Below I describe what Qi is. Using multiple descriptions, I give an overview of the flavor of Qi. I hope that this is an aid for you in reaching for the river flow of Qi. The best way to know Qi is to practice Qigong is to with educated awareness. Over time, it tells you what it is, for you.
Qi is flowing life-force energy.
Gong is to practice diligently and skillfully.
Qigong is the regular, skilled practice of working with vital energy.
The Oriental healing arts talk a lot about Qi. It’s Qi this, and Qi that and Qi everything else under the Sun and Moon and Milky Way. Qi is ubiquitous in the cultural context of China: Few Chinese doubt it’s existence, nor importance. To them, Qi is an essential fact of the universe, especially for practitioners of the Qi-based arts like Qigong, Chinese medicine or Tai Chi Chuan. They see Qi as being everywhere, connecting all parts of reality, animating life and movement. Qi is thought of as flowing everywhere all the time.
Qi is Like Santa Claus
As far as I am able to tell, almost all of the Chinese have known and worked with it all of his or her life. Its like Santa Claus in the USA. All kids know about Santa Clause and the presents he brings and puts under the tree. Except the presents of Qi can come every day, not just one day a year. Santa is pretty much omnipresent during one night a year, bringing energy to untold millions of households and joy to kids. Omnipresent Qi can bring joy and energy every day and every night.
Qi is Ki
Ideas similar to Qi are found in many cultures and many periods. This animating energy has been called names. The Japanese concept of Qi is the same as the Chinese (the Japanese got it from them), and is called Ki (“kee”). Ki is an integral aspect of all of the Japanese martial arts and traditional healing arts such as Karate, Aikido and Reiki.
In the book When Healing Waters Meet Clyde Ford lists dozens alternate names from many different cultures and life-force explorers for this energy source, including Qi
The Life Energy Encyclopedia: by Swedish author Stefan Stenudd lists and describes many of these sort-of-synonyms of Qi, ideas both ancient and modern.
Science Explains Much
A scientific, mathematical, or medical explanation of a process has some uses. It is best to understand it functionally, with your body. This is where the health value is. The scientific approach only describes only part of the whole. It may describe a slice of reality, may fit in an accepted framework of knowledge, may support one’s modernistic beliefs, but it doesn’t speak to the deeper, older parts of a human. These are metaphorical or poetic depths; sensing, intuiting, and feeling, the need for graceful animal movement; and the need for even more graceful heavenly experiences.
“Studies on the effects of Qi projection conducted by Chinese scientists concluded that energy released by a Qigong doctor into a patient carries the properties of infrasound, electromagnetics, static electricity, infrared radiation, gamma rays, particle and wave flows, organic ion flows, and light.”
Jerry Alan Johnson, Chinese Medical Qigong Therapy (1st ed.), pg 589
There are many scientific studies dealing with Qi. These studies shine light on different aspects of the mega-phenomenon of Qi. Though science tends to describe Qi in a limited, partitioned way—in bits and parcels—science is extending and underpinning the ancient, medieval and modern Chinese descriptions of it.
Qi in the Body and Qi outside the Body
Theories of Qi state that everything that exists has Qi, in more or less amounts, more or less speed and in more or less clarity. Furthermore, all the space between all things has Qi as well, with the same principles of quantity, speed and clarity. Qi is full, smooth, integrated movements at every level of life.
No Really, What is Qi?
Qi is the optimization and integration of natural processes. Qi is a functional description of how movement works: The better the movement, the better the Qi; The better the Qi, the better the movement. Qi is the body working better, with more ease, less stress and greater coordination. Qi is the artful, expression of wholeness and health. Qi is a catch-all term describing an aligned unification of many different function of the body. Qi is the energy for feeling good. Qi is the expression of natural laws in full flower. Qi is the expression of life. Qi is the animating force of Life. Qi is naturally enlivened beauty.
Looking at Qi
Each of the processes below can be either considered Qi, or the results of Qi flow. When blended and befriended together, each of these results support and magnify the benefits of the other healing results and felt effects. Dividing up descriptions of Qi (itself thought of as undivided as an Ocean’s water is) is but a way to get at describing it. Here are some looks at what Qi is.
