Demystifying Qi

Posted Feb. 16, 2014 by NoetPoet in Open

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commented on April 20, 2014
by richrf



In this thread I will take a closer look at the concept of a vital life-force, particularly the well-known Chinese version called "Qi" or "Chi". I will examine the origins of Qi in Chinese culture, and show how effects and abilities which are traditionally attributed to Qi can be explained by modern science. In dispelling the illusionary idea of a life-force, I will also show how such seemingly extraordinary abilities are actually within the reach of anyone who is capable of putting in the time and effort to master them.

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    richrf Apr 20, 2014

    Qi is many things because it takes so many forms. It is somewhat analogous to Bohm's quantum potential field which flows within everything.

    Your explanation of Qi energy in martials arts is what the Chinese may call "external" or muscle energy. There is another form b called "internal" energy which can be likened to moving a water hose by putting it on the ground and allowing water to move through it as opposed to moving it by picking it up and moving it with arm muscles. Highly skilled martial artists practice and learn both types of energy.

  • NoetPoet Apr 14, 2014

    Timing (part 1 of 2)

    Just as martial artists are careful about where they apply physical effort, they are also careful about *when* they apply it. As martial artists practice their forms and techniques, their minds and bodies become more familiar with the movements, and thus they are able to perform those movements with increasing speed and agility. This phenomenon is known as “muscle memory”, because it involves repeated movements which condition the muscles to “remember” how to move in particular ways. Muscle memory is also an important part of learning a musical instrument: a beginning musician can only play songs or scales in a slow and hesitant manner, but with repetition (i.e. practice) they become mentally and physically familiar with the movements involved in those scales and songs, and eventually they reach a point where they can play with an effortlessness and speed which would be impossible for an untrained individual.

    Sufficient practice of technique can improve a martial artist’s timing to such a degree that they can stop a full-speed kick centimetres from another person’s head, or even stop a full-speed sword slice so close to a person’s hand that it only causes the tiniest cut. Because the (well-trained) martial artist is intimately familiar with how every part of such actions looks and feels, and because they have also trained their minds to focus clearly on the task presently at hand, they can feel exactly where and when to slow down particular parts of the movement to achieve such impressive effects.

    Timing is also an important factor in defensive movements. For example, martial artists who spar frequently come to recognize what certain types of attack look like before they are fully formed (e.g. they become acquainted with what an opponent’s body language looks like when they are about to launch a particular kind of punch). This allows the martial artist to form an appropriate defence to block the incoming strike before it can make impact. Moreover, because martial artists also practice defensive moves over and over they develop muscle memory which allows them to execute those moves in an intuitive, fluid and rapid manner. From an untrained observer’s point of view, this combination of muscle-memory and awareness of early warning signs can make it look like the martial artist has superhumanly rapid reflexes, which may be in turn be erroneously attributed to the martial artists’ cultivation of qi.

  • NoetPoet Apr 14, 2014

    Timing (Part 2 of 2)

    Whether striking or being struck, the right physiological actions at the right moment in time can have a significant effect. If a martial artist expects to be struck in a certain region of their body, they can quickly adjust their body such that the impact occurs on a part of the body with minimum vulnerability (i.e. away from vital organs, and towards parts of the body that have hardened muscle and/or bone as a result of deliberate training and conditioning). Emitting a strong sharp exhalation and yell which coincide with the moment of impact can help focus a martial artist’s mind away from the pain, while also give the body an extra thrust of outward momentum and prompting the muscles in the strike-affected area to tense at the moment of impact so that they can better resist the force of the blow. Similarly, a strong sharp exhalation and yell timed to coincide with the moment one strikes an object can momentarily prevent one’s mind from thinking about the physical pain of the strike, while also adding to the force of one’s strike by giving the body an extra thrust of outward momentum and prompting the muscles in the striking limb to tense just in time for the impact.

    Timing also plays a subtle yet significant role in the apparent effectiveness of qi-based medical practices like acupuncture. This is because of a statistical phenomenon called “regression to the mean”. Regression to the mean refers to the tendency of variables to even out and return to normal over time. Many ailments are a good example of regression to the mean, because they will tend to go away naturally as the body’s defences fight them off. Conversely, many unwell people will only seek medical help when the symptoms of their ailment are at or near their peak level of acuteness. While this tendency applies to people who seek both alternative and conventional medicine, it is particularly relevant to the former because: 1) alternative medicine generally “works” via the placebo effect (which suppresses *symptoms*) as opposed to any physiological or biochemical mechanisms; and 2) many people only try alternative medicine like acupuncture after they’ve already tried conventional medicine. In the case of 2), it is probable that the conventional medicines have actually helped to treat the ailment, but the patient has simply been too impatient or selective in their perception to realize it.

