Qi is foundational in the theory and practice of Chinese medicine. Qi as a concept is generally accepted in East-Asian cultures, but in the West is often negated or ignored, leading to misunderstandings about the validity of Chinese medicine.
Qi is usually described as “energy”, an invisible force that exists in all of nature. Chinese medicine theory tells us that qi travels along channels that connect all parts of the body and disease is the result of the qi being blocked, deficient, or otherwise imbalanced. The use of acupuncture needles or other stimulation at responsive points along the channels rebalances the qi and restores health.
There are a few keys for a deeper understanding of qi and a better appreciation of the sophistication and insight of ancient Chinese medicine.
Qi is movement and functionality
Life is movement, everything in our bodies from our heart beat and blood flow, to the delicate balancing of hormones and cellular respiration, is a constant dance of movement.
Functionality in the body is always related to physiological movement on some level. The exchange of ions that generate nerve signals, muscle contraction and relaxation, fluid regulation, blood and lymph circulation, the processes of digestion and so on, are all movement.
Qi is invisible because it is the actual activity and function of everything working together in a healthy human person. Qi is the natural movement of our life processes and we cannot see it because it is a description of the healthy functioning of our very lives. When the qi is blocked, when our cells, biochemicals, or organs are in a state of pathology then we have disease and illness.
Modern Western medicine is based on the ancient Greek worldview which emphasized structure and form. We see this in the beauty of Greek art with its perfection of visible structures of the human body. The modern system of medicine that we now have was based on the body structures found in a dissected cadavers and an attempt to understand all of health and life from physical, inert forms. As the medicine developed into modern allopathic medicine the focus stayed on structure, the keys to health being sought through reductionism instead of holism.
Chinese medicine is based on the ancient Eastern worldview of movement and flow. The Chinese model is based on observable function in a living person, within the context of nature, making it a holistic system of medicine. The acupuncture illustration is depicting life and dynamic movement, something time-based in the human body, not static.
The wonderful illustration above from The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine by Shigehisa Kuriyama shows the difference between the body as structure and function.
Modern Western medicine divides biological systems into discrete functions based on structures.
The basic systems of the body from a Western perspective are musculoskeletal, nervous, integumentary, reproductive, urinary, digestive, endocrine, cardiovascular, respiratory, and lymphatic. Psychological and behavioral functions are considered somewhat separate, unless there is psychological pathology and neurological drugs are brought in.
An integrative discipline called psychoneuroendocrinoimmunology is a Western medical study of how human psychology, neurology, endocrine, and immune systems interact and effect one another. This is a a limited holistic outlook based on a reductionist model, trying to reintegrate systems that are already divided.
Chinese medicine, developed thousands of years ago, started with the philosophy of holism of the body, community, nature, and spirit.
Chinese medicine uses qi to describe the natural confluence among all the systems, including the psychological state, the shen or heart-mind. In Chinese medicine, if the qi is flowing properly then everything is in working physiological and psychological order. If one of the systems is injured or blocked then it naturally effects several other systems simultaneously.
As a simple example is a severe injury to a limb that effects what the Western model would consider 5 different systems: nervous, musculoskeletal, lymphatic, circulatory, and integumentary, the injury causes lack of function in all these areas.
From a qi-based model the pathology is in the channel of functionality, causing pain and lack of flow of qi i.e. lymph, blood, correct nerve signaling, and movement. Stimulating responsive points in the area or in another area to release blockages in the fascia will resolve the issue.
The treatment approach of unblocking the qi with acupuncture, massage, or herbal medicine simply returns the musculoskeletal structure, blood flow, nerves, and lymph flow to proper functioning. Qi in this case is an elegant shorthand for describing the function or lack thereof of several body systems.
Pathology on deeper levels can effect the hormones, immune system, digestion, the psychological state etc, which is still a pathology of qi – a disruption of physiological function– in these interdependent systems.
Qi travels along the fascial planes, which connect limbs and organs
Fascia is the great ignored organ of the human body. Fascia is a gossamer-thin yet strong and impervious connective tissue that wraps every muscle, bone, and organ.
Fascia layers in between the muscle cells and binds the body together. It also creates important compartments on the body between the organs and different muscles. Fascia connects and creates boundaries and without it the body would not be able to function.
The purpose of fascia is difficult to appreciate from a structural perspective based in cadaver dissection. Early anatomist would have to cut through all this web-like material in the cadaver to get to the muscles, bones, and organs. Most of modern Western medicine anatomy is based on the information from cadavers, not living, breathing, moving, people. The role of fascia was minimized until a more recent interest in the Western medical community rediscovered its importance.
Daniel Keown in The Spark in the Machine: How the Science of Acupuncture Explains the Mysteries of Western Medicine attributes the mysterious triple burner (san jiao) organ of Chinese medicine to the fascia. In an important Chinese medicine text, the Huang Di Nei Jing, the triple burner is said to have “name but no form”. The triple burner will be a topic for a future post, but for now we can posit that the fascia is an organ with many specific functions, and has been overlooked in Western medicine, but helps to explain acupuncture channel theory and qi.
Fascia physically connects organs and limbs. The fascial planes often line up exactly with acupuncture channels, at both superficial and deep levels. This is one way of understanding why stimulating a point on the arm can effect lung function.
Fascia is composed of collagen, which is piezoelectric, meaning it generates an electric charge with mechanical stress. Our bodies have mechanical stress all the time from gravity, not to mention movement and exercise, and the electrical charge generated through the collagen keeps bones strong because the charge signals osteoblasts to lay down more fibers on the bones.
According to Daniel Keown we can see the absence of this in astronauts in space, who lacking the mechanical stress of gravity, lose at least 1 percent of their bone mass per month, even with vigorous exercise.
This is all to say that the body has an innate electrical charge which has vital properties, and travels along lines of the fascia, mirrored in the acupuncture channels.
Qi is electricity, the life force of our body
The picture above uses Kirlian photography to capture the electrical energy of a living flower. Electricity can also be defined as energy, or a type of energy, which is matter in movement. The famous axiom E=MC2 is a way to express that qi is everything (matter) in movement.
Qi is the movement and function of the piezoelectric charge that runs along the fascia, as well as the motor and sensory nerve signals, the autonomic signals that keep our heart beating, the blood flowing in the vessels, the release of hormones from glands, the balance of fluids in the body, the metabolism of cells etc. etc.
Electricity is invisible but we know it exists by its effects. Qi is invisible and will never be found in a cadaver, but we know it exists because of its effects. Electricity has healing and regenerative properties, and modern hospitals use special machines that induce piezoelectricity to help heal bones.
Qi is intelligent and works within a model of universal order
Qi is an intelligent force within the body that creates order, organization, healing, and proper function. The organization and development of a living human from two cells in only nine months is still the great mystery of embryology.
Qi reminds us that our bodies function is a holistic system that cannot be divided up to be healed. We are a part of nature, and we are all connected through a shared life force, and none of this is an accident. It is no surprise then that the best way to achieve health is with good nutrition, moving and exercising every day, appreciating nature, and honoring our community. The qi will do the rest.