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What The Heck is Qi?

Qi (pronounced “chee”) is one of the most basic concepts in Chinese medicine, and one of the most important ones. If you’ve had acupuncture before, you probably understand at a personal level what the sensation of qi feels like in your body. It’s that feeling of warmth you feel at the acupuncture point, or that deep pressure that radiates outward from a point. It’s also those zipping bolts of energy that shoot through your body, and that heavy, sinking feeling many people experience toward the end of their treatment. All of those sensations can be simply explained as qi moving through your body, and if you’ve had acupuncture a couple of times, it doesn’t take long to become familiar with the feeling.

A Universal Concept

The concept of Qi lies at the heart of Oriental medicine and is central to the Taoist philosophy. Some describe it as the energetic or animating force associated with all living things. Interestingly, similar concepts of an “animating force” show up in various cultures throughout history.  In Japan it is called ki. In India, it’s called prana.  The ancient Egyptians referred to it as ka and the ancient Greeks knew it as pneuma. The Native Americans refer to it as Great Spirit. The Christians call it Holy Spirit. In Africa it’s known as ashe and in Hawaii as ha, or mana. And for all of you die-hard Star Wars fans, it’s The Force.

For those of you loyal to Cold Hard Science, I’d point you in the direction of quantum physics to find the intersection of science and the concept of qi. Physicists who study quantum mechanics might describe what they study as “the description of the dual particle-like and wave-like behavior and interactions of energy and matter and  the changing flow that is happening continuously at molecular, atomic and sub-atomic levels,”  but no matter how you describe this mind-bending science, there’s an undeniable overlap with the Chinese concept of qi. Glad to know that we’re all on the same page here, right?! Let’s face it, friends. Even Obi-Wan Kenobi has been schooling us on qi ever since he was written into our collective consciousness!

Types of Qi

In other news, there are almost as many types of qi out there as grape varieties! Traditional Chinese Medicine has identified several specific types of qi. Arthur Rosenfeld, a Tai Chi master and author of many books on Eastern thinking, writes about the TCM concept of qi:

There is the primordial qi that arises at the union of sperm and egg, the daily qi nourished by what we eat and drink and how we move, the surface qi (wei qi) that guards us against invading pathogens, and the particular qi unique to different organs and systems (liver qi, heart qi, etc.). As a concept in the Chinese lexicon, however, qi has more than merely medical meaning. It appears in common parlance–your qi looks good today–and runs like a meandering stream through Chinese literature, arts, music and philosophy.

Channels and Meridians in Chinese Medicine

During an acupuncture treatment, have you ever had felt your shoulder start twitching while the acupuncturist is inserting a point in your foot? This experience can be explained by the concept of channels, or meridians, which run through your body and act like  riverbeds for qi and blood.  When my patients respond with surprise that they suddenly feel areas in their body “light up” after I’ve done a couple of points in completely different areas than where they are feeling sensation,  I explain what is happening by asking them to imagine wiggling the corner of a a spiderweb. If you touch the edge of a web with a broom handle, you’ll notice that the whole spiderweb moves – some parts more than others. This is similar to the way the channels interact with one another in the body. Invigorating, or moving the qi in one channel often has a domino-like effect on other channels – suddenly your shoulder is twitching and warm even though there isn’t a single needle in that area. It’s around this time when a patient new to acupuncture will make a loud proclamation, usually something along the lines of: “So, this is real, huh?!”

It always makes me smile. Normally, I’ll finish my point selection and leave them to marinate for a bit – which means I let the acupuncture do the rest of the explaining.


The best way to explore qi is to move it, and through moving it, feel it. Perhaps the best way to move qi is to walk on over to Wildwood Community Acupuncture on India St. in Portland, Maine, relax in a recliner, and enjoy a treatment! And in order to avoid concluding this post with a shameless marketing plug, I’ll defer to one of the masters, Arthur Rosenfeld, for some last words on qi:

“Knowing qi, feeling it, sensing it, you can learn what techniques and choices enhance it and allow it to flow freely (stagnant qi is seen as a source of disease) and you may find this sensitivity helps you stay healthy and enjoy life more. At very least, entertaining the idea of qi introduces the notion of as-yet-undefined forces into the nuts-and-bolts way we look at the world–a view limited both by our senses and by the accepted truths of the day–and thereby deepens our experience of what it is to be alive.”