  • NoetPoet Mar 24, 2014

    Targeting (part 1 of 2)

    Suppose you want to kick a locked door open. Which part of the door would you strike? If your kick lands too close to the lock or the hinges, then these will absorb most of the force from your kick and channel it into the door frame and the door will most likely remain locked and intact. This outcome is even more likely if you kick the door from any angle other than directly front-on, because the dimensions of the door (i.e. being a rectangular prism with very little depth compared to its length and width) allow it to distribute force applied at an angle throughout its body much more effectively than an equivalent full frontal force. However, if you kick the door front-on at a point well away from these force-absorbing-and-channelling features (i.e. near the middle of the door), then they will not be able to absorb and channel as much of the force from your kick: the door will take most of the force in its relatively unsupported middle area, and because the lock and hinges respond with inertia and hold the peripheries of the door in place, it causes structural tension whereby the middle of the door tries to fly open in the direction of your kick while the peripheries of the door are pushed slightly forward because the hinges and lock hold them in place. Thus you are more likely to succeed in kicking the door open.

    So ideally you would want your foot to make impact near the middle of the door from front-on, slightly closer to the handle side than the hinge side since the handle will not be as effective at absorbing and channelling the force of your kick as the hinges. For any given amount of force that you apply to the door with your kick, you are most likely to successfully kick the door open if you apply that force from the optimal angle to its weakest structural point.

  • NoetPoet Mar 24, 2014

    Targeting (part 2 of 2)

    The same is true of any object: if you want to break something by hitting it, the best strategy is to hit it at a point and from a direction where it has minimal structural reinforcement, minimal shock-absorption capability, and maximum brittleness. These points tend to be in the middle of an object, on the sides with the greatest surface area, and in some cases frail connection points between different objects or components within an object. This is why martial artists tend to break blocks of wood by striking them in the middle on the flattest side, and break bricks by striking them on the flattest side with a diagonal striking motion.

    Humans and other living creatures are obviously more complex than doors and bricks, but this complexity also provides a whole new set of options for targeting force. Some parts of the human body contain vital organs which are relatively unprotected and sensitive compared to others, e.g. the temple, throat, eyes, genitals, the front of the shoulder. Hitting these areas with a given amount of force can cause much greater damage than hitting less vulnerable body parts with the same amount of force. Before the advent of Newtonian physics and in-depth anatomical knowledge, the martial arts lore of which body parts were most vulnerable to assault would have allowed martial artists to injure and kill opponents in ways which would have seemed magical and awe-inspiring to outsiders. It was thus easy for both martial artists and non-martial artists alike to think that such abilities were due to qi rather than clever application of physical force.

  • NoetPoet Mar 10, 2014


    Eastern martial arts like Tai-Chi and Kung Fu place a great deal of emphasis on qi, and they also place a great deal of emphasis on mastering specific patterns of body movement known as “forms”. This is not a coincidence. Any activity that humans engage in whether simple, complex, mental or physical can only be performed optimally when the right technique is employed. For example, a weightlifter can lift a much heavier mass with much less risk of injury by squatting down and using the power of his legs, rather than bending over and picking up the weights while standing. A freestyle swimmer adjusts her arm strokes and leg paddling so that they move the water around her body as efficiently as possible, whereas thrashing her limbs about in a furious disorganised manner would result in greater exhaustion and a slower swimming speed.

    A martial artist learns all sorts of movement techniques as part of their training, from how to form a fist, to how to adopt a stable fighting stance, to how to put the weight of one’s body behind a kick or a punch. These practices condition a martial artists’ mind and body to know how to move in certain ways in certain circumstance, so as to maximise the force delivered and minimise risk of injury (both self-inflicted and opponent-inflicted). A big part of technique training in martial arts is to co-ordinate one’s breathing with one’s movements, as this helps to focus the mind and gives the body an extra ‘burst’ of force at the right time. The emphasis on learning the forms also helps to ensure that one’s posture is correct, as this helps to optimise the effectiveness of proper breathing as well as improving physical stability, flexibility and one’s ability to utilise the physical strength of the whole body. Technique training conditions the body to develop strength and agility in the right places. The effect of proper movement and breathing technique is further augmented when combined with the increased physical strength and fitness which results from regular exercise and proper diet.

  • NoetPoet Mar 03, 2014

    Addendum to Training:

    The experience of "Flow" which has been reported by some athletes when they are in peak psycho-physical condition, has been described as a mystical and ecstatic experience. It seems likely that this experience of Flow is a result of the four components of training (physical excercise, diet, breathwork, and psychological conditioning) working in a strongly synergistic manner.