Qi is Motion
I like this definition of Qi very much because it encompasses movement at any level. Good Qi is good motion. Anything moving well—be it an electron, a blood cell, lymph fluid, an athlete at play, a river, the ocean, the planet, the solar system, or a galaxy—has good Qi, and life-promoting. Anything that is stuck, stagnant, crashing, or exploding is bad Qi, and disease and death promoting.
Qi is Rhythm
Moving at a smooth, equalized rhythm balances the nervous system. Moving in a jerky, chaotic way destabilizes the nervous system. Many disease states are associated with erratic motions. Smoothing the Qi flow with Qigong eases erratic motions and enables flowing stability. There are a great many rhythms in the body, including the heartbeat, breath, sleep/wake cycle, moon cycles, and lymph pulsations. Qi and Qigong work with all of them.
Qi is Breath
Breathing with an easy, smooth, slow, full, long, low breath—with balanced inhale and exhale—results in many benefits. This style of breathing clears cellular debris, oxygenates red blood cells, calms down the fight/flight nervous system, brings and builds energy, and does many more wonderful things. In some sense, oxygen is Qi. One of the older ideas and translations of Qigong describes it as breath practice or breathing exercises. Much of Qigong is much involved with how you breathe. How you breathe is an important indicator of how healthy you are and how long you will live.
Qi is Energy
This is the most common Western definition of Qi. Energy here is meant as active vitality, the means for getting thing done with joyful verve. If you have a lot of Qi, you have the joy and vitality and desire to do much.
Qi is Coordination of Movement
Qi is smooth, full, integrated movements at every level and layer and area of life, moving the musculo-skeletal system in synchronized togetherness. This results in beneficial shifts toward being more balanced. Areas that have been blocked get more attention. Areas of excess attention, get less. When your Qi is strongly flowing through open pathways in your body (blood, nervous system, lymph, tissues all open where they need to be), everything works better and feels better. Everything you do is more fun, full, and satisfying.
Qi is a Balanced Nervous System
Coordinating Breath with Movement Qi gets the brain, peripheral nervous system, sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system all working together in synchronicity.
Qi is Flow
Qi is correct flow. Qi is flowing life force that is liquid, electric, plastic, osmotic. Qi is any flow that is full, healthy and correct for the highest needs of your body.
Qi is Flowing Lymph
Lymph is the whitish fluid that clears the body of pathogens and other unhealthy particles. Stuck lymph flow is a disease state waiting to happen. Empowered, regular lymph flow is the expression of health with every pump through the lymph tubules and nodes. Qigong vastly increases the healthy flow of lymph through the body, increasing immunity to sickness. According to Kumar Frantzis, great amounts of Qi flow is called “making the body wet” in the Orient. This is a great description of heightened lymph flow.
Qi is a Calm, Quiet Mind
Too much concentration creates head tension, eye strain, neck and shoulder tension, anxiety, and stupidity. Settle the mind and learn what it means to think with the whole body. This is not mystical notion but an observable, attainable state that can be learned. It is a state of great intrapersonal unity with a natural way of being, which brings health and wisdom. You still have to accrue education and experience, but now you are not obsessively overworking the brain.
Qi is the Fascia
Fascia is pronounced “FA shuh”—fa as in fabulous. The fascia in the body is one of the missing links in much healing (along with other missing links such as breathing practice, the lymph system, and the functional movement state of the organs.) The whole body is a single fascial system. It exists throughout us in sheets, layers, sheaths and tubes. It is found from the top of the head to the bottom of the feet; from just under the skin, down to the bones. It wraps around organs, bones nerves, blood vessels, the brain and spinal cord. Every part of the body is interconnected by fascia. The fascia unifies in a balance of elasticity and support. Fascia is like a multi-compartment, internal body stocking that holds you together. It is involved in: allowing appropriate mobility of internal organs, non-neural conduction of electricity, protection, relaxed strength (half of the muscles in the body are attached to fascia). The fascia is said to be the passageway through which acupuncture meridians flow. The cells of the body are actually interconnected by fascia. Tiny tendrils of fascia enter every structural cell. All of the structural cells are connected by these lines of fascia.