*To read Rosenfeld’s explanation of qi in it’s entirety, see this link.

To read an expanded version of this post (including current biomedical theories of qi), check out our guest post in Catching Health with Diane Atwood.

Acupuncture, Astrophysics, and John Denver

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), much of the language we use to describe the body and how it functions is the language of the natural world.

An image from Between Heaven and Earth, by Harriet Beinfield and Efrem Korngold.
An image from Between Heaven and Earth, by Harriet Beinfield and Efrem Korngold.

To better understand how TCM regards health and wellness, it’s helpful to think about your body as its own unique ecosystem. Take a moment to imagine your body as a garden that has been planted with a variety of fruits and vegetables. Think about how the ever-changing weather patterns might affect this garden – what would happen if there was a dry spell, or a down pour of rain that lasted all spring and into the beginning of the summer and actually didn’t stop until mid-July? Sound familiar?  Ha! #eastcoastsummer2013

When you hear your acupuncturist use words like “heat” or “cold” or “dampness” they aren’t actually meaning to sound…woo-woo. They are using this language because the basic underlying theories of Chinese Medicine are based on observations of the natural world. In the West, we are okay with worshiping the terrifying calculations of our favorite astrophysicists – speculations on dark matter and dark energy totally turn us on.Yet, mention the word “qi” and induce immediate eyeball rolling in your everyday left-brained Jane!

I once had a healthy skeptic of a friend who thought acupuncture was quackery, but would go bonkers over theories like “fractal cosmology.” My counter-argument (and supporting documentation, of course) nipped this disagreement in the big fat bud, since there are parts of basic TCM theory that essentially mirror the basic theories of fractal cosmology. In other words, much of the basic meridian theory is derived from observing simple phenomenon – big patterns (that you can’t help but notice) repeat themselves on a smaller scale (which you’d have to examine more carefully to notice). In the mind of the TCM practitioner, you are a small scale version of this big ol’ universe.

So, back to the garden analogy. Have you fully imagined how these varying climates could affect crop growth? Imagine a scorcha’ of a summah’ with little water and heat that can turn things crispy in a single afternoon. Now imagine that “heat” as feelings of intense anger that you haven’t released, or a viral infection that raises your temperature to 102 degrees. The way your garden would look after hot, dry weather is probably pretty similar to how you would look/feel after internalizing rage, or after dealing with a high fever. You’d probably feel depleted, dry, somewhat “aged”, and in need of  a body of water to submerge yourself – what would be better than floating in cool water and letting the residual blah leave your body, right? Water helps counteract heat/fire? Who knew??!!!

Remember Garden Song (“inch by inch, row by row”)? A bloke named David Mallet wrote it, but do you know how many people covered this song??!! Let’s put it this way. John Denver sang it on The Muppet Show!!! Must be true, right?

Inch by inch, row by row, people!
Inch by inch, row by row, people!

Actually, it’s not that simple. When you delve more deeply into TCM, you’ll see these basic theories applied in more complex ways. Pattern recognition gets tough when patterns overlay patterns. It also gets more complicated when these ideas are applied to the individual, and we all know individuals are unendingly complex and unpredictable, kind of like, well… the weather!

When I discovered the underlying philosophies of TCM, it was a big hallelujah moment for me; my whole life, I wanted to practice a medicine that recognized the physiological/spiritual/emotional…. peculiarities of individuals. I knew from a young age that one size doesn’t fit all, and if you insist it does, well – that’s one way people get sick. I didn’t want to treat all people the same way. I wanted to treat this person this way, and that person that way.

Enter Traditional Chinese Medicine; after that, the community acupuncture movement. Combine acupuncture and herbal medicine with the non-discriminatory health care model of community clinics, and whoolah! You’ve got a sanctuary of care for all people, each with their own unique set of strengths and struggles. And you’ve got one happy acupuncturist, relieved to have found a medicine that, by it’s very nature, is accepting of difference.