All About Chi: What It Is, Where It Comes From, and How To Harness It

Chi. Is it real? Or just an old, out-moded mystical belief that stubbornly refuses to die? Here we look at the history, science & techniques of chi...

'How do you relax?' 'Oh you know... chai tea, tai chi...' ~ Lisa Simpson Click To Tweet

You’ve probably come upon this awesome scene at least once in your life—most likely when you were walking through a park, enjoying the vitality of early morning nature: small groups of people, dressed in loose clothing, standing a few feet apart from each other, knees bent, faces lifted to the horizon, arms moving slowly and gracefully, as if making secret markings in the air.

It’s a compelling sight, and maybe you were even tempted to stand and watch this hypnotizing ritual, but didn’t want to intrude.  So, you moved on, promising yourself to find out, at some point, what the whole thing was all about. But, maybe, other than discovering that you’ve witnessed a Tai Chi practice, you never really delved any deeper into the subject…

Let’s Talk Chi Fundamentals

To start with the basics, the second word in Tai Chi is, of course, chi (sometimes spelled as qi). The literal translation of chi is “breath”, but the ancient Chinese used this figuratively to denote “life force”— in other words, that which makes us alive.

Having spent millennia observing and studying life in its myriad forms, the ancient Chinese formulated a belief system based on the recognition of a universal energy (chi) that exists within all things.

This invisible energy can’t be grasped, it can only be felt.

At its heart is motion, and it must flow freely in order to sustain itself. When energy flows freely and is not trapped or stagnant, it creates the state of optimal wellness—a healthy, strong, and vital condition.

This concept formed the basis for Chinese medicine and numerous practices such as Tai Chi and martial arts, which were developed to improve the physical, mental and spiritual faculties of human beings through guiding and harnessing chi.

Some of the more popular chi-centered practices include Chi Kung, Falun Gong, Reiki, Therapeutic Touch, Acupressure and Acupuncture, Reflexology, Orgone Therapy, Pranayama, Yoga, Feng Shui, and Martial Arts.

What Is The Scientific Take On Chi?

The concept of “invisible energy” may sound rather abstract and fey to some, but it is certainly not confined to the world of the ancient Chinese. 

Under different names, and in some cases, with some minor conceptual variations, its existence has been acknowledged throughout the world for thousands of centuries.

It is known as prana in the Hindu religion, pneuma in ancient Greece, mana in Hawaiian culturelüng in Tibetan Buddhism, ruah in Hebrew culture, ki in Japanese culture, the Great Spirit among Native Americans, and the Holy Spirit in Western religions. And, if you want to venture into the realm of fiction, it’s the energy that comprises The Force in the Star Wars Universe.

Science, on the other hand, is barely concerned with it at all. What little empirical investigation there has been thus far has found no definitive physiological evidence for such concepts as chi or the chi-based systems that are attributed to the human body. 

“Here we find the still-confounding ‘wave-particle duality’ paradox — particles that can somehow be measured as both, and evade being perfectly pinpointed in time and space. And what are they swimming in? The nuclear, electromagnetic and gravitational forces of nature, of course! All of it — energy.”

Since chi cannot be measured — even with the finest instruments we have at hand — it is rightly considered a non-scientific, unverifiable concept.

However, the idea of ‘energy’ as the cornerstone of all life is not a new idea.

Not including single-celled organisms, each human is made up of nearly 40 trillion cells (including the single-celled organisms — the human microbiome — the number is closer to 100 trillion) each with their own individual structure, from membrane to nucleus.

Going deeper, we find atomic relationships and biochemical reactions, but it’s not until we get to the subatomic level — particularly the level of elementary particles — that things begin to get truly strange. Here we find the still-confounding ‘wave-particle duality’ paradox — particles that can somehow be measured as both, and evade being perfectly pinpointed in time and space. And what are they swimming in? The nuclear, electromagnetic and gravitational forces of nature, of course! All of it — energy. 

Yes, the internet is abuzz with many arcane ‘science vs chi’ debates that will take you knee-deep into the intricacies of matter and energy fields, quantum physics, and Einstein’s E = mc2  theory, so if you’re a proof-driven empiricist, you can certainly indulge to your heart’s desire in these academic discussions on the web. 

Still, the bottom line is that while no measurable evidence has been shown to prove chi exists, neither have there been any studies to conclude that it does not. (We’re talking here about the phenomenon itself, not its effects, which of course pose their own challenges when being measured.) At this point in history, if ‘The Force’ is indeed real, we have no way of truly measuring it. This is, of course, the argument that makes the dualist perspective impossible to both prove or refute.

Whatever ‘evidence’ does exist is of course anecdotal—mostly related to the effect chi-based treatments, practices and applications deliver. It’s what you would idiomatically refer to as “the proof is in the pudding.” 

