Wayfarer Magazine, 2001
Qi is a widely used word in China that has many meanings. The traditional Chinese character 氣 for qi is very old and the ancient meaning was grain offered to guests. It is easy to see from the meaning of the elements (radicals) of the character.
The inner radical with the crossed lines and small lines in the diagonals means rice. The covering line that moves from horizontal to a downward arc represents a lid covering a pot. The lines above the lid represents steam coming from under the lid.
Basically, qi means energy and in terms of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, it commonly refers to intrinsic energy that flows through the body, often in association with the flow of blood. Everyone has qi. When they die, it leaves the body. There is Yin qi and Yang qi. In general terms, qi is often referred to as air, gas and vapor, or the breath. It can also mean spirit, character or influence, and bearing. When a person has a certain style in what they do, it is said they have a particular kind of qi. An artist is said to express a certain kind of qi in his work.
There are many different kinds of qi. We are born with what is called original qi, which we get from our parents. This is the qi that resides primarily in our dantian. The qi that we accumulate during our daily life comes from the air we breath and food we eat. It is said to be cultivated qi.
Since the original qi tends to be used up, it is important to replenish it. This can be done with breathing exercises such as qigong, meditation, and T’ai Chi Ch’uan. In T’ai Chi Ch’uan, some of the goals are to increase the amount of qi, to improve the quality of qi, and to endure that is flows freely and is not blocked. The goal is also to achieve a balanced Yin and Yang qi.
Qi can be experienced in many ways. Most commonly, it is through warmth in the hands and feet or an itchy feeling in the hands. At different times in one’s practice, it is felt in different ways. But the goal in T’ai Chi Ch’uan is not to feel the qi, but to make sure it is not blocked and to be able to direct it by one’s intention. It is commonly said that one should sink the qi to the dantian, which is an energy center in the lower abdomen. One of the reasons for this is so the energy cannot get stuck in the upper torso or the head.
Because of the need to deal with intellectual and emotional problems in daily-life, the qi rises to the head and does not circulate freely through the rest of the body. This causes an imbalance that can produce fatigue, anger, depression, and conflict.
Sinking the qi helps to reassert the healthy flow of qi through the meridians, or pathways, which are the basis for acupuncture. In T’ai Chi Ch’uan, one of the goals is to gather the qi in the dantian and distribute it throughout the body in practice as well as in daily life.
At higher levels, qi is transmuted into shen, or spirit. And for health and in the martial arts, it produces jin, or internal strength. Qi, itself, is said to come from jing, or the generative energy. Together the jing, qi, and shen are referred to as the Three Treasures.
The process of working with qi involves a mindfulness that helps to amplify the qi and the development of intention that can guide your effort and the qi itself.