Bad news people – Qi is not mystical

 

woman holding eye and concentrating

Magic? Or something else…

I read this in a blog post today:

“I remember one time when a student was showing a qigong posture she was taught from another teacher and spoke about how qi circulated through it. He adjusted her posture slightly and said “now you have qi circulation”. “

From here. 

When you read something like this I think it reinforces the incorrect idea that Qi is some type of etheric, mystical energy that rises in our bodies like steam and can be directed by the mind… (in fact, that’s what the article goes on to talk about)

Well, frankly, it isn’t. At least in the context of martial arts, it isn’t. Acupuncturists probably have a different opinion on that, but I’m not talking about acupuncture.

But at the same time, if you know what is meant by “Qi” (through your practical understanding) then that original sentence I quoted above does make sense. Let me explain.

You’ve got to remember that when a Chinese teacher talks about Qi in terms of martial arts, what they are talking about is related to your physical structure. The stuff that makes you up. Skin, bones, tissue, muscles, etc…

If you have “strong Qi” then it means you are physically strong. So, for example, a strong athletic young guy or gal would be described as somebody with “strong chi”. Usually, the posture is good, the eyes bright, the hair shiny, etc… These are all aspects of “strong Qi”.

A weak slumped, tired, or sick-looking person would be described as having “weak Qi”.

man old depressed headache

You, my friend, have “weak Qi”.

So, an old person could have either “strong chi” or “weak chi” depending on how they presented themselves. If you’re bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, you’re doing well. Your Qi is strong.

close up photo of blue peacock

Strong Qi, or BDE as the Yooth say today…

In Tai Chi your Qi refers to your physical structure in a movement, as well as a special type of conditioning of the body’s structures that takes place through exercises like Standing Post and Silk Reeling. Through these exercises, you can strengthen the felt connection from your fingers to your toes – a kind of all-over body suit. It’s the strengthening of this ‘body suit’ that explains the circus-style feats of strength you see martial arts groups demonstrating. Things like throwing a needle through glass, bending a spear on your neck, being resistant to blades and breaking rocks with your hands.

 

I would not suggest trying these things at home! Sure, there are often ways to fake feats like the ones above, but there are also ways to do it correctly, utilising the conditioning of the body’s Qi.

Martial arts techniques in Tai Chi require two things – Qi and Jin. Here we’re only talking about Qi. I’ve talked about Jin before.

Qi (Chi) relates to structure. So, if you adopt a Tai Chi posture that’s relaxed, sunk, stable and strong (i.e. your structure is good), then you are “using your Qi well”. And it could be said the “Qi is circulating well”. (Actually, nothing is circulating in the sense of water in a pipe). If your structure is off in some way then it could be said that your “chi is not circulating well”.

So, if we read that quote again, with the new knowledge that it is to do with posture and structure:

“He adjusted her posture slightly and said, “now you have qi circulation”. 

Could equally be written:

“He adjusted her posture slightly and said, “now you have better structure”.

So, to me that means, he corrected some defect in her posture (say an overly tense lower back, or tense shoulders, for example), so that her “Qi” started to circulate – i.e. the posture regained its natural strength.

Sorry guys, but none of this has anything to do with steam or heat or a mystical energy in the body. But it’s so easy to assume that this is what is meant when you read quotes like the one above.

Especially once you add to that the fact that people can feel pretty much anything they can imagine. 

 

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Sink the chest and pull up the back

No.2. in Yang’s 10 Important Points is “Sink the chest and pluck up the back”.

Yang says: “2.) Sink the chest and pluck up the back. The chest is depressed naturally inward so that the ch’i can sink to the tan-t’ien [field of elixir]. Don’t expand the chest: the ch’i gets stuck there and the body becomes top-heavy. The heel will be too light and can be uprooted. Pluck up the back and the ch’i sticks to the back; depress the chest and you can pluck up the back. Then you can discharge force through the spine. You will be a peerless boxer.”

Personally, I like thinking of it as ‘shelter’ the chest, rather than “sink” or “hold in”, even if that’s not the exact translation. I think that works better in English for me, it implies a more natural position with less force being used than ‘hold in’ does. YMMV.

The whole thing is intimately related to the breath and ‘sinking the chi to the dantien’. If you change the focus of the breathing to the dan tien area, so that area expands when you breathe in and contracts when you breathe out (that’s ‘normal’ dan tien breathing, there’s reverse as well, but let’s not get into that) then your upper chest will natural soften and have the feeling of hollowing – so it’s not so much something you actively ‘do’, it’s more like something that happens as a result of doing something else. The old Wu Wei idea of doing without doing. The whole posture in Tai Chi should be as natural as possible without any artificial additions – but it does require effort (including mental effort) to do, paradoxically – you have to make an effort to be as relaxed as possible, usually by getting rid of the unnatural habits we pick up through doing things like typing on this computer or misusing our bodies in other ways, such as stiff shoulders and neck.

If you let the upper chest expand as you perform the movements then you are effectively ‘letting the chi rise up’ rather than ‘sinking it to the dan tien’. In Tai Chi you need to make your centre of gravity the dan tien area, and this requires letting the tension in the upper body release downwards (of course, you still need that opposite feeling of being drawn upwards from the crown that’s talked about in the classics, and in the above quote as “pluck up the back”, otherwise you slump, or get that crumpled ‘old man’ look I see too often in Tai Chi practitioners, which is not good either IMHO).

One of the meanings of chi is air, or breath, so you can see how ‘sinking the chi to the dantien’ relates to breathing from that area, and how ‘letting the chi rise up’ relates to the breath being too high in the body. All the posture requirements of Tai Chi (as featured in Yang Cheng-Fu’s 10 Important Points essay) are all part of the same thing really, so it can sometimes be misleading to consider them on their own as separate things – or as Mike Sigman said:

In relation to the tail-bone tuck (which I think really just says that the tail-bone should point downward and says nothing about “tuck”), one way of looking at that requirement is that it’s for the same reason the gua is sunk and relaxed, the back is relaxed, the head is suspended, the armpit is rounded, the crotch is rounded, the chest is hollowed and the back rounded slightly, and the stomach is relaxed. They are all done to affect the same thing which connects them all.

All this being said, there are a wide variety of interpretations of what these things mean amongst the different styles. Amongst Tai Chi stylists (mainly from Yang Lu Chan lines, since Chen guys seem to want to be a law unto themselves ) ) I think my view above is by far the most common IMHO, but you can counter pose it with the view amongst some Bagua stylists that the chest should be expanded outwards, but this seems to be part of a complete system and way of doing things that is very complete and detailed, and includes circulating energy in directions counter to the more usual way of doing it.