What is Qi and why has Western science failed to explain away this phenomenon?
Modern acupuncture research has tried to understand Qi but instead of coming away with one unifying theory, or perhaps even a way to flat out disprove its existence, science has posited several possibilities as to the biological manifestation or physiological occurrence that the Chinese refer to as Qi. What follows is my interpretation of Qi as it pertains to acupuncture as well as the practice of Qigong, a form of moving meditation that translates into “life energy cultivation”.
My martial arts instructor, an incredibly gifted and intelligent man, spent years searching for a tangible and obvious transmission of Qi that could be utilized in a legitimate combat setting. In this regard, he recently forwarded me an email by another martial artist who claimed to have an extraordinary level of Qi development. Without going too much into detail, let’s suffice to say that this individual professed to have skills that could be nothing more than gross exaggerations of kung fu films for the purpose of marketing a class or seminar. There are simply too many people out there that are charlatans selling snake oil with a great bag of tricks to capitalize upon. For the most part, the so-called skills of these swindlers can be explained away by a more in-depth study of anatomy, kinesiology and physics. That being said however, I have witnessed healing miracles from Chinese medicine. I’m not just referring to exhibitions and demonstrations by famed practitioners but real examples of healing for both myself as well as my patients.
Chinese Medicine is really abstract, full of flowery imagery and concepts that are foreign to most of us in the West. In that sense, it’s quite different from Western medicine which is steeped in reductionism or the idea of breaking the body down into small isolated pieces in order to understand each component; this often leads to forsaking the forest for the trees. Perhaps this explains why biomedicine has such a disconnect between the mind and body. There are specialists for just about every area and function of the human body and yet, only a select few physicians are able to see the way these disparate systems interrelate or connect. Conversely, Chinese medicine views the human being as an integrated whole, a divine cohesive unit that must be treated as such in both life and in medicine.
Is Qi really as esoteric as it sounds? Not really. I'll give you some Western biomedical explanations of how it works. For starters, Qi is, for all intents and purposes, “matter on the verge of becoming energy or energy on the verge of materializing” (Kaptchuk, Web That Has No Weaver). Let’s put that into more Western terms: potential and kinetic energy. Everything in this world has either potential or kinetic energy and according to physics and the law of conservation, energy cannot be naturally created, only transferred from one state to another. With that in mind, Qi can be viewed as the manifestation of energy in a state of flux somewhere between potential and kinetic. This is why, when we cut someone open, we can’t see their Qi, yet it’s something that everyone can feel in themself (with training).
I practice Qigong regularly and am able to feel Qi movement in my body. I even notice differences from session to session, based on what's going on with me at a given time, physically as well as emotionally. Qigong is essentially exercise, but instead of just building the muscles, it builds the mind as well; something modern science is just now beginning to understand with it’s extensive studies of neuroplasticity and meditation. Keeping in mind that the body and mind are to be viewed as one, Qigong requires relaxation, breath work and an open yet disciplined state of consciousness. The mind guides and the Qi follows. If the mind isn't open during practice, results are tempered. The stronger your mind, the easier it becomes to cultivate and guide the Qi. This doesn’t mean the smarter you are, the easier it becomes but rather, the more relaxed and receptive your mind is, the easier it will be to experience results. As traditional societies have known for quite some time with their own cultivation practices (i.e. Ayurvedic, Shamanic or Native American), the building and cultivation of ones self can only be truly achieved through meditation or meditative-like practices. The stresses of modern life such as smart phones and all of the other non-stop stimuli inundating our brains make such development and practice that much more important and simultaneously, that much more difficult for the average person.
Qi has also been described and quantified in the West as our bioelectric charge. Bio-electromagnetism refers to the electrical and magnetic fields produced by living cells, tissues and organisms. During the electro-physiological research of the 1960's, scientists proved that bones are in fact piezoelectric. This means that under mechanical stress, chemical processes convert energy to electric current. It is understood now however that the human body is constructed of many different electrically conductive materials, and that it forms a living electromagnetic field and circuit. All living things on this planet, large and small have some level of electric and/ or magnetic charge. Humans and some plant cells, experience living “electrical events” known as action potentials, or nerve impulses, in which neurons, muscle cells and endocrine cells facilitate inter-cellular communication and activate intra-cellular processes. Electromagnetic energy is continuously being generated in the human body through biochemical reactions such as those we experience in assimilation of our food and air.
In addition, we are constantly being affected by external electromagnetic fields such as those of the Earth, moon and large bodies of water. Anyone who has ever practiced Qigong next to a river or ocean can attest to the difference! Many acupuncturists use magnets or electricity in their treatments for this very reason. Dr. Robert O. Becker, author of The Body Electric, reports in his book that the conductivity of skin is significantly higher at acupuncture points. Dr. Becker’s book, as well as several other reports on the subject, confirm the notion of Qi is indeed both real and scientific.
