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What is Qi?

Everybody by now has heard of the word Qi. It has become synonymous with acupuncture and now, of course. Yin yoga. You cannot separate the two but what does it mean? Current translations and subsequent perceptions of the term Qi or “Ki” in our current vocabulary and dictionaries will usually return terms such as “energy” or “vital force”. Dr Manfred Porkert says “that over 2500 years of chinese medicine literature that has been published, 32 different types of Qi has been identified” making it very difficult to isolate exactly what this term means.

Interestingly Dr. Donald E Kendall in his paper Energy – Meridian Misconceptions of Chinese Medicine mentions that, “Almost all of the misunderstanding about Chinese medicine revolves around the ubiquitous use of this character qi to mean energy.”

Such an interesting point because pretty much everyone uses this term now it’s hard to imagine what else it would be called??? I have to admit this was one of the most difficult ideas for me to understand when learning Chinese medicine because kept calling it energy!

For us to truly understand where this misconception came from we need to examine the history of Chinese medicine arriving in the west.

The earliest first-hand account on the anatomical and physiological basis of Chinese medicine by a western physician was provided by Willem ten Rhijne, who in 1683, spent two years in Japan.

Ten Rhijne observed a Chinese hydraulic device that demonstrated how blood continually circulates inhaled air and nutrients by means of the blood vascular system. He also learnt from Chinese medicine that the continual branching of larger vessels into smaller vessels was essential to distributing blood throughout the body and that nerves were involved as well. Keeping in mind the chinese had already covered blood circulation in detail in the Huang Di Nei Jing 2500 years earlier BUT was only discovered in the west in 1628.

The details of the HDNJ were depicted in 4 charts that Ten Rhijne returned to the west with that depicted the arterial and venous maps of the body, including their connection to the organs. This is our first encounter with the Jing Luo. The term Jing is translated as “to pass through” or “pathway” and Luo means “network”. The Jing Luo is what we now know as the Chinese meridians.

Wow! So when the Chinese were drawing their invisible meridians what they were actually doing was illustration the flow of blood and vital substances around the body and how they connected to each of their organs. Which is what we now call the flow of Qi between the organs.

This first encounter with Chinese medicine did not have a significant impact on western culture and it wasn’t until Georges Soulié de Morant travelled to china in 1901 and stayed for 16 years that we got our first glimpse into TCM. During this time he developed significant skills in the practice of acupuncture, which he taught and practiced upon returning to France. He was also the author of fundamentally significant books which became one in 1957.

One of Soulié de Morant’s legacies was that he interpreted the Chinese character “qi” as “energy” or “vital energy”. The more common translation of Qi is air or vapor. He also created the term Meridian which of course is a french word meaning circle of longitude but has no Chinese equivalent. The original term in Chinese is “jing” as in Jing Luo or Jing Mai, as previously discussed, which actually denotes a vessel. He believed meridians were: “an additional circulatory system having no relation to the nervous, circulatory, or lymphatic systems.”

Interesting! The first historical contact we had with the Jing Luo was the 4 charts depicting the flow of blood through the artery veins and organs and now we have it translated into meridians and “no relation to the nervous, circulatory, or lymphatic systems”. That’s quite a conflict in definitions.

So where did his idea come from? Why did he make this leap? According to Kendall, it was said to come from Soulié de Morant’s belief that “qi was identical to the Hindu concept of prana” which he considered meant “vital energy”. He theorised that this concept arrived in “China along with Buddhism between the 3rd and 4th centuries. Contrary to this assumption, the Chinese theory on the cardiovascular circulation of air and blood was established at least 600–700 or more years before the introduction of Buddhism into China”.

After all was said and done, Soulié de Morant did finally conclude that his representation of Qi as “energy” was done because of a “lack of a better word”. He also admitted that the blood vessels did supply blood AND energy, what he refers to as Qi, to all the cells of the body. This is understandable because at that point in history electron microscopes had not been invented so converting potential energy sources like food to what Soulie De Morant called ‘Qi’, was thought to be in the realm of possibility beyond science. Later of course, thanks to advances in technology, we discovered that this magical process was done by the Krebs cycle and the ATP which fuel the cells.

Soulié de Morant was definitely in the ballpark then, but had founded some obvious misunderstandings, which went on to become fundamental theory to TCM, and is popular thought even today. Even though such prominent translators of Chinese medicine texts like Paul Unschuld have stated that: “the core Chinese concept of qi bears no resemblance to the Western concept of ‘energy’.”

If you go back to the TCM primary text from 2500 years ago known as the Huang Di Neijing you can read a more contemporary understanding. It describes the term for Qi of the lungs as Da or Kong Qi otherwise known as “great air”. Which we all know as oxygen and this would be combined with the Gu Qi or “essence of food and grain Qi” from the digestion. Again we know this as glucose and other vitamins and minerals. After a series of transformations it would become Zheng Qi or the “Qi of the channels/vessels”. This is the Qi flowing around the body and is a combination of the air we breathe and the food we eat.

Alright! I have admit that this sounds very much like what is actually happening on a physiological level in the body and not an existential one.

Unfortunately though Soulié de Morant’s mistranslated metaphysical theory of the body’s primary energy unit, laid out the framework for what is considered today as Qi. Most western sources whether it be chinese medicine or yin yoga textbooks will talk of Qi in this metaphysical sense. But what does this mean?

