A question that I often get asked in the clinic is “what is qi? For many people, the word “Qi” is either little more than some sort of mysterious hippy concept or that annoyingly convenient word that allows your scrabble partner to make use of the letter “Q” on the board giving them the triple word score and a cheeky 33 point word out of two letters!! It will often be described as life force, vital energy, circulating life force, cosmic energy or other equally non-descript terms. Even as an acupuncturist I shy away from giving a quick sound-bite of an answer to this question because there really isn’t one out there that does it justice. Although there are many interesting and insightful parallels that can be compared to aspects of qi, such as electromagnetic fields, piezoelectricity or the seemingly magical properties of fascia and cranio-sacral therapy, these explanations can never really explain the many different applications of the word. In a Chinese dictionary, the character for “Qi”, is usually used with other characters to describe the sense in which it was meant to be used. For example, the Qi that pertains to air is called “KongQi” or “air/space qi”, weather is defined as “TianQi” or heaven qi, the slow moving exercise that is known as “Qigong” literally means Qi work/ skill/ cultivation. Just to clear up another matter, the martial art form known as “tai chi” does not actually refer to the word “qi” or “chi” in its title. Tai chi which comes from Taijiquan, translates as “Supreme/Grand Ultimate Fist” and is named after the Taiji symbol, otherwise known as the yin yang symbol. In fact there are over 400 definitions for uses of the word “Qi” in an abridged Chinese dictionary, translating into a vast and obscure range of things, from a hovercraft to courageousness and even a tracheotomy. Qi can only really be understood with a recognition of the tradition, age and culture from which it has come from and that takes a period of time for it to mature from an abstract concept to something with more functional relevance. However all of the usages of the word centre around a process of change and transformation. To stimulate the qi within the body, whether through needle, hands or other, is to stimulate some form of transformation process. The desired change felt in the body of the patient by a skilful practitioner is due to the manipulation and transformation of qi.
Another common misconception around “Qi” that is often heard around complementary health practitioners including some acupuncturists is that Qi is an exclusive and precious substance that can only be accessed and influenced by an acupuncturist or another style of “Qi” related practitioner such as a Shiatsu practitioner in some sort of esoteric dance with the spirit world. In Chinese medicine, emotions move qi in different ways. For example, anger is said to raise qi whereas fear is said to drop or descend qi. It is common to say that people can “boil up with anger” or “blow their lid”. This raising of anger can sometimes give people a headache as the blood visibly rushes up to the head. It is also well known that extreme fear can make people lose control of their bladder or even sometimes their bowels as well. This would be a good example of fear causing the sudden dropping of Qi. As Andrew Nugent Head of the Association of Traditional studies explains in an article published in the Journal of Chinese Medicine, “just look at the stands of a British football match and you’ll see the supporters undergoing intense emotional experiences of sadness, anger, happiness and euphoria. I can’t reproduce that level of qi movement in a patient with a needle! Needling is about moving qi - but life moves qi, sadness moves qi, cheering your football team moves qi … it's not something different”. Another more refined example of a syndrome recognised in Chinese medicine is called “plum pit qi” (meihe qi). This describes the feeling of having a lump in your throat (like a stuck plum stone) brought about by emotional distress, often felt when we are about to cry.
The use of clever poetic language that Chinese Medicine uses to illustrate and most importantly, guide treatment, into often complex manifestations of illness and health is actually testament to how functional and pragmatic this medicine really is. Through careful observation and meticulous enquiry into the unfolding of nature within its myriad forms, comes a practical language through which we can navigate life for the better. Qi is not a wishy-washy ethereal substance that stops flowing when you drink non-organic milk, it is life happening in all of its forms. Concepts and metaphors in Chinese Medicine such as Qi and the Taiji (yin-yang) are the building blocks of a profound philosophy that provides us with the tools that help us to stay upright on the great tightrope of life.