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Q is for Qi

Updated: Sep 21, 2022

Most major cultural traditions recognise a vital energy that guides a person’s physical and mental processes.

Chinese philosophy calls this vital energy qi and describes it as the body’s innate intelligence — the intangible yet measurable way we maintain what’s known as homeostasis, or the body’s ability to regulate its internal environment to create good health,” Jill Blakeway.

Qi is in a state of continuous flux, transforming endlessly from one aspect of qi into another. It is neither created nor is it ever destroyed; it simply changes in its manifestation.

Western medicine is mostly concerned with the physical structures of the body, but Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), sees the body as a whole entity with connecting parts (some more energetic, some more material) that work together to sustain life.

The interaction between the different parts is vital to the individual's being so they are often referred to as ‘fundamental substances’.

Qi (also known as chi) is usually translated as “vital energy or life force that flows within us,” but according to Chinese Philosophy, qi goes beyond that; it is described as the force that makes up and binds together all things in the universe. It is a paradox; both everything and nothing.

Qi or Chi is the energy current that runs through our bodies, providing us with circulation, nutrients, and minerals that we need to be whole.”

Taz Bhatia

Both the terms chi and qi have been used to describe this force within but they vary slightly based on its cultural origin and usage. In (TCM), the concept of qi has two main branches.

The Chinese character for "qi" is the same word used for air or gas, and it is thought to have the same properties as these substances. Qi is more often used in the context of restoring balance and nourishment to the physical i.e. those things we take in and make a part of us via the air, water, and food whereas chi is more insubstantial and refers more to the vital fluids and the energy itself that flows through our bodies. Chi refers to what has already become part of us and is then released to continue the cycle of life.

The Chinese viewed qi as both an essential energy unit that could be obtained from food, but also a gas or pressure that promotes movement in the body.” Jason Wells

According to TCM, qi (气) is everywhere and is found in different forms e.g. as the duality of yin qi (阴气) and yang qi (阳气) and in the form of the trinity which includes the qi human. Qi can be from the earth (Yin), heavens (Yang) or human (the union of the sky and earth).

The balance and flow of this life energy or qi in the body depends on the environment and what happens to the body. It is the imbalances and interruptions of this flowing force that are thought to be responsible for most human ailments whether physical, mental, or emotional. According to TCM, injury, suffering and lack of proper nutrition causes a qi deficiency 气虚 (qìxū).

Blockages of qi, deficiencies of qi, [and] too much qi are what cause illness. What we do with acupuncture, herbs, and all of Chinese medicine is we try to line up qi.” Greg Sperber

Although I could find no scientific evidence in my limited research for practices involving qi (apart from a lot of common sense) the core belief of TCM (中医, zhōng yī, /jong ee/) is about the yin-yang (阴阳, yīnyáng) or qi balance in the body and its organs. Everything is a balance of yin and yang.

Yin 阴is described as the female portion of qi that is cold, passive, solid, heavy, descending, moist, dark and formless; it is the physical or brute side of the universe. Yang 阳 by contrast is male, light and ethereal. It is nebulous, hot, active, dry, rising and aggressive.

Yin and yang do not exist outside of each other, but rather, that they reside within each other and are interdependent. Form (yin) needs a function (yang).The aim is to keep them in proper balance and it is this balance that defines and creates good health and emotions. According to TCM, females have more yin qi, and males have more yang qi, and as people age, both they lose qi.

The spleen is a small organ that is part of the immune system and helps filter blood but it is possible for people to live without it and in western medicine it is considered a non-vital organ. TCM practitioners, in contrast, believe that a qi deficiency is linked to the spleen (and the stomach) which is central to digestion and is considered a vital organ. The spleen is said to extract qi from all the foods we eat and deliver it to the rest of the body so when a qi deficiency is suspected, TCM practitioners often look to treat the spleen first prescribing rest and eating certain foods to treat the imbalance.

A 2015 study published in the Journal of Traditional Chinese Medical Sciences uses five signs and symptoms to diagnose a qi deficiency:

Fatigue, shortness of breath or no desire to talk, spontaneous sweating

a swollen tongue with teeth marks on the side and a weak pulse.

The study also outlines a range of possible factors that can lead to a qi deficiency including aging, chronic medical diseases but may also be a result from using too much qi in daily life. According to TCM, leading a stressful life with little downtime may quickly drain the body of vital energy, making a person more susceptible to qi deficiency and the illnesses that follow.

TCM practitioners recommend eating certain foods that are good for the spleen to rebalance qi including:

· fermented foods for digestive health, including sauerkraut, kimchi, and kefir,

· healthy, energizing fats, such as olive oil, salmon, coconut oil, and avocados,

· a wide variety of lightly cooked fruits, vegetables, and nuts

· adaptogenic herbs, such as ginseng, (though this should be taken under the guidance of a healthcare practitioner)

Foods that are good for spleen-qi include yang tonic foods and qi-circulating foods because according to TCM, these foods might warm the spleen and increase energy flow to the body.