Most people go about their daily lives with no sense of the Qi within them or around them. However, there are the naturally gifted few that are born with the innate wisdom and sensitivity to be able to see and work with these energetic fields. Again, these people are truly rare today and I believe that most who profess such skills are telling half-truths or flat out lies. That being said however, such individuals certainly exist and there is absolutely an aspect to energetic healing that is beyond the scope of modern medicines capability to explain. For the rest of us normal humans however, it requires extensive training and development of our minds and our nervous system to be able to get in touch with this field, let alone control it or yield it, but it is possible.
The ancient Chinese people had no knowledge of electricity, yet they knew that when an acupuncture needle was inserted into the body at a specific location, some form of energy other than heat was produced. In acupuncture theory, Qi ‘flows’ through the body via channels or meridians that connect our entire structure. These meridians, although not identifiable formations by Western biomedicine, have been mapped, described in detail and utilized by Chinese medical practitioners for thousands of years. Meridians contain ‘gates’ or points along their pathway where manipulation of the energy or Qi that flows through them is possible and particularly effective. By manipulating these points, one can influence the flow of Qi along the meridian in order to help the patient regain health and wellness. That’s the acupuncturists’ job, to transmit the message to the patient’s body in order to allow them to regain balance. The healing isn’t in the needle itself, but rather it’s in the practitioner’s ability to read the patient and transmit the correct message to them at the correct time in order to facilitate that person’s natural ability to heal and self-regulate. In that respect, true wellness is actually up to the patient and their ability to receive that message.
Western medical research has determined that acupuncture points are locations of fascial bundling. Our fascia is a seamless web of connective tissue that covers and connects the muscles, organs, and skeletal structures in our body--it's absolutely everywhere! While much of the incredible healing power of acupuncture is still being researched, acupuncture points have been found to mostly lie along fascial planes, between muscles or between a muscle and bone or tendon. Fascia envelops the smallest fiber of muscle, every bone and joint and holds us together, in effect, supporting our structure and giving us our shape.
So what does Qi have to do with fascia?
A blockage of Qi can be viewed as an alteration in fascial composition and the majority of acupuncture points correspond to the sites where fascial networks converge. Thus, manipulation of an acupuncture needle produces change that can propagate along the fascial network and communicate with our entire body since everything is connected via this massive web of tissue. Think of fascia like a spider web; when something hits the web, the spider doesn’t have to see it, it just knows exactly where it is because of the vibrations. Similarly, when acupuncture needles enter the fascial web, it propagates a signal to our nervous system and our neurochemistry responds accordingly. A 1995 study by H. Heine, a German MD, documented the existence of perforation points in the fascia. He found that the majority (82%) of these perforations are topographically identical with the 361 classical acupuncture points of Chinese medicine.
I’m going to get a bit more in depth so bear with me if you can because this is really interesting stuff!
Fascia is densely innervated by mechanoreceptors, also known as golgi bodies. These receptors influence local fluid dynamics of the tissue and their activation triggers the autonomic nervous system to change the local pressure in blood vessels. Strongly stimulated fascial fibers can even influence the extrusion of plasma from blood vessels into the interstitial fluid matrix, thus changing the viscosity of the extracellular environment. The interstitial mechanoreceptors can also trigger an increase in vagal tone or impulses from the vagus nerve, which leads towards more trophotropic tuning of the hypothalamus. In other words, the parasympathetic (rest and digest) aspect of our nervous system increases, our muscles relax, our adrenals close up shop for a while and our body essentially down-regulates into a deeply relaxed state, all from a properly inserted acupuncture needle!
Qi is absolutely real and cannot only be felt but it can be measured. While acupuncture has been the focus of roughly 1,000+ scientific studies around the world over the past five years, Qigong has earned only a fraction of that attention. Interesting considering Qigong practices are thought to pre-date acupuncture, a healing modality dated somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 years old.
Although the aforementioned studies have shed a great deal of light on the Qi phenomenon, there are still several questions left unanswered. For example, how can the mind generate a force in order to circulate the Qi of the body (as in Qigong)? How are we as humans affected by the electromagnetic fields that surround us in our environments? What about our daily use of electronics; how does that impact us? How do the fields of other people affect us? Why is it that you can be at a party and when someone walks into the room that is upset or angry, even without seeing them, you can sense it in your body? How do we quantify those things? Nanotechnology is beginning to help us address some of these queries but the future of Qi research and our exploration of the internal is going to be quite an adventure.
Adam Cantor, MS, LAc is the owner of Mind Body Medicine Acupuncture in Glen Head, NY. www.mbm-acupuncture.com
- Heine H. Anatomical structure of acupoints. Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine. 1988;8 (3):207–212.
- Robert B, The Body Electric: Electromagnetism and the Foundation of Life,
Harper Paperbacks, 1998 (second edition).
- Jing-Ming Y, The Root of Chinese Qigong, YMAA Publication Center,
1997 (second edition).