What exactly is this “Qi?”


So… what’s this “Qi” or “Chi?”

I want to demystify this word for a few moments, though I know many of my colleagues can write a book on it. But I like to keep things short and clear.

Qi (pronounced “chee,” and sometimes written as “chi”), is a popular word in the worlds of Eastern medicine, Eastern philosophy, and in the traditional martial arts culture… and is probably one of the more misunderstood words in these circles. To put it bluntly and succinctly, Qi is not a mystical thing that gives you magical powers of strength and healing.

Let’s look at the character [above].

See the diagram? Basically, the character for Qi depicts the hot steam rising over a pot of cooking rice. So what exactly does that mean?

If you think about it, a pot of edible food gives nourishment to the human body, and from this enables us live our daily lives. Therefore, Qi is a metaphor that describes the whole process that creates the basis for life, existence, and activity. Qi is what makes things run. Sometimes we hear Qi being described as “energy,” but Qi is not just “energy,” although energy may be involved. Many believe that Qi means “oxygen,” but Qi is not just oxygen because in the big picture of the cosmos, many things in the universe may exist without the use of oxygen.

Qi is a metaphorical description of an entire cascade or process that gives something its existence or function.

So to be specific to the human body, Qi is the metabolic process that keeps our bodies alive. Qi is also the ATP created and circulated within our cells. Qi is the act of the SA Node pumping electrical impulses into our heart muscle to give it the behavior necessary in order to circulate our blood (ie pumping). Qi is the process that ensures the proper functioning of every system in our body for our survival.

And in the deeper, and more universal level, Qi describes the process that gives everything its essential characteristics for existence, whether it’s particles, waves, or strings that are the building blocks of the universe.

So there’s really nothing mystical about “Qi,” although many new-agey types would like to believe so. It’s just simply a metaphor.

As for me, unless I’m talking shop with another acupuncturist or a Taoist, I rarely use the word “Qi” outside of that circle. I don’t say “Qi” around many of my patients. Instead I describe in detail what acupuncture will do to benefit them.

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