  • NoetPoet Mar 03, 2014

    Training (part 1 of 2)

    Can you run 100 metres in 10 seconds? Can you bench press 300 kilograms? Can you sit down at a piano and flawlessly play a sonata by Mozart? Perhaps you can draw photo-realistic portraits of people?

    If you can do one or more of these things, then my hat is off to you. I say this because, although natural talent and disposition almost certainly play a part in your impressive ability, such extraordinary feats can’t be achieved without a great deal of disciplined training. And these feats are indeed extraordinary: they are well beyond the capability of the vast majority of people who do not invest the enormous amount of time and effort required to master them.

    These days we see many people performing the sort of feats described above, so we don’t tend to think of them as being quite so extraordinary. When it becomes commonplace to see a bunch of athletes run 100m in 10 seconds on TV, it’s easy to forget that 1) each of those athletes has years of intensive training behind them, and 2) only a tiny fraction of humanity can run anywhere near that fast. It can also be easy to forget that the training regimes of those athletes are not based on harnessing mystical life-energies, but on scientifically rigorous physical and psychological practices.

    Like athletes, martial artists invest a lot of time and effort into training so that they can accomplish feats that are beyond the rest of us. Whether it be athletics or martial arts, training involves four main components:
    1) Physical exercises
    2) Psychological conditioning
    3) Breath control
    4) Diet and nutrition

  • NoetPoet Mar 03, 2014

    Training (part 2 of 2)

    These training components are synergistic: incorporating them all into a training regime will deliver vastly better results than only incorporating one or some of them. This is as true for Olympic athletes as it is for Kung-Fu fighters. Obviously, appropriate physical exercises will make you physically stronger/faster/more agile by conditioning your body, particularly your muscles. But appropriate nutrition can also make a huge difference to performance, because your body requires the appropriate energy and nutrients to re-condition itself for optimal performance. Learning to control the timing and depth of your breath also makes a big difference: just as breathing out helps you to lift weights up, it will also help you to deliver a more forceful punch. Indeed, considering how important proper breathing is for optimum athletic performance, it is hardly surprising that “qi” - which, remember, means “air” or “breath” - has been treated as a mystical life-force. Having the right attitude and presence of mind has a decisive effect on the other three components. If you don’t believe you can bench press 300 kilograms, then chances are you never will because your lack of confidence will stop you from doing the necessary physical training and dieting, your breathing won’t be properly controlled if you do try to attempt it, and the mental suggestion that “I can’t do this” will both inadvertently tell the body to not fully commit to such an effort while also making the pain and stress seem more burdensome and acute. Similarly, if you don’t believe you can break a piece of wood or a brick by hitting it with your hand, then you won’t commit to the proper physical and dietary training required for such a feat, you’ll be too nervous to breathe effectively if you do attempt it, and your fear of pain/injury/embarrassment will send a suggestion to the body to not fully commit to the blow.

    Although proper breathing is crucial to a martial artists’ ability to break hard objects by hitting them, it requires years of training involving exercises to toughen up the hand and arm muscles and to encourage denser bone regrowth by inflicting “micro-trauma” on the hand bones (the latter is often done by using knuckleboards). Changing one’s diet to optimise protein intake (for muscle growth) and calcium intake (for bone density) are also necessary in order to accomplish such feats.

    Just as training is the key to physical strength, it is also the key to mastering one’s technique, targeting, and timing.

  • NoetPoet Feb 22, 2014

    Since about 3,000 years ago, traditional Chinese medicine has regarded illnesses as being due to an imbalance of qi in the body. Qi is said to travel throughout the body by way of fourteen main channels called meridians. The practice of acupuncture is based on the idea that inserting needles into points along these channels can adjust the positive (yang), or negative (yin) aspects of the qi, so as to maintain a balance and harmony. Herbs, massage, eating different types of food, and other methods are also alleged to have an effect on this balance. The practice of Qigong is said to allow practitioners to direct the qi in their bodies just by using their minds.

    When the concept of qi first appeared in ancient Chinese literature, the existence of cells, blood circulation, neurology, hormones and biochemistry were unknown. Dissection of the human body was culturally discouraged, so it was only possible to glean anatomical information from corpses after battles. After the fall of the axe, blood quickly leaves the body and ancient Chinese observers assumed that this liquid came from the body cavity, rather than the seemingly empty tubes that they later were able to see after the blood had drained away. We now know that these other vessels are the carotid arteries and jugular veins, which transport blood. Ancient observers guessed that because these tubes appeared empty and deflated, that some form of air or special gas must inflate them, which was called qi. They believed that our bodies were inflated and nourished by this special air and that the arteries and veins were simply part of the respiratory system.

