What is Qi?


Traditional Chinese character for qi

The concept of qi plays a central role in Chinese culture, traditional Chinese medicine and the martial arts. According to traditional Chinese medicine, people often fall ill because qi becomes unbalanced or gets blocked in the body and does not flow well. Acupuncture, massage, the administration of herbs and other medicinal techniques are aimed at helping to restore the balance and flow of qi.  In the martial arts (also known as gong fu), one’s qi can be cultivated through training of mind and body, leading to agility, strength, stamina and increased awareness and longevity.

Tai qi (or tai qi quan)* is one form of Chinese martial arts which has become popularly practiced around the world due to its purported health benefits.  It emphasizes bringing qi into balance through focus on a systematic coordination of postures and breathing exercises.  You may have seen people practicing tai qi in the parks, their mind and bodies engaged in a series of slow, circular movements as in a dance.  In China, millions of people, young and old, practice tai qi or qi gong** daily in the parks or public squares.  At many workplaces, people gather together and start off their day by practicing tai qi or qi gong exercises.  Tai qi and qi gong have been known to help improve physical coordination, stamina, strength and flexibility, improve circulation, as well as help bring about improved emotional health and a sense of calm and clarity.  In relaxed movement, our minds also relax.  This is why many people refer to tai qi as meditation in movement or as mindfulness in motion.

Qi is also the underlying concept in feng shui 风水 [fēngshuǐ], which is literally translated as the words, “wind, water,” and, in ancient times, literally meant “the Tao of heaven and earth.”  Feng shui attempts to bring about balance in qi as it relates to our environment and surroundings and is believed to impart good health and fortune.  As a simplified example, we can position ourselves in light and space to feel good.  We know, for example, that a dark, cramped room doesn’t make us feel as good as being in a bright and open space.  

In the end, I don’t have a good answer for what qi is.  To me, it is the energy we receive and project.  Applied, it is the practice of bringing about balance and harmony with all things around and within us.  Children are full of “good” qi because they are natural and in harmony with themselves.   When we grow up and become adults, however, we tend to find many conflicts inside and outside ourselves due to our environment and experiences.   Application of a basic understanding of qi can help bring about a greater sense of harmony, lower stress, increase positive energy and allow us to become more vibrant.  

Here are a few ways to practice this in our daily lives:  

  • Eat and drink in moderation.  It is good to have the belly half-full and not until you feel stuffed.  Chew slowly.  Enjoy the flavor and texture of the food you are eating.  Also, try to keep a balanced diet and avoid eating fast food or eating too many processed foods (eating processed foods adds strain on your liver).
  • Sit and stand relaxed and comfortably.  Try not to slouch and maintain good posture.  This does not mean you need to force yourself to be rigid and straight! Enjoy silence, and feel yourself and your surroundings.
  • Try to go to bed early, if possible, and get regular sleep.  Our bodies go through processes throughout the day at regular, natural intervals, usually in 24 hour cycles,  These include changes in melatonin secretion, body temperature and bowels, as well as others.  In the West, we call these “circadian rhythms.”  In Chinese medicine, regular sleep cycles and deep sleep cycles should coincide with the Chinese clock or calendar (based on the movement of the sun, moon, stars and planets) to help increase kidney and liver functions, aid in digestion, as well as to help keep hormones in balance.
  • Keep your home clean and organized.  This gives us sense of peacefulness and helps reduce chaos around us and within us.
  • Try not to rush through tasks.  When you wash the dishes, feel the warm water and the bubble suds.  Or when you fold clothes, be aware of the smell of the clothes and the warmth of the cloths.  When you do each task, be aware of your body and your senses as you are doing it.  This is called mindfulness.
  • Try not to expose yourself to unhealthy or polluted situations.  If something does not feel good or feels uncomfortable, try to remove yourself from it or pull back.  Enjoy nature as often as possible.
  • Exercise regularly.  We all know that exercise is good for our health.  If you have some physical limitations like arthritis, try to take daily walks which is not as stressful on the bones and ligaments and can be very therapeutic for both mind and body.
  • Watch less tv.  Watching tv can be relaxing, but it is completely passive.  If you take half an hour out of watching tv every day to enjoy tea, take a walk or do almost anything where you can practice mindfulness, you may find not only that you feel better but that you also tend to get more done.
  • When it comes to work, don’t push yourself too hard so that your work feels painful.  If you stare at the screen too long, your eyes will become tired.  Turn off your screen or look away and take a break.  Look out the window and see the trees, animals, buildings, or whatever catches your imagination so that you temporarily remove yourself from the hustle and bustle around you.  If you learn to take these few moments to relax, you will find yourself able to focus longer.
  • Don’t think too hard.  Go with the flow.
  • Finally, try to keep life simple.  This is easier said than done, but with practice, you can learn to brush away distractions and see that many things are not as important as you thought.  Meditation and practicing mindfulness can help you to achieve this. My father once told me, keeping your life simple is like polishing a mirror.  If you don’t polish the mirror regularly, the mirror becomes dirty.  At some point, without regular cleaning, it will take more work to be able to see clearly.  Start by taking an effort to slow down.  Stop what you are doing and take 15-20 deep breaths.  At first, for many people, this may feel difficult because we are so caught up in rushing and doing things without being aware of our bodies and ourselves in our environment.  Feel your body from head to toe.  Be aware of the silence in and around your body.  Practice this once or twice a day.
  • Even if it is just one thing out of many things you do every day, try to do it mindfully.

*Note: the Chinese character for qi [jí] in tai qi is actually different from the character, qi, as we have discussed in this piece, and means “supreme” or “ultimate.”  Tai qi quan can be translated as “ultimate supreme fist” or “ultimate supreme boxing.”   

** Qi Gong (气功 [qìgōng]) uses the same basic principles as tai qi and plays an important role in tai qi training.     


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