By Sorcha Hegarty
This bi-weekly series will focus on the basic principles of tai chi and qi gong, for beginners and experienced students alike who want to know more about the fascinating philosophy behind their practice.
The literal translation of qi is “breath”, but it’s more commonly translated to mean “energy”. This doesn’t just mean the kind of electrical or kinetic energy we learned about in Physics class – qi is the energy of life, and the universe.
The idea developed over time in Chinese philosophy, starting with steam rising off a bowl of rice. There must be something in the rice, philosophers reasoned, that nourishes the human body – energy that is transferred from the food into the muscles and organs to sustain us. And we need more than food to survive: we need air and water too, at a bare minimum, so there must be the same vital energy in those things. In fact, there must be the same energy in everything around us – an energy that pervades and binds together the whole cosmos.
The name they gave this universal energy was qi, and it informs the underlying principles of tai chi and qigong. We’re born with a certain store of qi that we inherit from our parents: this is called Yuan Qi, and we can conserve it, but not replenish it. So, unfortunately, no matter how much tai chi and qigong we do, none of us will live forever – our Yuan Qi will eventually run out! In Traditional Chinese Medicine, this explains why some diseases are inherited, or why some people have a stronger constitution than others.
But there’s another kind of qi that we do have control over: Acquired Qi. We get Gu Qi from the food we eat – we all know that a diet based on fresh, unprocessed food will give us much more energy than one based on junk food. Kong Qi comes from the air we breathe, and the way we breathe it: spend a few minutes on deep breathing, and see if you notice an effect on your energy. The Gu and Kong Qi mix in the chest, and then combine with the Yuan Qi to form True Qi. This has a yin and a yang aspect: the yin aspect is called Nutritive Qi, and it flows through the meridians and nourishes the organs, and the yang aspect is called Defensive Qi. It goes to the surface of the body to warm it and forms a protective barrier against illnesses like colds.
If any of this sounds familiar to science fiction fans – it should. George Lucas based the Force in his Star Wars movies on qi!
Tai chi is what’s known as an internal martial art, which means that it focuses on building up qi rather than building up physiological strength. The idea is to strengthen the qi first, and then focus on the martial applications second. This is why tai chi incorporates qigong exercises. Quigong literally means “cultivation of qi”. The rhythmic breathing takes in extra Kong Qi, and the mental focus and physical movements get sluggish or blocked qi flowing again.
This is the reason that tai chi and qigong are considered to be such good practices for health and energy, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, they nourish our bodies with the energy of the cosmos.
© Sorcha Hegarty, 2013