16 Oct What is Qi? – My Experience
The concept of Qi – ‘life energy’ – is fundamental to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and central to the practices of Qigong and Tai Chi yet it is difficult for the average westerner to grasp.
Here’s how a leading (western) teacher describes Qi:
A living being is filled with it. A dead being has no more Qi - the warmth, the life energy is gone. A healthy individual has more than one who is ill. However, health is more than an abundance of Qi. Health implies the Qi in our bodies is clear, rather than polluted or turbid, flowing smoothly like a stream, not blocked or stagnant. - Kenneth Cohen
I am a scientist by training and sceptical about all things mystical so when I began my Tai Chi journey I found Qi difficult to understand. Accepting Qi as a quality that separates living things from dead ones was straightforward, but ascribing qualities like clarity or turbidity, flowing or stagnant or blocked was too much, new-age mumbo-jumbo.
Performing Qigong exercises I experienced the sensations of warm and tingling palms but nothing beyond that. So, I generally just ignored Qi and got on with learning and perfecting the movements. I suspect that most practitioners have reached this point too.
Meditation Changes Everything
Things changed when I started practising meditation. The discipline of focussing on the sensations of the breath revealed a huge range of sensations through the body with a different experience every day and even within the same meditation session. Sensations that could be described as a gentle expansion and contraction, not just of the ribcage but any part of the body, or a tingling in the skin.
At first the sensations appeared to be directly linked to the breath pattern but subsequently they exhibited a different rhythm, often out-of-phase, partially or completely with the rhythm of the breath. As I focussed more on these sensations I became less and less aware of the breathing rhythm itself. Qigong books often mention ’embryonic’ breathing – when breathing is so soft that you cannot tell whether you are actually breathing. Like Qi this seemed a mystical claim but now I understand it completely. It isn’t mystical – in meditation your breathing rhythm becomes shallower and slower so it’s probably more accurate to simply say that with your attention focussed intently on other sensations you are only just aware of your breathing. ‘Embryonic’ now seems a reasonable description.
The sensations experienced through meditation seem to be independent of heartbeat, or pulse. Unless you focus your attention on them they quickly fade from consciousness. So if neither blood flow nor air flow are responsible for these sensations what is? Directing attention to different parts of the body made me aware that these sensations also flowed – sensations that could reasonably be called ‘energy’. However, the term ‘energy’ implies a measurable scientific phenomenon and that doesn’t seem appropriate. So now, I am comfortable using the term ‘Qi’ to describe these sensations.
Feeling the Flow
I can now feel a flow of energy, or Qi, down arms, legs and spine even when not meditating, by focussing attention on these areas and can experience the same effects when preparing for Qigong or Tai Chi moves. There are times when achieving the flow experience in one particular part of the body (for example, the lower leg) seems more difficult; an experience I could perhaps describe as feeling ‘blocked’. What seemed nonsensical before now seems to have an element of truth. The concept of stagnant Qi is still beyond my comprehension but I am certainly more open-minded than I used to be.
Maintaining those feelings through the moves is much more difficult as attention shifts to executing the movements themselves. In simple movements I can switch my attention back to the breath and feel the flow Qi with greater clarity and intensity but with more complex moves those feeling fade.
While the concept of Qi remains slightly foreign it is similar in many ways to the concept of pain: it is a personal experience, it is difficult to define scientifically and cannot be measured, yet nobody disputes its existence. If meditation were as popular in the West as it is in the East I think the concept of Qi would be more understood more widely too.
What’s Your Experience of Qi?
What does Qi mean to you? What have you experienced? Does it matter to you?
Please share your thoughts on Qi in the comments section below – I’d love to hear how you see, or feel, things.
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