The book, “ Spark in the Machine”, written by Dr. Daniel Keown who is both a western medicine and chinese medicine doctor reiterates our understanding that Qi is food plus air that creates an energy, or as he puts it, metabolism. Although he mentions that Qi is more than metabolism as it is at the same time both intelligent and organised. Qi is then a physical state and a process but is also imbued with a sense of direction to inspire change or an inbuilt knowing. This is demonstrated by the moment of conception when the cells begin to divide, or meiosis, which is still a mystery to medical doctors. They are unsure as what exactly, the “knowing” is that inspires meiosis to transpire. So as Dr. Daniel Keown says, “Qi shares more with philosophy than with science”.

So let’s look at a more philosophical explanation to try and see if there is any truth to metaphysical claim. In Ted Kaptchuk‘s book “The Web That Has No Weaver”, he writes “Qi is not some…. immutable material, nor is it a vital energy… We might think of it as somewhere in between, a kind of matter on the verge of becoming energy, or energy at the point of materialising”.

Kaptchuk, then goes on to say that “things change because of something in Chinese medicine called the gan ying or resonance of the Qi. He explains this further by saying that, “the Qi of the sun, rain, soil resonate with the Qi of the seed to bring forth a plant that already contains the germ….things energise each other. Through resonance, one Qi evokes another (Qi).”

So Kaptchuk is suggesting that Qi is at the same time a catalyst to inspire transformation and the potential of the subsequent transformation. That is, it the matter and the potential that matter contains to transform. But he also mentions another aspect an inherit “knowing” to inspire change, a kind of invisible instruction which is directing all of it to transpire.

This idea is suggested in the book “Nourishing Destiny” by Jarret who writes, “Qi is a larger concept still” and suggests that Qi is a “Unique aspect of the Dao (the path/way) as it manifests into physiological function”. Now Jarret mentions if we deconstruct the character for Dao and read each part out it would describe the Dao as “the way one comes to see and understand oneself”. This really shows the beauty of a pictogram language, lets just hear that again “the way one comes to see and understand oneself”. Hmmm Is Qi then an aspect of a higher energy, that by aligning ourselves to it it will help to foster health? The Daoists masters certainly worked with this purpose. In their search for immortality they were trying to align themselves with the perfect way of acting within their life and refining how they were interacting mentally with themselves. This seems to hinting to not only more aligned ways of living physically but the power of the mind on our state of health. Is Qi’s “knowing” to inspire change upon the material potential for change, simply the mind acting upon the flesh?

Before we go any further into the world of higher consciousness let’s first look into a field of science called epigenetics. The term epi means above and so epigenetics can be seen as the science of the mind acting upon the genes of the body.

Every single day cells in our muscles, bones, brain etc die, and when they die they get replaced by stem cells. Stem cells are simply embryonic cells but once you’re born they are called stem cells.

According to Dr. Bruce Lipton, if you isolate a stem cell in a petri dish, regardless of the genes or dna, that is, the instructions of that cell, the culture medium in the petri dish will determine what the stem cells will become. In our body, blood is the culture medium and so the fate of each stem cell is determined by the blood, and the blood chemistry is determined by the brain.

Each and every moment the brain is interpreting the world around us and creating chemistry. When you feel love the body releases growth hormone, which means even more cells will grow. When you feel fear you stimulates the fight or flight nervous systems, release stress hormones and create inflammation within the immune system.

So epigenetics is telling us that genes do not activate themselves, rather their environment determines whether they are activated and so our beliefs control our biology not our genetics. So if we change the way we perceive the world we can change our chemistry and our state of health.

This very concept is discussed within Chinese Medicine when considering the aspect of the emotions that are housed within each of the organs. The term the chinese have given this concept is Shen which translates into Spirit and is said to be housed within the heart. The heart is at the very centre of life in the human being, and the very centre of the self. It is a collection of all perceptions, sensations, information, memories, knowledge, tendencies, ideas, thoughts, desires and emotions. It is the whole of the emotional life, but also the mind, the psychology and the intelligence.

Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallé in her talk Art of the Heart says that, “the reactions of the heart depend on the inner disposition – tendencies, ideas, emotions, etc which are within the heart….(and that) the heart is responsible for the correctness or for any distortion in the course of the qi.”

So Qi then is more than just the material substance that moves through our blood vessels and bodily system that is both the trigger for change and the substances that the changes are made of. Qi is also the inherent knowing or intelligence which inspires the processes to occur in the first place. These processes do not take place due to embedded instructions in our genetic makeup rather depend on a catalyst or culture medium within the body to initiate growth or destruction. As we have learnt this catalyst is the Heart or Shen within Chinese medicine and the brain within western medicine.

So if the Heart, or let’s say the mind for arguments sake, can influence the course of Qi, or lets say vital substances and their ability to do their function, then we are now starting to see a lot of parallels between the TCM and western biomedical science.

Ultimately Rochat de la Vallé says that our state of health is “dependent on the way that the heart is able to follow the natural order” which is almost a perfect definition for finding harmony with the Dao. This same process is the way daoist masters have endeavoured to cultivate Qi, discover immortality and aligning themselves with the Dao.

So what does Qi mean for us Yin Yoga practitioners and how do we connect with it? We know of course that this term energy is a mistranslation. We know that it is the material potential for transformation of the vital substances within the body but also the resonance that inspires transformation to occur. We also know that the health of your Qi is indivisible with the spirit or mind and when you are more, lets say “aligned” then your state of Qi will be harmonious and healthy.

I’d like end by reflecting back upon Jarret’s translation of the Dao. For me this is a true definition of how we can harmonise our state of Qi. It is “the way one comes to see and understand oneself”.

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