    Pulse diagnosis first appeared in China about 2,500 years ago. At that time, doctors believed that what they were feeling were pulses of air, not blood. Later, when closer observations revealed residual blood inside veins (trapped there by the bicuspid valves), the theory of qi was modified to state that veins carried blood and arteries carried air. As early as the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) the famous anatomist Wang Qingren held to the mistaken belief that arteries carried air, not blood.

  • NoetPoet Feb 22, 2014

    One special variety of qi is that of ”jing qi of heaven,” which grew out of the ancient worship of sexual reproduction. It was believed that conception occurred as a result of contact with heavenly gas, or jing qi and that in order to increase one’s health and maintain optimum energy, frequent exposure to this special condition was necessary. This led to the Art of Coitus where the male’s semen was credited with magical life-giving properties, a concrete manifestation of the qi of heaven.

    In addition to the concept of jing qi, qi supposedly has other qualities and can be produced by fire. A cold person is said to be lacking in qi and a hot person is said to have too much of it. Four important functions of qi are: the development of strength, resistance to disease and evil spirits, the maintenance of good health and longevity. The idea that qi can be obtained from the environment led to the practice of consuming the sex organs of various animals, such as foxes and birds. The kidneys of mice, the pollen from flowers, and alcohol were also thought to contain highly potent forms of qi. Any sort of pungent plant or root was said to contain qi. Some substances may have been selected because they happen to look similar to other things. Ginseng, for example is said to resemble a fetus. The consumption of placental after-birth is still a common practice in the Chinese countryside. The idea – an example of magical thinking - is that the active medical ingredient in all of these substances is qi.

    So if the concept of qi is based on a pre-scientific misunderstanding about how the body works, how can we account for its many impressive effects and applications? We can do so by understanding that these effects and applications have a variety of explanations which are completely consistent with modern science. These explanations can be assigned to seven broad categories, which I call “the 5 T’s and 2 P’s”: Training, Technique, Targeting, Timing, Trickery, Physical strength, and Power of suggestion. I will explore each of these categories in more detail.

  • NoetPoet Feb 21, 2014

    (More to follow)

  • NoetPoet Feb 21, 2014

    Qi is a Chinese word meaning “air” (it is often also translated as “breath”), and the Chinese character for Qi depicts steam rising off rice. Like many ancient pre-scientific cultures throughout the world, the ancient Chinese considered the breath to be the vital essence or spirit of a person. (The English word “spirit” comes from a Latin word meaning “to breathe”). In the context of a pre-scientific society thousands of years ago, this was an entirely reasonable idea: when a person is breathing they are clearly alive, when they are having difficulties breathing they are clearly unwell, and if they are not breathing then they are either dead or dangerously close to being dead. Because the breath is integral to the functioning of the body yet not really of the body itself, it was also reasonable for the ancients to believe that the breath was the essential animating principle – i.e. the spirit - of a person, and that the ceasing of respiration was the spirit leaving the body. This idea would have seemed even more convincing given that Near Death Experiences (i.e. involving an afterlife and a sense of the mind leaving the body) occur near times when a person’s breathing stops.

    While modern science certainly agrees with the ancients that the breath is essential to animal life, we now understand a great deal more about what the breath is and how it works. We now understand that it is oxygen – which makes up about 21% of the air we breathe – which is critical to a range of chemical reactions which are vitally important to sustaining the body. We now understand that the air we exhale is chemically different from the air we inhale, and that this difference has extremely important implications for the continued functioning of the body. We now also understand that the oxygen we inhale is critical to sustaining the brain, and that the brain is responsible for awareness, feeling and thought (the ancients thought little of the brain and instead believed that the seat of the mind was in the heart, hence the English phrases about listening to, following, and knowing in “your heart”). However the breathe is a dynamic chemical composition which itself is devoid of feeling, thought, and awareness.

    While the sensible but largely uninformed suppositions of the ancients have been surpassed by modern science, Qi and various other ideas of a “vital essence” have evolved over the last few centuries into a concept of a mysterious, subtle, invisible and intangible primal “energy” that underlies and is carried within the air we breathe. The ability to perform extraordinary feats by manipulating one’s breathing in certain ways has reinforced this conception. Modern science has never identified such a primal “vital energy”, and can explain the functioning of the body quite well without resorting to such a concept. While Qi can sometimes be useful in certain practical contexts, it is really a catch-all idea that seems to explain everything but illuminates nothing.

  • Anonymous Icon

    RayGreen Feb 20, 2014

    I look forward to the insights you will share on Qi. I am an on again, off again student of tai chi. I have had some beginner's experience with Qi. Gaining a better understanding of my experience would be welcome.

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