“Qi is the Bridge Between Matter and Spirit”
This is the definition given by my Medical Qigong teacher Jerry Alan Johnson. According to this notion, Qi is the invested movement that connects consciousness and inclination with dumb matter. Matter must be acted upon to do something. Conversely thought must have something to do something upon, or nothing happens in material reality.
Qi is the Electromagnetic Spectrum
In this paradigm, Qi is every frequency you would find on a chart of the electromagnetic spectrum. In other words, Qi is the organized collection of many different ranges of waves of information, all existing simultaneously and interweaving. Organized waveforms are healthy Qi. Disorganized waveforms lead to chaos and noise. The physical body is, to some extent, sustained and informed by these wave forms.
Qi is Coherence and Connectedness
To me, the wholeness of Qi is the result of an aggregation of improved body functions working together. Qi is a collective of interacting, synchronized natural energies.
“On the basis of what is now know about the roles of electrical, magnetic, elastic, acoustic, thermal, gravitational, and photonic energies in living systems, it appears that there is no single ‘life force’ or healing energy in living systems. There are many energetic systems. Health are all of these systems, both known, and unknown, functioning collectively, cooperatively. The debate about whether there is such a thing as a healing energy or life force is being replaced with study of the interactions between biological energy fields, structures, and functions.”
Energy Healing, Oschman, page 219
Qi is Ease
Qi is ease of internal and external actions, finding the least forceful ways to be and do. Water is often used as metaphor for Qi because it finds the easiest way to flow toward its objective. Water flows down, seeking the sea, wending it’s way over, around, and under obstacles. In fact, the phrase “Qi flows like water” can help you understand Qi because Qi acts like water. It takes time for Qi to move form one spot to another in the body. In distinction to Qi is consciousness. Consciousness moves like light. You can think about your toe in an instant. But it may take a second or ten for the Qi flow to reach it.
Qi is Relaxed Muscles and Other Tissues
How is this Qi? Because blood, lymph, electricity, cellular fluid etc can move better through the tissues.
Qi is Emanata
Emanata are those sun-like rays that comes out of cartoon characters and other drawings. Emanata show vitality, vibrancy, force of nature, health, energized power. Emanata are an expression of strong, clear Qi. Emanata are fun and attractive.
Good Qi and Bad Qi
Sometimes Qigong teachers talk of Qi being good or bad. In reality, there is no good or back Qi, per se. Good Qi is fresh, appropriate and flowing Qi. Bad Qi is stuck, stagnant or old Qi that needs to move along. Good Qi leads to health and the flowering of appropriate personal power. Bad Qi leads to ill-health and feeling stuck in the muck.
I am a Qi Agnostic
Despite my many years of Qigong training and study, I can’t accurately say what Qi is. I have my thoughts about Qi, and my experiences. I can gather, release, refine, and store Qi—or do processes that seem to have those things happening (and results indicate are happening), but I don’t actually know what Qi is. I don’t know how it exists, or if it does. I don’t know if it is a complex of natural mechanisms, an all-connecting energy, a motive power source, or motion itself. Honestly, I can’t even say I am a believer in the numinous idea of Qi, as many of my teachers, colleagues and students and pretty much all books on Qigong are. I am a Qi agnostic. I find that working with Qi—whatever it is—is absolutely valuable.
Qi as a Functional Concept
For me, Qi is functional concept rather than an intellectual one. For myself, wracking my brain around the abstract philosophy of what Qi might be isn’t useful. Feeling Qi in my body shift in various ways as I practice is helpful, pleasurable, and reproducible. Qi might be some invisible, omni-connected life force that animates all movement. Or it could be that all I am experiencing in my Qigong is a complex of natural rhythms and processes. This is the biology and physics approach to understanding Qi. It doesn’t actually matter, what the ultimate reality of Qi is. It is a highly valuable and usable concept. You can learn feel Qi—whatever it is— and you can feel how it works with Qigong.