A fundamental concept of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) dating back over 3,000 years, qi (pronounced “chee”) is the Chinese word for energy, which also carries with it connotations of “air,” “breath,” and “life force.”
In TCM, it is understood that everything from humans and animals to rocks and trees is filled with qi. This energy facilitates function, communication, and connection and is the uniting force of the universe, as well as the animating life force in all objects.
Qi flows through the body via the 14 meridian channels, which run either up or down throughout the body along specific pathways. These pathways deliver energy to organs, structures, and systems in a constant pattern, and when qi is flowing along these meridians a person is said to be in balance.
Illness, injury, stress, and other trauma can cause blockages along these meridians, thus impairing or stopping the flow of qi and resulting in energy congestion. Several TCM techniques are designed to clear these blockages and restore balance and flow to the body’s energy.
Along each meridian are points, known as acupoints or pressure points, where these energy blockages are likely to occur. Significant acupoints are also known as trigger points, and these are often starting points for therapists working to clear congested qi.
An important principle of qi is that clearing blockages at certain trigger points will help restore flow and thus impact parts of the body that are connected along the various meridians. For example, this could mean that working on someone’s foot might benefit an internal organ like the liver. This concept further illustrates that qi in the body is one balanced system in which one imbalance can affect several body parts and even alter emotional states.
Every person is born with a certain amount of qi, and through our lives we increase it and refill it through breathing, eating, and moving. One specific practice of movement to increase and balance qi is known as qigong, a system of hands-on and hands-off techniques that incorporate timed breathing, gentle movement, meditation, visualization, and more to build and balance qi. This practice can be undertaken with a qigong practitioner or on one’s own once schooled in the movements and techniques.
Another movement practice intended to increase and balance the body’s energy is t’ai chi, which uses relaxed breathing and rhythmic movements to relax the body and refresh the mind. T’ai chi is not strenuous and can be practiced by people of any age.
A TCM practitioner focusing on qi often asks more questions of a client during the intake process than a Western-styled massage therapist. One reason for this is that balancing qi is more than just correcting physical blockages; it is about understanding what may have caused those blockages in the first place and correcting that root cause.
Qi is also linked to elements and seasons in a cyclical way that can become disrupted.
Specific disharmonies or blockages can relate to specific phases, and knowing more about you can allow the practitioner to better assess and understand how best to help rebalance your qi.
For many people familiar with the Western medical tradition, qi is a difficult concept to grasp. Talking with a qigong practitioner or participating in a t’ai chi session are a few ways to gain exposure to the movements and the attitudes surrounding qi, but for some it may take experiencing energy work to actually come to a better understanding. If nothing else, sitting quietly and focusing on your body can help you appreciate the ancient idea that we are filled with qi running throughout our bodies.
Randy Burgess, a practitioner trained in acupressure and tui na, uses the following analogy of a boat in the water: “The wind reaches the sail, the sail expands and applies pressure to the mast, and the pressure to the mast moves the boat through the water. The wind isn’t qi, the sail isn’t qi, the mast isn’t, the boat isn’t, the water isn’t. The qi is where the wind meets the sail, where the sail applies pressure to the mast, where the mast applies pressure to the boat, where the boat slips through the water. If there are holes in the sail, you’re going to have qi deficiency; if the mast is weak and moves, it will move the boat forward, but there is deficiency; if there are barnacles on the hull of the boat, it’s not going to slip through the water efficiently, and there is deficiency.”