What is Qi?
What exactly is qi? In Chinese culture, qi is a commonly used word that is understood within the context of Chinese culture, where it originated. In a Chinese medical context there are many different types of qi. What happens when we take a word, or rather, a concept and try and translate it in an entirely different cultural context? Lost in translation, or confusion!
In this post I will explore the question of “what is qi?” Let’s look at it from a few different angles.
Qi as biological or metabolic energy: In Chinese characters, the character for qi is made up of two different meanings. The lower part of the character is the character for rice that is cooking. The upper part of the character is a picture of steam rising. So we can translate this as the steam that rises up from the rice that is cooking. We can also think of this as vapor.
Let’s consider this character’s meaning in the simple equation of:
Food (rice) + air (steam) = energy
We need food and oxygen to create biological energy.
And what type of energy? Why, metabolic energy of course. Voila! This is the energy that fuels our biological being day in and day out. It’s the energy our cells use to perform all of the miraculous and calculated tasks second by second to ensure our survival. It is the energy our brain uses to make calculated decisions. It is our primal instincts in action, our animated force. It drives us every second.
Qi as breath or air: without the ability to take in oxygen, you would not be reading this right now. Air is a requirement for human life. Air is our animating life force. This is a concept which spans across cultures. In the Yogic tradition the equivalent word of qi is called prana. The ancient yogis spend hours, years, experimenting with ways to maximize prana, or vital life force. One of the ways they worked toward optimization is through breathing techniques. The vedic word for this is Prana Yama, which basically means breath work. They discovered that by maximizing the amount of oxygen they were able to take in, and by manipulating the breath, they could drastically increase their life force. To understand how our breathing effects our being lets considered what happens when our breathing becomes restricted? What happens with anxiety? Usually people who feel anxiety report shortness of breath, or a restricted feeling in there chest, or the inability to take in a full, deep breath. What happens when we get stressed, angry or feel grief. One of our bodies’ first responses is a change in the breath. When our ability to take in oxygen is altered we feel worse. So in Chinese medicine when we are talking about qi we are to a certain extent referring to your capacity to breath rhythmic full and deep, satisfying breaths. To a certain extent, the way you breath tells the story of your state of health. So when an acupuncturist is assessing your qi, through various methods of assessment such as pulse taking, some of what we are feeling is the rhythm of your pulse, which is regulated by your breathing rhythm and depth. Your capacity to take in oxygen.
Qi as a state of being: Have you ever had anyone tell you that you had good energy, or a good vibe? Likewise, if you hang around enough acupuncturists you may here that you have good qi. So what exactly does that mean? It is a feeling
Qi as an intelligent life force: Now let’s look at qi from a more philosophical viewpoint. Let us consider what the force is that allows a woman to grow a baby inside her body in about 9 months? What is the force that causes the earth to spin in space. The force that drives a mother to defy the will of gravity so that she can lift a car off of her child? What is it that inspires explorers to venture in the wild unknown to discover something new? My simple answer, which is really only a tiny piece of the pie is that it is the will to live, or the will to survive, and thrive. When we analyze this will at a micro level we see that the will to survive is programmed into every single cell. It is in the double-helix of our DNA.