classes     taijiquan     baguazhang     self defence     qigong     about us     reviews     a-z

What is qi?

Qi (pronounced 'chee') refers to energy/breath.
People usually think of qi as being life force, life energy.
The Wade-Giles spelling is 'chi'. The Pinyin spelling is qi.

Science vs folklore/mysticism

The difficulty with the whole subject of qi is that it is very controversial.
Does qi exist?
Can you scientifically/medically prove it?
Is it possible to improve qi flow?
What precisely were the Ancient Chinese referring to?


Qi is akin to a belief system.
Rather than rely on genuine scientific facts, people immediately resort to superstition and speculation.
This is incredibly lazy.
It is far more honest to simply say that when it comes to qi you don't know for sure.

They muddy the water, to make it seem deep.

(Friedrich Nietzsche)

A catch all

As a concept, qi is very convenient.
If a qigong or tai chi teacher lacks concrete knowledge it is very easy to give the credit to qi.
After all, you cannot easily prove them wrong.
Nor can you prove them correct...


There are three kinds of energy that can be explored with certainty and conviction:

  1. Do you personally feel tired or energised? 

  2. Trapped energy

  3. Kinetic (movement) energy

Energy levels

The first consideration needs to be energy levels.
This is about whether you feel fatigued, tired or vigorous.
Some activities leave you feeling wiped out, whilst others don't.
People can also drain you; with negative emotions and being needy/demanding.

Energy deficit

Modern life saps energy.
People are often exhausted, unhappy, frustrated...
They are frequently emotionally, physically and psychologically unbalanced.
Feeling drained is commonplace. Getting angry is normal.
This is not a healthy way to live...


A lot of things can make you feel drained:

- bad poise/posture putting the body under duress
- not being moderate; doing too much
- failure to rest, relax, stop
- time management/commitments, personal life, work
- strong stretching, exaggeration, over-commitment, disconnected movement and exertion are all physically taxing; wasting energy
- tensing the muscles e.g. body building, being sedentary, being uptight

Faux energy

Sugar, caffeine, energy drinks, alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, sweets, over-stimulation, over-activity, loud music, TV, distractions... these all provide bad energy.
Why is it bad?
Some of these energy sources affect your mind and your emotions, whilst others provide a short-term gain which costs you in the future.


Many people are essentially borrowing energy from the future just to get by.
None of the faux energy sources affect your life in a good way.
Over time you start to look old and feel really strung out.


When tired, rest.
Eating food or taking stimulants to stay active and alert is unhealthy.
Seeking activity is unwise.
Just stop and rest. Your body needs to stop. It needs to repair, recover and grow.

Trapped energy

If you took a towel and twisted it very tightly; the towel would contain stored energy for as long as you held it.
Like a loaded spring...
When the towel is released, it will unfurl; producing kinetic energy.


Our muscles operate in a similar way to the towel...
An inefficient muscle holds trapped energy because it is tense and weak.
Relaxing the muscle releases that energy.
But this has nothing to do with qi.

Kinetic energy

The other kind of energy is more to do with physics.
It involves the storage and release of 'kinetic' energy - movement energy.
Like a rock launched from a catapult or an arrow launched from a bow...
Taijiquan uses kinetic energy in combat.

Spend your time wisely

Rather than spend time fantasising about qi, why not work with tangible matters:

  1. Balance

  2. Posture

  3. Poise

  4. Ergonomics

  5. Healthy joints use

  6. Flexibility

  7. Healthy skeletal alignment

  8. Optimal body use

  9. How your muscles work

  10. Coordination

  11. Timing

  12. How and why to relax your body

  13. Balanced use of the body

  14. Proprioception (relative position of body parts/awareness of how much strength is being applied)

  15. Rhythm

  16. Mind/body unity

  17. Leverage

  18. Kinaesthetic awareness (knowing where your limbs are positioned without needing to look)

  19. Biomechanics

  20. Footwork

  21. Biofeedback

  22. Ambidextrous use of the limbs

  23. Gait (manner of walking)


Qigong and tai chi were designed to release stored muscle tension, improve circulation and make you feel great.
The movements certainly produce concrete results.
You have a provable increase in strength, vitality and resilience.
You feel more relaxed and calm.
Is this qi? If you say so.

The whole notion of qi as energy is controversial. It stems from Georges Soulie De Morant a foreign diplomat in the early 20th Century who provided some of the first translations of Chinese Medicine classics for the West. It was he who translated 'qi' as energy (having a pre-existing bias from studying Ayurveda where prana is seens as an invisible life force. Thus he believed qi was a synonymous term) and he translated 'mai' as meridian, an invisible pathway carrying invisible life force energy. Therefore, this dominated Western ideas of how acupuncture and other Eastern practices and techniques work.

The 'energy' model can be convincingly critiqued much to the discomfort of those invested in it. Joseph Needham and other scholars of the Chinese language state there is no legitimate reason to translate qi as energy. Rather, broadly speaking, it can more accurately mean the function of something or a concept of a vital essence in air - i.e. oxygen. In Chinese Medicine terms, for example, acupuncture can be explained by existing physiology, of which the ancient Chinese had an impressive understanding. The Chinese Medical model of health is having nutrient rich (ying qi), oxygen rich (qi) blood flowing unimpeded throughout the body. Acupuncture needles facilitate this through interactions with existing physiology - nerves and blood vessels. Those invisible meridians (the mai) are explicitly stated in the classics to be measurable and even visible around the ankle (doesn't sound like an invisible energetic pathway, does it?).

A better understanding that does justice to our Chinese predecessors' understanding of the body is a complex longitudinal arrangement of blood vessels and the muscles and organs they serve. Just calling the effects of acupuncture a result of interactions with an invisible force prevents its integration into mainstream medicine and hampers the development and understanding of the practice. Now I suspect similar ideas have filtered into Tai Chi.

In fact, Donald Kendall (author of the Dao of Chinese Medicine, who has clearly explained the above concepts) even states how the distortions of original Chinese theories by westerners have later been mistakenly taken up by the Chinese. As far as I am aware much of tai chi can be explained by a proper understanding of physics and physiology. I am not ruling out the existence of subtle energies etc as it would be foolish to think we understand all aspects of being. But until one comes across a phenomenon that requires looking to esoteric explanations because physiology and physics fall short, then why do so?

There is much to be gained in furthering both Tai Chi and acupuncture practice and application by utilising the vast gains in knowledge modern science has provided and using them to see just how advanced and elegant the systems our ancestors created were. If anyone is qualified to state whether there is evidence for energetic aspects of Tai Chi practice it would be Sifu Waller and if he has found evidence for this I would be very interested in anything he has to say about it.

(Rob Veater)

Page created 3 March 1994
Last updated 21 April 2017