Thursday, January 18, 2007

All About Qi

We usually translate the word qi (pronounced "chee") as "vital breath," or "life energy," or "subtle energy," or even "spirit" which is an association with the Latin-derived words for breathing such as respiration, inspire and expire (literally in-breathe and out-breathe). Almost every culture on Earth symbolically associates Life Energy with Air and Breathing which, of course, makes a lot of sense since breathing is the number-one requirement for human life.

The character for the word Qi even shows us the air we need to breathe. There are two components to the character, and I have colored the lower part red to distinguish it from the upper. The part in red represents grains cooking, and the part in black represents steam, i.e. visible air rising from the cooking pot. When you think about it, this character shows us all the things we need to take in for survival: air (as the rising steam), water (there must be water in the pot to cook the grain, otherwise there would be no steam), and food (the grain itself).

"Vital breath" is only one small part of the complex meaning of the word qi; it actually represents several types of energy in your human system. A practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine is familiar with all the different types of qi, and in fact, knows that some types of qi are actually derived from other types of qi!

Unless you are studying TCM, you probably don't need to go into such depth about qi. However, it is to your advantage to be aware of the two main types, often called Congenital Qi and Acquired Qi, and how they work.

Congenital Qi can be compared to the energy of your DNA, your genetic makeup, that which you inherited from your parents. Congenital qi cannot be replenished; whatever you are born with, is what you have. However, it can be supported by Acquired Qi and I will talk about how that works in a moment. Congenital qi is your constitution, your growth and development energy. For example, are you robust or weak? Big and tall or short and small? Are you at risk for certain hereditary illnesses? Are there family tendencies to be overweight or underweight, to develop arthritis or osteoporosis, to be short-tempered or have the patience of a saint? All these are manifestations of the energy of your Congenital Qi.

Acquired Qi is that energy you "acquire" (hence the name) after you are born. It is the energy you receive from food, drink, and air. It is the energy of the interactions of your internal organs with the nourishment you provide. You may provide lots of food and drink, but if it's all junk food and soda pop or alcohol, the nourishment of your body will be minimal, and you may outright harm yourself. Poor nourishment equals poor energy.

Acquired qi is also the energy of the interactions of the internal organs with each other. If you poorly nourish your arteries with trans-fats, that affects your circulation which affects the function of your lungs, your liver, your kidneys, and eventually every system in your body. You are not a machine in which a breakdown in one system or function can be isolated and dealt with like an exhaust system on a car, or the monitor of a computer. All your functions are interrelated and interdependent. You do yourself a grave disservice to try to separate them and treat one symptom or illness without regard to how that symptom or illness has affected the rest of the system, and how the treatment will affect the complete system, too.

The good news is that everything you do to properly nourish and support one system will also aid the health and wellbeing of every other system. If you nourish your heart, there will be less stress on your lungs, so your lung function will improve and more carbon dioxide will be released, too. If you eat healthy foods, you won't suffer indigestion so often (in fact, it may go away altogether!), and your liver won't be overburdened with toxins from the effects of poor digestion.

The best news is that acquired qi, when used properly and effectively, can offset poor congenital qi. You are emphatically not doomed to develop the health problems you may have inherited from your ancestors, you can get healthy and stay healthy without resorting to any extraordinary methods by taking responsibility for your life and lifestyle, making sure all facets of your life from physical to mental to emotional to spiritual are properly nourished and nurtured.

The guiding principle in working with health and qi is interaction, and interconnection. As the concept of qi was developing, it came to be understood not just as a single entity like "life force" or "vital energy," but as a process that connects everything in the universe.

In his book The Web That Has No Weaver, (McGraw-Hill, 2000) Ted Kaptchuk, O.M.D. says: (p. 69) Perhaps the best single statement concerning Qi that summarizes the sense that Chinese history has conferred on the concept appears in Tu Wei-Ming's writings: All modalities of being, from a rock to heaven, are integral parts of a continuum (ta hua). Since nothing is outside of this continuum, the chain of being is never broken. A linkage will always be found between any given pair of things in the universe. . . .The continuous presence of Qi in all modalities of being makes everything flow together as the unfolding of a single process. Nothing, not even an almighty creator, is external to this process.

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