Recommended foods to eat for spleen-qi include: lentils, quinoa, oats, malted grain beverages, root vegetables including sweet potato and taro, pumpkin and other squash, miso soup, orange peels and mustard leaf

Foods to avoid for spleen-qi include: refined sugar and grains, fried or salty foods, iced or refrigerated foods or drinks, dairy products, citrus fruits, pork, yeasty foods, such as beer or dough and bananas

Qi is further classified according to its type. The four types are parental or inborn qi, pectoral qi, nutritive qi and protective qi.

Parental/Inborn Qi: Our parental or yuan qi is the qi that is inherited from our parents at conception and is considered the most original, essential and vital type found in the human body. After conception occurs, parental qi is stored in the kidneys and is then further nourished by "acquired essence" (food essence derived from digestion) of the spleen and stomach. After this process is complete, parental qi travels to the entire body.

Pectoral Qi: Pectoral or zong qi is qi that is produced by breathing and is stored in the chest area it penetrates the blood vessels of the heart and lungs and moves outward when you exhale and inward during inspiration. Pectoral qi is formed by combining fresh air inhaled by the lungs and food essence derived from the spleen and stomach. By flowing through the respiratory tract, pectoral qi supports the breathing function of the lungs and affects how loud the voice can be. Its ability to flow through the blood vessels and the heart is important in regulating the heartbeat and supporting the circulation of other types of qi and blood. Pectoral qi also plays a role in keeping the body warm and influences the activities of the limbs.

Nutritional Qi: Nutritional or ying qi is derived from eating foods and is responsible for the circulation of nutrition throughout the body. It mainly circulates through the blood vessels with the blood. Sometimes this combination of nutritive qi and blood is referred to collectively as "nutritive blood". Nutritive qi mainly comes from food essence derived by the spleen and stomach's transformation and transportation properties. Nutritive qi has yin properties so it can form into materials needed by other parts of the body eg to produce new blood. Nutritive qi also provides the needed nutrients to support the physiological functions of the organs.

Protective/Defensive Qi: Protective or wei qi is responsible for protecting the body from environmental factors that cause illnesses. It is the yang of nutritional qi, meaning that it is also derived from eating foods, but serves a different purpose. This qi functions like the immune system, preventing disease from occurring or spreading. Unlike nutritive qi, protective qi has yang properties, because it has more functional characteristics. Protective qi also comes from the food essence derived by the spleen and stomach. It moves outside the blood vessels and circulates in different areas from nutritive qi. Internally, it will be distributed to the diaphragm and scattered around the chest and abdominal cavities. Externally, it moves between the skin and muscles providing protection. Protective qi not only guards against illness and disease but also regulates the sweat glands and pores and provides nourishment for the skin, hair and muscles. Although nutritive and protective qi share the same origin, their flow directions, are opposite to one another. By balancing their nutritive (yin) and protective (yang) functions, healthy sweating, temperature control and defence functions are maintained.

Each of the vital substances has Five Cardinal Functions:

Actuation (Responsible for maintaining the vital life energy that is necessary for the body to grow and develop properly. This includes all the body’s functions, such as the Zang-fu organs, meridians, and Xue (Blood).)

Warming (Helping to produce heat and regulating body temperature for normal functions to occur)

Defense (Defending the body against external elements, such as pathogens and environmental factors that can cause illness.

Containment (Responsible for ensuring that the body’s organs and fluids are kept in their proper places e.g. regulating blood flow within the vessels regulating Jinye (body fluids-sweat, saliva, etc.) making sure that only the proper amount is allowed to leave the body.)

And finally Transformation (Transforming nutrition and air into different subsets of qi, such as blood.) (Extracted and adapted from Am college blog)

Although this post is packed with information I feel that I have only just scratched the surface of getting my head around this subject. If anyone is a practitioner of TCM or practises Qigong please do contribute and help expand our understanding of this subject.

One area that I definitely want to investigate further is the concept of the TCM body clock which sets out the best times of day to eat, sleep, work and relax based on the organs of the body and when, for each organ allocated to a two hour period, qi is at its peak. I suspect that there might be some crossovers with my previous post of Kairos time and could help with planning a ‘perfect’ day not only aligned with our values but our energies. Leaving aside the old saying ‘The best laid plans....’ wouldn’t we be on fire if we were able to achieve this?!

The second area of further interest for me is to do with the type of foods recommended and which foods are best eaten at different times of the day according to TCM

I am quite content to think of qi as a complex and beautiful metaphor. The Chinese may even never have intended qi to be more than a metaphor, albeit a potent one: “just” poetic imagery that expresses the essence of the miracle of life and the vivid sensations that make it up. To live is a miracle; to live well, to be full of life and to live in balance and harmony, is a beautiful miracle — a miracle full of qi. Perhaps the idea of qi is a condensed, Taoist way of saying “I am more than the sum of my parts.” Paul Ingraham

Some questions to think about/or discuss below:

Have you come across qi? and what is your understanding of it?

Do you structure any/all parts of your day according to TCM?

Do you use any practices that are based on qi?

If you want to reflect more on this subject, here are some links to get you started:

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