What is Chi?

What is Chi?

They speak about chi as if it’s essential. They teach it as if it’s fundamental. They use it in a thousand different ways, and it’s supposed to be extremely powerful. 

But does chi really exist?

First of all, the name…

 氣 – That’s how it’s written in traditional Chinese. In English, it’s written Chi, Ki, or Qi, and pronounced [tʃiː]. In Japanese, it’s pronounced [kiː]. 

The meaning of the word is air or vapor, or energy in general, or life force, or vital energy… It is quite difficult to give a precise definition, and that can be a problem as we will see further on. The concept is very old. It originates from many thousands of years ago. Probably from China or at least from Asia. 

In Taoism, Tao is an absolute principle and it conceptualizes the order of everything. The Universe has two opposite forces, Yin and Yang, and these make up all of what we can experience. They are light and darkness, expansion and contraction, male and female, deficiency and excess, etc. And they are the forces that have produced this universe… The energy with which all this is conceived is called chi… Chi Yang and Chi Yin. 

  • 气 means Vapor or Air. But as such it also means energy.
  • 天气 means Sky and Air (Energy) – Sky-energy,  Weather.
  • 米 means Rice. 
  • 米 气 means Rice and Vapor/Air. 
  • 氣 is a combination of the last two, meaning Rice-Vapor, as in the vapor from the boiling rice. Or it could be interpreted as the two forms of energy necessary for our body to work… Rice (food) and air (oxygen). 
  • 氣 is Chi in traditional Chinese.

Interestingly, many languages of Indo-European origin have the words for breath/breathing and life force very similar. (Comp. Expire in English)

what is chi

What is chi in Traditional Chinese Medicine?

In traditional Chinese medicine, Chi is the vital life force or energy that is in all living beings. It is the energy of life and it runs all through our bodies. But not only that: It is also the essence of-, and connection between every living thing as well as between those and the universe. It unites our body, our mind, and our spirit, and it unites us with everything. 

This life force can be imbalanced, and if so, it’s the scope of the doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine to create balance within the organism again. 

  • Yin chi is heavy. It falls, it is stationary, and binding. Yin chi is condensation. 
  • Yang is light. It moves away, upwards, and it’s volatile and etheric. Yin chi is expansion.

The body has to keep its balance between those two forces. Furthermore, we need to keep the flow of chi unrestricted. Because obstacles and blockages can form in our chi for various reasons, and if they do, the channels need to be opened. The doctor does all this with medication, often traditional herbal medicine and/or therapy, like Therapeutic Massage, Acupuncture, etc. Traditional Chinese Medicine is based strongly on the concept of Chi as a life force.

But what is chi… What are we actually talking about here?

esoteric energy

We need to know exactly what we are referring to. And, as said before, that isn’t all that obvious. Because a lot of people see Chi as a concept, much like many other words that we use in a metaphorical way…

  • The chi is in balance – We feel alright and things are good, generally speaking. But it’s not that there is any actual balance. We wouldn’t fall over because we are off Chi.
  • The Chi is flowing – People around me like me, and I feel appreciated. Today my project got approved, and that special person called me… I’m in a flow. Things work out. But it’s not that there is any special energy that is moving inside me, from my toes to my head, from my left hand to the right.
  • I am connected to the universe – I feel as one with every other living thing. That is, I understand that we all have to share space on this earth. We have to stop the pollution, help each other, and stop the wars because otherwise, we will all suffer. But it’s not that I am really connected in any way with anything else. There are no radio waves or cables between us.

Then there’s the other way of looking at it…

what is chi

And this is where we could run into problems. Because some people claim that Chi is also a very physical, real, demonstrable, and powerful force. And it’s a force that can be manipulated to make you feel this or that, to move objects and people, to awaken your cosmic awareness… And lastly, which in my opinion is morally very dubious, make you ill, and consequently cure you.

So, if there actually is some truth in it, that there really is a real, physical force within us and around us that has an impact on our wellbeing, then that is very important information. And if that life force really could create diseases, and then cure us, make us create or overcome problems, connect us to each other and to the far side of the galaxy. Then that could be a real game-changer for all of us. 

What do the practitioners/believers say themselves?

what is chi
  • Chi is constant, it holds matter together. Chi is the energy that floats through humans, through the earth, and through the heavens. It is the energy, the power of the universe. Chi is like a river, it’s constantly happening. Yin and Yang are moving in and out while Chi is constantly generated
  • Chi is bioelectric power. Chi is the electricity that nourishes the living cell. Qigong helps you to draw energy from the outside so that you have more energy on the inside. 
  • Chi is the current of energy that passes through the inside and outside of the body. It also passes through physical objects. When your chi is strong, it flows through you and fills you with life and health. When your chi is weak, it remains still and stagnant.

Do you understand it better from these quotes? Having a true believer explain what Chi is, doesn’t make it easier to grasp. It’s very mystical and philosophical, just like it’s supposed to be, being a 4000 years old concept.

What does science say?

There has been a lot of research to try to find out: What is Chi? Most have studied the technique of Qigong. Qigong and Tai Chi are similar but Qigong has a supposedly more internal focus. The movements are more specific and the aim, is to heal, aid, and restore Chi, more than physical exercise. So, many of the studies focus on the measurable energy when Qigong is used. Either during the session or after, and both from the Qigong master, the healer, and from the subject.

