A Letter about Qi 氣功
I received a very well thought out letter today and did my best to respond to the writers questions. Since it deals with many subjects about internal training, especially Qi, I thought I would publish an excerpt from my response in the hopes it might be of use to other practitioners.
Thank you for writing me, I am always happy to help when and where I can when time permits. Your letter really makes me feel like you are questing for real understanding and that is something I not only recognize and respect, but if I am a little farther along the path than you; it makes me want to help. So I will do my best here to do so and tackle your questions.
“Almost every book on tai chi talks about the importance of leading the chi with your intention. Do you believe in chi (I get the impression from your videos you don’t believe in it in the exact sense that most people refer to widely)? Honestly, I wanted to believe. It sounded great, but now I believe in it as more of a bioelectric energy and not something that can be directed with our minds, but that may just be a reflection of my limited experience.
If chi doesn’t exist as a controllable force, what is the point of qigong and how does it improve your tai chi/kung fu/health?”
Well, straight to the heart of the internal/qi debate then! I will do my best to be clear here as I think there is far too much obscurity when it comes to this topic and that is why people have such a hard time with it. I felt exactly the same way for years and would go back and forth from the mystical side of thinking to the very pragmatic scientific side of the whole affair as well. I like to think of myself as a hopeful skeptic, I would love to see the magical no touch throws and such done and be real. But they would have to be done on me, proven to me through my own experience with them. So far this has gotten me, in my opinion, a decent handle on it.
The phrase “Yi Ling Qi” the mind leads the qi is referring to your intention causing change of some sort. In lower level qigong training this is generally a psychological change creating a physiological response. For example changing your mind to a subject that makes you very angry will raise your heart rate and body temperature. The mind affects the body.
It is this example I will use to define qi, which I prefer to define with the word “relationship” rather than “energy” or “the force” or what have you. Qi Gong literally translates as skilled work on relationships. So is qi a controllable force? Yes and No. Yes you can change your relationship to almost anything through concentrated effort. Posture for instance is the relationships in your body working together to maximize your entire body’s relationship to gravity. Not fighting it and letting the structure of your body do the work rather than only a certain set of musculature for example. This is something that translates directly to something like push hands where gravity is replaced with an opponent’s oncoming force and your relationship to it. Do you fight it or let your body and its skeletal structure funnel that force to the ground allowing you to remain relatively relaxed, loose and not work too hard with large muscle groups.
In this way something like standing qigong practice which gives you the opportunity to study each individual relationship in the body closely while standing, corrects posture and imbalance in the way you carry or distribute your weight under the force of gravity. For example when standing asking yourself questions like “What is the relationship between my hips and ankles? Are my knees directly in line and transferring weight from my torso to the floor or am I out of alignment and injuring my knee?” “Are my ears above my shoulders? Is my neck actually straight or am I leaning my head forward causing my whole neck and upper back to engage in unnecessary work?” and the like. There is a huge checklist for standing training that corrects the posture and the relationships in the body. This will of course affect your health in a positive way over time. Good posture means no hunched over back when you get old, less chance of knee injury, less chance of neck injury and so on. It also frees up the muscularity of the body that was once simply being used to stand for work. In the case of martial arts this means you have more potential power and movement as a result of training qigong.
That is the first level of qigong training where standing still in postures or doing slow movements allows you to study these relationships carefully and fix errors in them. From a pure health qigong point of view as well the movements are crafted to change very specific relationships in the body. So for a general health qigong like the eight pieces of brocade for instance doing the movements is good for you, moving is good for the health. But doing the movements only ten percent correctly will give ten percent benefit and that is where all the training and detail a good teacher will give you is needed and useful. There is a huge difference between reaching above your head with your hands and putting the entire length of your spine into traction through use of the stabilizer muscles of the back when it comes to benefits.
The next level of training is dealing with relationships between you and the universe; actually learning to be present in this space at this time. An example of this would be standing training but asking yourself the questions that show your relationship to the outside world rather than your inside physiology. “What is the temperature in this room? Is it slightly cool, warm, is the air moving?” “What is the quality of the light here where I am? Is it more red or yellow? Bright or dim?” These kinds of questions and study of relationships make you far more present in your reality. It brings you to the present moment and concentrates the mind on the here and now. In Buddhist language it would be called a study of mindfulness, a type of meditation. This has the health benefits of relieving stress and it is stress hormones that compromise the immune system heavily. Another example would be listening qigong which is where you stand and listen and define what you hear. “Is that bird song close or far away? Can I hear the air moving in this room? Can I hear my neighbors? Can I hear my own heart?” Becoming present and living in the present moment removes thoughts that create anxiety (future) or depression (past) for example.
So is Qi an energetic force as people describe it or not?
The difficult thing about qigong training and the more mystical side of it, in my experience is this. The answer is paradoxical. The relationship between my body and my mind is magical and electrical and chemical. The part of me that is “I” is the sum total of a great many relationships all working in order for me to have consciousness and that is amazing to consider. Is it a magical energy type of thing that can be controlled by the mind or affect other people? Of course it is. Have you ever felt someone look at you from across a room? We all have had that feeling and then connection as you meet eyes. That is a result of a relationship between two human beings, the qi of the room and the two of you if you will. Have you ever experienced being intimidated or intimidated someone through simply having ill intentions in your mind? How can what someone thinks affect someone who is nearby? Of course it is body language, pheromones and the like but take that science knowledge away and you have a magical experience that is part of being human. The Chinese of the past had no knowledge or language to describe the science of this, so it was Qi and it still is. Fighters still stare each other down before a match and decorate their bodies with tattoos that are meant to intimidate, that change the qi between them and their opponent.
Higher level martial artists use all this training to train themselves to be more efficient and powerful both before and after they touch their opponent. Making the opponent uncomfortable through posturing, movements and shapes and even thoughts before contact and lining up their joints to deliver or receive force and so on after touching them. For example there is a huge difference between the feeling of an opponent putting you in an arm bar in a sparring match and a serial killer putting you in an arm bar while on his way to murdering you. Same movement, same technique, different qi.
Before I pontificate a book about this I will add only one more thing to this subject. “Leading the Qi with the mind is the warning label on the bottle, not the instructions. “ – My Gongfu Brother Kevin Wallbridge.
Kevin is right, what you think you will be affected by and so moving mystical energy around your body by the power of your mind will give you the sensations that it is happening. You will change your body temperature; your nervous system will react to it and so on. So you should be careful what you wish for and train. In Chinese Medicine there are many types of qigong sicknesses and they inevitably stem from magical thinking. What you train is what you will become so be careful what you train. Detailed instruction and down to earth information, in my opinion, is the key to good successful internal practice of any kind.
My advice- Qigong is a process of study and observation. Not a practice of “moving qi”.