Chi - the vital energy

Chi can be freely translated as 'vital energy' or 'life force'. Every living thing in the universe is said to possess chi. it is that which gives us life, the vital spark which lets us live, move and function. When the term is applied specifically to human beings, it refers to the energy freely circulating around the body. This concept is shared by many cultures, notably the indian Yogis, who call it prana, the Tibetan timmo, and the Japanese ki. In the West the notion of a circulating life force within the body is no longer fashionable but, in the past, it was a generally accepted idea and was widely ascribed to in the cures of Anton Mesmer. Prior to Mesmer the ancient Grecks referred to this energy as pneuma.

In Chinese medicine and chi kung (chi cultivation arts), chi is designated as a 'Yin' or insubstantial energy - it can be felt but has no obvious form, whereas the human body has form and is a gross energy that is classified as 'Yang'.

The ancient philosophy of Taoism divided everything in the universe as either 'Yin' or 'Yang', and the universal symbol represents that idea (fig. 1). Yin is anything which has a female quality - caring, yielding, softness, night, are examples of what may be described as Yin. Its symbolic colour is black. Yang is the exact opposite, representing male qualities of strength, aggression, hardness, day, and whose colour is white.

When chi is strong, the body is vibrant and active; when weak, the opposite occurs. In order to be strong and healthy, chi must be abundant and flowing smoothly.


An explanation of how chi circulates is now in order. The body has 12 main channels or 'meridians', which function like rivers distributing chi throughout the body. There are eight extra channels whose function is to store and regulate the energy, and generally act as reservoirs. Each channel is connected to an organ and runs to a foot or hand, ending at the fingers or toes. The energy passes along the channel to nourish and give life to that organ, and on through the channels feeding the other organs. Between every one of the major routes there are a countless number of tiny tributaries or canals. These interconnect all of the main channels and supply chi to the skin.

When the chi is low, stagnating or blocked at a point, ill health and weakness will result. At this time one of three options could be used to rebalance the situation. An acupuncturist could diagnose the problem and insert needles at the appropriate points to regulate the energy flow. A herbalist could administer specific combinations of herbs after diagnosis. This would be to readjust the behaviour of the energy within the organ and the smooth flow of energy along the channel. In turn this would affect all of the channels through which the chi passes. The third method would be to practise one of the three internal exercises and martial arts of tai chi - pa kua, hsing yi, or chi kung. The combination of the movements, breathing and calm relaxation could restore the energy back to normal. The use of exercises such as these is usually as a preventive against ill health, rather than a cure. When the malfunction in the body has reached a critical point, medical treatment is usually called for to redress the balance. This is then followed by the exercise therapy to reinforce the treatment and maintain the return to balance.

The ageing process is also governed by the quality, strength and smooth flow of vital energy in the body. if the organs are not functioning at their peak, the body will never reach its potential, shortening the life-span of the individual. Until the early part of this century there were longevity schools in China, where old masters would train their followers with the aim of a vastly extended life expectancy. To reach the goal the internat martial arts, chi kung exercise, dietary control and the taking of specific herbs and extracts were followed. The results, apparently, could be spectacular, with schools full of centenarians in some instances. The students must have possessed a great deal of dogged determina- tion to follow such a spartan regime, while also being able to afford the extremely expensive herbs and extracts required.

In the practice of acquiring chi, certain points of the body are of special interest. At these points chi can be regulated and strengthened. The most prominent is the tan tien, which is situated two inches below the navel. This is the hub of all tai chi activity, and the place where energy circulation starts and finishes. By building up energy at this point, the chi can be made to flow into the main meridians, and strengthen the body. Almost as important as the tan tien is ming men (or the 'life gate') which is situated on the spine in the small of the back. This is sometimes called the 'back lan tien' and is a very important point not only in chi kung, but also in acupuncture.

The major point in the foot is called yong guan ('bubbling well'), which is situated on the sole and is the starting point of the kidney meridian. The kidney chi plays a major role in the health of the body; being at the beginning of the channel is of great significance. At the other end of the body you will find the point called bai hui, which can be found on the top of the head. At this junction the energy flow of the head and the onward flow of energy can be controlled.


Source: Yang Tai Chi Chuan, by John Hine.