deliberate movements and aspects of meditation. Other similar practices are yoga and tai chi. Some scholars consider tai chi as a form qigong a swell. In the eastern tradition and culture, it is thought these practices are helpful for health and wellness.

In Falun Gong practice, practitioners perform the exercises and meditation while focusing on special music created for the practice, often outdoors in groups. The movements are standardized and include gentle stretching, slow movement, and postures that are held for extended periods of time while the eyes are closed. Practitioners do not direct their thinking toward anything during practice with the exception of the music, so there is no focus on the breath or any deliberate mental activity such as reciting a mantra (Bendig, 2013). The practice of Falun Gong goes beyond the exercises and meditation. Overall, it is a systemic spiritual discipline based on individual and collective efforts of self-improvement according to the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance.

In this dissertation, Bendig (2013) reviewed previous literature on the physiological processes in qigong and meditation. These studies show baseline differences between practitioners and controls, revealing better immune function, better cognitive performance, and various health benefits resulted from the practice. Previous research also discovered acute effects (the observed difference before and after an intervention) for decreased sympathetic activity, increased parasympathetic activity, and increased immune activity by qigong and tai chi. The author indicated that the study of acute effect is more valuable because acute benefits would suggest that the differences between groups result from the practice, rather than reflect a prior difference between groups. The literature review also examined the psychological benefits of qigong, meditation, and yoga. These benefits include acute mood improvement, anti-depressive effects, improved sleep quality, and reduced anxiety.

This research aims to present data on the acute psychological and physiological effects of practicing Falun Gong, comparing differences between practitioners and novices. Hypotheses were set to test physiological effects. The “experience” hypothesis assumes the exercises should have larger acute effects for practitioners because they are presumably better at performing them than novices. By contrast, the “optimality” hypothesis predicts that while practitioners are better at doing the exercises, they have also chronically accrued the benefits of the exercises. Experienced practitioners would have less room to change than novices, therefore showing smaller acute effects, but larger differences between groups at baseline.

Hypotheses were also set to test sympathetic and parasympathetic activities. Sympathetic activity is considered an index of arousal and part of the stress response, which is expected to decrease because meditation practice encourages relaxation. Parasympathetic activity complements the sympathetic nervous system and involves in restful states, which should increase after practice. In addition, the hypothesis of psychological effect predicts increasing positive mood and energy/arousal mood ratings, better sleep, and reduced anxiety and depression.

This research used two experimental groups. The practitioner group contains 17 subjects (6 male, 11 female; 6 white, 11 Asian) with an average of 44.6 years. The novice group contains 14 subjects (10 male, 4 female; 5 white, 3 Asian, 4 Hispanic, 2 African-American) with an average of 42.6 years. Participants in the novice group have no prior experience with Falun Gong. All participants went to the UCLA Psychophysiology Lab on two separate days to complete the experiment. In the experiment, participants were asked to perform 91 minutes of Falun Gong exercises. Instruction of Falun Gong practice was given to the novice group. The researcher collected data using survey instruments and physiological measurements.

The following measurements were conducted for this research:

Heart Rate and Heart Rate Variability

Heart rate was measured by electrodes placed above the right and below the left side of the heart.  Heart rate variability (HRV) measures were derived from the electrocardiogram (ECG) data using Kubios Heart Rate Variability software. HRV examines low frequency (LF) power (.04–.15 Hz) and high frequency (HF) power (.15–.40 Hz) components using the serial interbeat intervals with msec accuracy. The HF spectrum is a measure of parasympathetic activity and LF spectrum a combination of both sympathetic and parasympathetic activity. LF/HF-HRV is a
a measure of sympathetic/parasympathetic balance, with higher values indicating greater sympathetic activity.

Skin Conductance (SC)

SC was measured using the constant voltage method with disposable Ag-AgCl electrodes with a 1 cm diameter contact area.

The following inventories were used to conduct the survey:

  1. Positive Affect Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS) is a mood inventory.
  2. Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI) to measure sleep.
  3. Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CES-D) to measure depressive symptoms.
  4. Pennebaker Inventory of Limbic Languidness (PILL) to measure symptoms of illness.
  5. Spielberger Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI) to measure state and dispositional anxiety.

The research used ANOVA and t-tests statistics to analyze data. Factors of pre/post-exercise and group, as well as some of the demographic factors, are used for ANOVA analysis. Pearson’s correlation coefficient is examined for relationships of practitioners’ years of practice, weekly hours of practice, and other measures.

In the results, both groups showed greater sympathetic activity after practice, as evidenced by an increased sympathetic/parasympathetic ratio and increased skin conductance. This was against predictions that parasympathetic activity would increase and sympathetic activity would decrease in practitioners after the FLG exercises. The observed sympathetic boost might be a peculiarity of Falun Gong and could be related to feelings of increased energy after practicing.

The findings supported previous research which reported that qigong and other movement meditation practices acutely improve mood. The practitioner group showed improvement across all three times for positive and energy moods. For the novice group, even the initial session of movement meditation can increase energy/arousal moods and reduce negative mood, with the energy moods rated highest in mid-session.

This research did not find baseline differences in any of the physiological measures. This indicates that though the exercises appear to acutely change physiology, these changes may not become chronic differences. It is possible that the physiological benefits of the exercises must be maintained by regular practice on a day-to-day basis.

The correlational analysis suggests that practitioners who practice the most experience the greatest benefits. Hours practiced per week is associated with decreased anxiety and depression, suggesting that if the sample consisted of practitioners who all practiced more frequently, overall group differences might have been significant. Similarly, amount of time reading the Falun Gong books is associated with better sleep, and years practiced predicts better mood and energy ratings.


Bendig, B. W. (2013). Cognitive and Physiological Effects of Falun Gong Qigong. Dissertation for the degree Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology. University of California, Los Angeles.

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