And there seems to be vast quantities of this “pudding” around.

Numerous traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners and patients throughout the world avow cases of genuine health restoration through such treatments as acupuncture, herbology, and other chi-based practices designed to adjust the proper circulation of chi.

Needles, Cuppings, and Herbs — Harnessing Your Human Chi

Chi-centered traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) postulates that the body has natural patterns and channels through which chi circulates (referred to as meridians), that act as branches connected to bodily organs and functions. In TCM, illness is the result of disrupted, blocked or unbalanced chi movement through the body’s meridians.

So, traditional Chinese medicine practitioners aim to balance and enhance chi to bring the body and mind into a state of health by stimulating certain points in the body, thought to be connected to particular meridian systems.

“Although this TCM model has no analogue in western medicine, it’s worthwhile to observe that the Chinese physician’s chi map of the body is nearly identical to a modern map of the nervous system…”

Although this TCM model has no analogue in western medicine, it’s worthwhile to observe that the Chinese physician’s chi map of the body is nearly identical to a modern map of the nervous system, and that there was a small but interesting stir regarding something known as the ‘Primo Vascular System’ — the purported anatomy of the meridian system — in a study on cancer metastasis.

For TCM practitioners, optimal health is achieved when there’s not only sufficient quantities of chi, but also the right balance of various types of chi, and the free flow of chi in the right way. Any negative health conditions (including mental health conditions) occur when some or all of these factors are lacking.  These conditions can be caused by food and/or lifestyle choices, physical injury, congenital conditions, etc.

TCM’s focus is on how the body functions as a unit, (digestion, breathing, aging), not so much on how each anatomical structure is doing.  TCM practitioners trace health symptoms to patterns of an underlying disharmony, by measuring the pulse, inspecting the tongue, skin, and eyes, and looking at the eating and sleeping habits of the person, among others.  

TCM treatments can include dietary recommendations, herbal prescriptions (to be either ingested or topically applied), acupuncture (insertion of needles at certain points to balance the flow of chi), specialized massage, moxibustion (burning mugwort on or near the skin at an acupuncture point), cupping (which recently caused a stir at the Olymypics) or meditative/non-moving exercises.

Are chi-based treatments effective?  Many swear by them, but many are also skeptical, citing no direct proof, and speculating that these practices may just be a clever way to separate patients from their wallets.

Writer Kent Fung, a former business editor at a Boston daily newspaper who has trained in martial arts for over 20 years, and has written many articles on the subject, has this to say:

“I have had good experience with TCM treatments for chronic conditions (both as applied on me, and as witnessed on others). [They’ve] been effective at various skin conditions where years of various Western treatments have failed, for instance. That includes my eczema, and others’ acne and rashes… TCM treatments can be great at treating musculoskeletal conditions (arthritis, etc.) and injuries (strains, sprains, etc.). Some elite athletes use acupuncture to aid recovery from gruelling workouts. People suffering from chronic conditions such as fatigue and digestive problems can also find significant relief through a good TCM practitioner… In general, I don’t recommend TCM as a first resort if you have access to a modern, Western healthcare system. But I do recommend it if Western treatments have failed, and often the TCM succeeds where the Western treatments have failed.”

Harnessing Your Cosmic Chi – Tai Chi Anyone?

The ancient Chinese postulated that chi moves freely around the universe, assuming various forms. Over the centuries, the Chinese developed various disciplines to manipulate and guide the universal chi for specific benefits of human life. 

One such discipline is Qigong – a practice involving coordinated breathing, movement and awareness for exercise, healing, meditation and training for martial arts. It typically involves rhythmic breathing with slow stylized movement, a calm mindful state, and visualization of guiding chi. Tai Chi is a modality within Qigong.

Dr. Andrew Weil is a well-known and respected American physician and spokesperson for holistic health and integrative medicine.  He says:

“While the existence of chi is controversial in the West, many Eastern disciplines including tai chi and acupuncture are based on a fundamental belief in this basic ‘life energy’ force. It is thought to pervade the universe, and to be subject to direction and control by trained human beings.”

Dr. Weil’s website promotes Tai Chi instructions by Barry Brownstein (B.Sc., M.Sc., M.Ac., Lic. Ac.,L.M.P., Dipl. Ac. (NCCAOM).  He recommends visiting Barry’s website for videos showing exercises that harness the chi in a human, such as developing your chi through breath work, developing your chi physically, focusing on the energy and mental level of chi, and others.

It’s interesting to note here that breathing and mindfulness techniques almost identical to chi-based practices have long been recommended by western psychologists and other mental health professionals treating patients with nervous disorders, such as panic attacks, generalized anxiety, and insomnia.

