When it comes to “qi,” every teacher seems to have a slightly different view of what it is. After meeting many martial arts teachers, over the years (and ignoring clearly misleading ideas among them), I have combined these different perspectives into three models, which in my opinion can serve as a guide to help the trainer solve what your the teacher thinks when or says “qi” and therefore what you mean. I don’t think these three are exclusive at all – following one doesn’t interfere with the others – and all three can be used at once.
Many people would rather omit qi from teaching Tai Chi Chuan altogether, and I respect that view, but the classic Tai Chi mentions qi quite often, so I think we stayed there. And if you can’t beat them, join them.
Of course, qi also applies to things outside of martial arts, so I think it’s important to say that what follows is from a martial arts perspective. I look at qi in terms of how it relates to the human body in things like Xing Yi and Tai Chi Chuan. If I were thinking about how qi relates, say, to the universe or the landscape, I would look in different places. Although it must be said that in Chinese thinking, the microcosm often mirrors the macrocosm.
We will call the first model a biological model. It is believed that what the Chinese call qi is simply the energy that the body generates in cells through the ATP cycle. We are not talking about controversial “bioenergy”, just about the normal way energy is generated in the body’s cells.
Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is an energy-transferring molecule found in the cells of all living things and a universal energy carrier in the living cell. German chemist Karl Lohmann discovered ATP in 1929.
ATP contains three phosphates, and when converted to adenosine diphosphate (ADP), the phosphate is removed, releasing energy that cells can use for processes such as movement, synthesis, and active transport.
While the chemical process of the ATP cycle is difficult to explain, the impact on things like Tai Chi and martial arts is quite simple and straightforward – qi is nothing short of mysterious, and therefore all movement requires qi.
In this model, qi is related to the breath because oxygen is required for the ATP cycle, which follows quite well from the Chinese view of breath-related qi. The lungs therefore play an important role in qi production, as oxygen is required for the ATP cycle to function.
Teachers who have this view of qi tend to focus more on the middle dantien in the body as the center of gravity of movement, because qi production is higher in the body, towards the lungs, compared to the lower dantien. Attitudes tend to be higher and not so broad. Mobility is emphasized over stability. Arts like Xing Yi and Yi Quan are good examples of these types of martial arts.
Qi as a force in the conditioned body
The second view of qi fits more into the Chinese concept of acupuncture. This view sees the body as containing a number of muscle-tendon canals that run from the fingertips to the toes. We find yin channels on the soft yin parts on the front of the body and yang channels on the harder yang parts of the body. These qi channels are channels through which force can “flow”. By force we are not talking about the normal isolated movements of the limbs, but about the type of elastic force of the whole body exhibited by animals and some Marian artists. You can view the movement of animals (and people according to this model) as a series of opening and closing movements using these channels. For example, when we retreat inward, we pull along the yin channels, and when we open the body outward, we pull along the yang channels.
Think about the movements of the cheetah running – when the legs are stretched, the yin part on the front of the body is “open” and the back is “closed”. As the legs retract, the front closes and the back widens and opens. The process is repeated in a cycle. This movement from yin to yang and back is a cycle of Tai Chi in action.
These channels are not true anatomical structures in the body, but are constructed as distinct pathways containing different groups of muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia. (The acupuncture meridians that most people know are similar thoughts, but they came later and are apparently based on this idea of muscle-tendon channels in the body.)
In a normal human being, these channels are not particularly strong or well developed, and we need to work to strengthen them – to give you “strong qi” – for neigong and chigong.
Qigong exercises are therefore designed to condition these muscle tendon channels – note that many qigong exercises involve stretching along these muscle tendon channels using breathing (eg baduanjin exercises). Over time, this stretching and breathing can strengthen the ducts, making them a tangible physical presence in the body. Once they are strong enough to physically manipulate the body, they can be used to perform various martial arts, such as explosive fist punches (Fa Jin) or strong twisting and winding.
Most often, you will find this model of qi used in the arts, such as Chen Taijiquan, which is known for its twisted and reeling methods of locking and throwing (chin na) and for its explosive punches all over the body called Fa Jin. The silk winding exercises that are part of Tai Chi in the Chen style are excellent for developing this kind of conditioned strength.
Qi as a non-physical body
The last, more esoteric view of Qi is like a non-physical body. Chinese medicine has the concept of Sanbao – three bodies. Physical body – Jing (related to our ability to replicate with reproduction), the body of energy or Qi and Shen mental or spiritual body. It is assumed that all three bodies inhabit us at once.
The physical body is the most obvious of the ones we use most clearly, but through practices such as Zhang Zhuang Qi Gong, where you stand and hold positions over time, we can gradually become more aware of the softer energetic body. The body of Qi becomes apparent through the perceptions observed over time. The act of realizing the body of qi, usually in standing qigong positions (although a sitting or lying meditation practice also exists), strengthens your connection with it and your appreciation. The same probably applies to Shen’s body, but it’s not something I’ve ever experienced myself.
These more esoteric practices are often associated with spiritual groups (the tradition of Taoist inner alchemy), secret societies (used in the Boxer Rebellion) and martial arts groups that tend to be calm in their practice – such as Yang-style taijiquan or seemingly practicing impossible fitness performances. such as iron palm and iron body practices.
Although this view of qi is the most difficult to “prove”, it is also one of the most accessible. Exercise at rest for a while can be done by anyone anywhere and usually brings some tangible results – warmth in the hands, etc. But I think this is also the model of qi that you are most easily deceived about. After all, if your only feedback is judging things you are experiencing, it is easy to lose your objectivity. This is, of course, why it is important to have a good teacher.