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What is qi?

Qi (pronounced 'chee') refers to energy/breath.
People usually think of qi as being life force, life energy.
The Wade-Giles spelling is 'chi'. The Pinyin spelling is qi.

Tai chi and qi

People believe that the 'chi' in taijiquan is the same chi as qi.
This is incorrect.
Tai chi (taiji) refers to the yin/yang principle not qi.

Our energy is more precious than all the gold in the world. It is a more powerful anti-aging tool than anything else.

Energy regenerates our liver and other tissue cells, flushes toxic waste from the body, helps maintain our ideal weight, keeps our skin smooth and our hair healthy.
The more energy we have, the better we feel and the more beautiful we become.

(Kimberly Snyder)

Is qi life energy?

It is quite common practice to think of qi as being the 'bioelectric energy' that keeps you alive.
We need energy to live, but is this qi?
The question is subject to debate.

Life energy

Your body would be dead without energy.
You are born with it.
Food, healthy drinks, breathing, gentle exercise and rest can replenish it.

Energy deficit

Modern life saps energy.
People are often exhausted, unhappy, frustrated...
They are frequently emotionally, physically and psychologically unbalanced.
Feeling drained is commonplace. Getting angry is normal.
This is not a healthy way to live...

Faux energy

Sugar, caffeine, energy drinks, alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, sweets, over-stimulation, over-activity, loud music, TV, distractions... these all provide bad energy.
Why is it bad?
Some of these energy sources affect your mind and your emotions, whilst others provide a short-term gain which costs you in the future.


Many people are essentially borrowing energy from the future just to get by.
None of the faux energy sources affect your life in a good way.
Over time you start to look old and feel really strung out.


When tired, rest.
Eating food or taking stimulants to stay active and alert is unhealthy.
Seeking activity is unwise.
Just stop and rest. Your body needs to stop. It needs to repair, recover and grow.


Since the dawn of Chinese civilisation people have sought to cultivate the flow of qi.
A great deal of time, thought and innovation has gone into the subject.
The aim is to improve the quality of life and to live longer.

Breath of life

Breathing naturally, fully and deeply is thought to aid the flow of qi.
The muscles remain loose and soft.
The mind is calm and quiet.
The breath flows in and out all by itself.


People experience a variety of physical sensations that they attribute to improved qi flow.
The skin becomes mottled.
The fingertips tingle.
There is a feeling of drowsy euphoria.
A strong sense of vitality is felt.


There are a number of ways to help restore qi:

Read spiritual books
Calm mind
Settled emotions 
Do things at a moderate pace
Keep the muscles relaxed and lengthened
Follow the Tao
Cultivate a spiritual life
Eat natural, healthy wholefoods
Avoid anxiety
Breathe deeply
Do not force things
Go with the flow
Have perspective


Qigong and taijiquan were designed to remove energy blockages, improve circulation and make you feel great.
The movements certainly produce concrete results.
You have a provable increase in strength, vitality and resilience.
You feel more relaxed and calm.

The whole notion of qi as energy is controversial. It stems from Georges Soulie De Morant a foreign diplomat in the early 20th Century who provided some of the first translations of Chinese Medicine classics for the West. It was he who translated 'qi' as energy (having a pre-existing bias from studying Ayurveda where prana is seens as an invisible life force. Thus he believed qi was a synonymous term) and he translated 'mai' as meridian, an invisible pathway carrying invisible life force energy. Therefore, this dominated Western ideas of how acupuncture and other Eastern practices and techniques work.

The 'energy' model can be convincingly critiqued much to the discomfort of those invested in it. Joseph Needham and other scholars of the Chinese language state there is no legitimate reason to translate qi as energy. Rather, broadly speaking, it can more accurately mean the function of something or a concept of a vital essence in air - i.e. oxygen. In Chinese Medicine terms, for example, acupuncture can be explained by existing physiology, of which the ancient Chinese had an impressive understanding. The Chinese Medical model of health is having nutrient rich (ying qi), oxygen rich (qi) blood flowing unimpeded throughout the body. Acupuncture needles facilitate this through interactions with existing physiology - nerves and blood vessels. Those invisible meridians (the mai) are explicitly stated in the classics to be measurable and even visible around the ankle (doesn't sound like an invisible energetic pathway, does it?).

A better understanding that does justice to our Chinese predecessors' understanding of the body is a complex longitudinal arrangement of blood vessels and the muscles and organs they serve. Just calling the effects of acupuncture a result of interactions with an invisible force prevents its integration into mainstream medicine and hampers the development and understanding of the practice. Now I suspect similar ideas have filtered into Tai Chi.

In fact, Donald Kendall (author of the Dao of Chinese Medicine, who has clearly explained the above concepts) even states how the distortions of original Chinese theories by westerners have later been mistakenly taken up by the Chinese. As far as I am aware much of tai chi can be explained by a proper understanding of physics and physiology. I am not ruling out the existence of subtle energies etc as it would be foolish to think we understand all aspects of being. But until one comes across a phenomenon that requires looking to esoteric explanations because physiology and physics fall short, then why do so?

There is much to be gained in furthering both Tai Chi and acupuncture practice and application by utilising the vast gains in knowledge modern science has provided and using them to see just how advanced and elegant the systems our ancestors created were. If anyone is qualified to state whether there is evidence for energetic aspects of Tai Chi practice it would be Sifu Waller and if he has found evidence for this I would be very interested in anything he has to say about it.

(Rob Veater)

Page created 3 March 1994
Last updated 15 December 2016