Deep breathing exercises and visualization practices, known as Relaxation Response or PR, are often taught to patients with mental health issues, to calm and soothe their over-acting nervous system sensitized by trauma, stress or fearful thinking.

It is believed that these methods tend to trigger physiological — and perhaps energetic — mechanisms, that move the body into a state of deep rest.

It is also well understood by healthcare professionals that attitude helps in healing. It’s not everything; you can’t will away cancer, but it does help.

“Tai chi… might well be called “medication in motion.” There is growing evidence that this mind-body practice… has value in treating or preventing many health problems.” ~ Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Publication, May, 2009

Chi In Martial Arts

Exercises that improve the supply and flow of chi are also one of the foundational elements in martial arts training.   The most notable of chi focused martial arts are Baguazhang,  Xing Yi Quan,  T’ai Chi Ch’uan,  Snake Kung Fu,  Southern Dragon Kung Fu,  Aikido,  Aikijujutsu,  Luohan Quan, and Liu He Ba Fa.

Bruce Lee’s martial artistry on and off the screen is world-famous – we all most likely have seen his mastery at least once. Lee’s techniques evolved over time and eventually became known as Jeet Kune Do (JKD), but his life-long influence was Taoism, a chi-centered philosophy.

In Taoism, chi is a primal substance that animates the universe, and is the force that sets the world and everything in it into motion.

Martial arts gurus such as Lee, along with other screen legends like Jackie Chan and Jet Li were (and are) life-long students of martial arts practices that centred around the honing and mastering of chi. They teach that stronger, more abundant chi, properly channeled, can result in more powerful techniques: more powerful strikes, increased ability to withstand blows, and greater overall stamina and resiliency.

Indeed, there have been many awe-inspiring demonstrations of chi in martial arts, including an ‘immovable body’, the ‘unraisable body’, the ‘unbendable arm’, and other feats of super-human power. Shaolin monks have been known to harness their chi with enough power and efficiency to throw a needle through glass.

However, skeptics believe that the practices that result in “better” chi are just those that improve biomechanical alignment and musculoskeletal efficiency, which in turn boost the power, efficacy and speed of techniques.”

Michael W. Long is a scientist, founder of several Life Science companies, who has been practicing martial arts for 20 years: 

“As a scientist, I find Qi a difficult concept as it is essentially untestable,” he says.  “That said, I have an appreciation of the unknown and as a martial arts practitioner have performed some Qi-like maneuvers. For example, when holding a contact-pad chest high and having someone kick it (a common martial arts drill). Most people hold the pad with their feet in some form of a front stance — shoulder width apart, front leg bent, back leg straight — to absorb the force of the blow.  I stand with both feet together. As the blow hits, I think of extending my “Qi” down into the earth. Even with powerful kickers, I am rarely knocked back; never down. Is this Qi? I don’t know. I suspect it’s a way of thinking that allows the body to do something natural, albeit unconscious. In this case, it’s likely an overall tensing of the axial skeleton and rapid but unperceived counter thrust. That said, I’m only aware of the thought, which is actually a visualization of the contact and its force.”

The Bottom Line On Chi

Ultimately, it is probably best to think of chi as a philosophical model formulated to explain phenomena observed and recorded over centuries in the east. (Objectively, that is. If you really want to ‘test the mettle’ you can always start a vigorous meditation and martial arts practice and find out for yourself.)

When it comes to the research on chi energy, it is still in its infancy and there is a lot to be discovered before knowledge evolves to the point where it can explain, in empirical terms, why Chinese medicine works or where the amazing powers of Qigong masters – such as raising their body temperature to the point of producing steam, holding red hot metal objects with bare hands, and performing all other kinds of humanly inexplicable feats — comes from.

Still, there is no denying that millions of people have been successfully treated in China and all over the world by Chinese medicine based on chi, including Qigong, acupuncture and acupressure that directly deal with chi energy. And since this has been going on for more than 5,000 years, one would think that someone along the way might’ve started to shout, maybe, that the Emperor has no clothes?

Let’s give writer Kent Fung the last word on the subject:

“…the theories of qi seem to be at least a useful mental construct for deriving solutions in Chinese medicine and in the Chinese martial arts. Working through hypotheses involving qi — balance of yin and yang, flow through meridians, etc. — have tangible, proven real-world effects on one’s health and one’s ability to fight. To wit: does an acupuncturist actually manipulate qi? Maybe, maybe not: but the effects are undeniable. Do (some — not many, but a few) internal kung fu stylists (Taiji, Xingyi, Baguazhang) really manipulate qi to generate uncanny physical power in striking and throwing? Who knows. But the power is undeniable, and unexplainable through any obvious (visible) theory of biomechanics/Newtonian physics.”

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