Thai Chi vitalizes the energy

In fact, many of these studies show a verifiable effect. This paper by Xinqi Dong, E-Shien Chang, and Kevin Chen reaches a conclusion: 

  •  … Many other exploratory studies of external Qigong effects have used various physical detectors, including Gamma-ray, microwave, and high-frequency X-ray. Body temperature changes before, during, and after the practice of Qigong have been documented by many empirical studies, in which far-infrared measurement was amongst the most commonly used physical detectors of Qi.

Another study from 2011 by Roger Jahnke, Linda Larkey, Carol Rogers, Jennifer Etnier, and Fang Lin found benefits from both Tai Chi and Qigong:

  • … This review has identified numerous outcomes with varying levels of evidence for the efficacy of Qigong and Tai Chi, including bone health, cardiopulmonary fitness and related biomarkers, physical function, falls prevention and balance, the general quality of life and patient-reported outcomes, immunity, and psychological factors such as anxiety, depression, and self-efficacy.
scary Chinese mask

But it’s hard to see evidence of a force, an energy source, other than the obvious benefit exercise would give. These techniques are also connected to breathing and a meditative focus in a way that most other sports are not.   

The lowering of the pulse, rising of the temperature and other effects could be explained well within the known physical realm. These are nothing more than normal functions of the body.

What is Chi… And what is Yi?

Professor Lin Housheng’s answers to the question, What is Chi in Qigong? And this could be the reason why we aren’t able to find any proof. 

  • Qigong is a method or process in which the cultivation of Chi (vital energy) and Yi (consciousness or intent) achieves the optimal state of both body and mind. Yi, the intent or mental process of the practitioner, is integral to the Qigong process. Although exploratory studies focus on the Chi part only, Chi itself cannot be truly defined without including Yi, or intent. After all, Chi emission is a process of bio-physiological activity coordinated by human intent or consciousness.

As such, maybe it’s impossible to separate the force from the practitioner. And maybe we cannot examine the Chi at all without adding the subjectivity and the intent of the mind… And so we’re stuck. 


Traditional Chinese Medicine

I didn’t want to derail down the Acupuncture track. But Acupuncture is a consequence of Chi. The theory is that sticking in needles where the Chi flows inside one of the 12 meridians in our body can cause stagnant Qi to be dispersed and deficient Qi to be tonified.

Acupuncture has been thoroughly examined and the result is that some effects, especially as a method of pain relief, can be observed. The general problem is that similar effects can be seen with needles being inserted randomly, or needles not being inserted at all, while the subject is convinced that they, in fact, are.

It would seem that the inserting of needles, or believing that needles have been inserted has an effect, but that the Chi meridians have nothing to do with it.  ,

And now to the other side of the coin… The darker side.

Tai Chi is a traditional Chinese Martial Art. Today it is mainly used as a way of exercise, health benefits, and meditation (Shadowboxing), but there is a strong fighting component as well. The technique is closely connected to Chi, thus the name. 

But some Martial Arts schools take the whole Chi idea a step further. Some training is focused on learning to control the Chi to such an extent that it can be used to send an opponent to the floor without even touching him… The so-called No Touch Knockout: 

Focusing on Chi, trying to relax, exercising to find the right posture, and breathing correctly could be very important tools in a myriad of situations. 

But some experts don’t stop there. They use the Chi-concept as a way to do tricks. While professional illusionists do magic on stage for entertainment and they are absolutely transparent about it. What they do is based on tricks… The self-appointed Chi-guys on the other hand, claim their performances are real. They claim that their Chi is so powerful that they can start fires, and move objects around only by using their God-like powers.

The Qigong movements are specific and the aim here is to heal, aid, and restore Chi, more than physical exercise. If you look at Qigong and Tai Chi from a westerners point of view, they are very similar. And the effectiveness of the two styles is similar too. The exercise, the training, the cardiovascular response, etc are all benefits that are well documented… 

Unfortunately, some healers go a step too far, claiming they can actually heal severe diseases with the Chi-power. 

But why do we always have to be so darn scientific? Especially about old Chinese beliefs?

I don’t think we should limit ourselves to seeing the world exclusively in terms of real or fake, black or white. The concept of Chi is very attractive. The flowing movement, the fact that we are all connected, the focus on internal balance and physical and mental wellbeing. 

And I personally am very drawn to the idea of a sport, or physical activity, that is so non-competitive. 

Having said that, it is our strong belief that fraudulent behavior is wrong. But fraudulent behavior that intends to exploit people’s vulnerability and fear in life-threatening situations, is morally and ethically deceptive. It’s misleading in a particular way and those doing it should be called out and should be held responsible. 

Chi is a very interesting phenomenon, and it is possibly very useful as an ingredient in physical exercise and mental training. Our internal chemical and psychological environment can suffer from stress, and Qigong and Thai Chi is surely a good way to ease that stress.

But Chi is not a mystical, magical force of nature, that only those who are trained in the right way can master. It’s just another way of saying energy or saying connection, or balance.

So, no… Chi cannot knock people down from a distance, it cannot move objects, or start fires… And it most probably can do absolutely nothing to cure cancer. 

For health issues always contact your local health authorities.

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Yes and No. The Chi concept as a subjective connection between all living things, as the energy that all life is made up of, and as the positive effects of physical activity, breathing correctly, relaxation, balance, etc. That part exists.

But the magical, mystical part where Chi is some special energy that can be modified and channeled, that part, I would say, does not exist.

Muscat Oman