June 22, 2018
Qi is fundamental to Chinese Medicine. It moves with the blood through the meridian channels, and its flow can be influenced by stimulating various acupuncture points. Qi can flow smoothly or it can become deficient, stagnant or even rebellious. If you’ve ever felt under the weather in any way shape or form, chances are your qi fell into one of said pathological states. But what exactly is qi? And more importantly, how does it manifest in our everyday lives?
When acupuncture school first piqued my interest, I pretty quickly realized how little I knew about qi. Sure, I’d heard qi tossed around before; someone emerging from a yoga class, glowing, raving about the qi of the instructor. But if you’d asked me to define it, I probably would’ve shrugged and said something along the lines of “synonymous with energy” or “life force.” I’ll bet that if most of us were asked to sit down with a pen and paper and describe qi, it’d leave a lot of us scratching our heads.
Witnessing the qi that is change as the transformation of spring into summer on Mt Tamalpais.
During the first week of school, we were peppered with a variety of qi definitions: “Vitality”(von Elgg, 2018), “the pulsation of the cosmos”(Kaptchuk, 2008), “a continuous form of matter”(Bliss, 2018), “what you see present or absent in someone’s eyes”(von Elgg, 2018), etc. All in all these descriptions were helpful, but they still seemed a little vague. They left something to be desired. It wasn’t until I finished reading an essay by Ken Rose, appropriately dubbed What Is Qi, that I had an “ah-hah” moment where I really understood what qi actually was. It turns out it can be summed up by four pretty simple words: connectivity, communication, change, and movement (Rose).
“There is a single unifying qi that connects everything that is or was or will be” (Rose). Basically, qi is the common underlying component of anything material or immaterial. If we can conceptualize or realize something, it has qi. It can exist in dense, inert forms or it can be rarified and active. Qi exists in both the pavement beneath our feet as well as in the prolific thoughts of our minds. Think water in a solid, liquid or gas state. It changes forms but the underlying molecular structure remains constant. It’s the common denominator of everything. For better or for worse, we’re inextricably linked to this universe whether it’s through our interactions, concepts or sensory perceptions. And this interconnection is mediated by qi.
“All things seek to express their common origin and destiny with other things” (Rose). We’re not defined as a single tissue or organ. The lungs must communicate with the heart or they die. In Chinese Medicine, no component of a clinical pattern can be isolated from the others. A patient presenting with a headache and accompanying irritability and dry eyes is a far cry from someone who walks in with a headache, low back pain and anxiety. We even can go insofar as to say the headache cannot be successfully treated without subsequently accounting for the accompanying symptoms. Same symptom, different communication breakdown within the body. The parts only have meaning in light of the whole.
“Qi is change” (Rose). Simply put, the only things guaranteed in life are death and taxes (and qi). Thinking of qi as change helps explain how it can be described as the force and fact of “the ceaseless dance of yin and yang” (Rose). Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re constantly electing to feed our yin or yang with the decisions we make (i.e. should I head home and crash or meet up with friends and risk staying out to an ungodly hour). When we invite the right mix of yin and yang into our lives, it’s conducive to smooth qi flow, and yin and yang are grooving. Change is key to a balanced lifestyle because without this dynamic flux of left and right, we’d just tip way over to a single side or extreme. But let’s be real. A balanced life is easier said than done, the art of living per say.
“Qi is movement and vibration” (Rose). Nothing stops moving. Ever. Even when we’re asleep our bodies are doing all kinds of crazy stuff like shrinking our brains so that cerebrospinal fluid can flow through and wash out all the defunct proteins and toxic gunk. (National Institutes of Health, 2013) Even rocks are subject to geomorphic processes and will never enjoy sheer and utter stillness (British Broadcasting Corporation); an odd concept to think about when we’re so conditioned to group things and states into absolutes. While we can’t ever quite hit the pause button and take a timeout from life, we can use our minds to direct our qi. This lends itself to a pretty neat little opportunity to achieve relative stillness in movement. Ever go on a run where your mind just shuts up or find a coveted little blank state of mind while scrubbing the bathroom floor? It’s all a matter of the interplay of the flow of mind, qi, and body.
In short, qi is pretty darn important. So how do we keep our vitality, the foundation of our relationships, health, and purpose, flowing? With a little creativity, there are a ceaseless number of ways to refine and strengthen connectivity, communication, change, and movement. Next time I post, I’ll be sharing my experience with a school assignment that involved a daily Qigong practice, a journal, and some very candid recollections. In the meantime, do you have a favorite movement practice to get your qi flowing?
I found my way to the profession of Traditional Chinese Medicine out of a desire to provide clinical care that is integrative, affordable and rooted in prevention. This medicine has been deeply influential in supporting my own health and vitality, and I’m thrilled to be taking the next steps to be able to share this medicine with my community. I’m currently a candidate for a Master’s in Oriental Medicine and Acupuncture at the Acupuncture and Integrative Medicine College in Berkeley, California. When I’m not studying acupuncture, I find great joy in waking up in a tent, Farmer’s Market “retail therapy” and a good powder day up in the mountains.
Bliss, N. (2018) Introduction, Yin Yang Theory, Vital Substances, Qi Transformation [Lecture]. Presented to OM 100 class at the Acupuncture & Integrative Medicine College Berkeley.
British Broadcasting Corporation. The rock cycle – How rocks change over millions of years. (n.d.). Retrieved June 01, 2018, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/earth/surface_and_interior/rock_cycle
Kaptchuk, T.J. (2008). The Web That Has No Weaver: Understanding Chinese Medicine. New York: McGraw-Hill.
National Institutes of Health. How Sleep Clears the Brain. (2013, October 28). Retrieved June 01, 2018, from https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/how-sleep-clears-brain
Rose, L. (n.d.). What is Qi? 1-7. Retrieved June 01, 2018.
Von Elgg, D. (2018) Chinese Herbal Theory [Lecture]. Presented to OH 099 class at the Acupuncture & Integrative Medicine College Berkeley.
For those interested in further reading by Rose, see:
Zhang, Y. H., & Rose, K. (2003). A Brief History of Qi. Boston: Paradigm Publications.