The Chinese word Qi has been around for a while, earlier spelled as Chi. Spelling Chinese words in our 26 letter alphabet is called ‘Romanizing.’ There have been several schools of Romanizing, such as the older western Wade-Giles school which gave ‘Chi’ versus the newer, Chinese taught system called Pin Yin, which gave rise to Qi. Despite the strangeness of the Q with no U after it, the Pin Yin system is overall the most sensible, and there are only a few rules to remember until you can pronounce virtually any Chinese Pin Yin word. Qi sounds like ‘Cheese’ without the ‘s.’ In Pin Yin, the letters C-H-I are pronounced like the Chir in Chirp, which is a different phoneme than Qi. The R at the end is lightly to heavily added based on regional dialect. Here is what the character looks like:
The inner part of the character is rice:
The rest of the character Qi is said to represent the lid of a cookpot bouncing as the steam/vapor escapes. This is why in modern Chinese, the word Qi is used as the general word for ‘gas’ such as “Nitrogen Qi,” “Oxygen Qi,” and even Mei Qi for “Coal Gas.”
With a the water radical, the top of the character becomes ‘steam.’
There is additional thought that the food/grain reference in the character also refers to a nutritional vital source, but the steam/vapor/gas from the cookpot is the main theme.
Qi is also translated as breath in the Chinese dictionary, so this is not a stretch at all linguistically. However, there are several different types of Qi according to traditional Chinese medical theory, and I’m not trying to reduce all Qi contexts to breathing oxygen. In understanding it’s role in Qi Gong, however, it’s primary useful translation is ‘breath.’
The word Prana in Sanskrit is also used for vital energy and specifically breath. Prana is found in air, in the blood, and circulates through channels called Nadis. Sound familiar? Pranayama is one of the fundamental yoga practices. It is a large group of meditation exercises mostly involved with regulating breathing in patterns with counting, chanting, holding the body & breath in specific ways. Yama means ‘control’ or ‘discipline.’
This leads us the Gong part of Qi Gong:
This is the same Gong as the Kung in Kung Fu:
The Gong does not mean fighting, per se, but it means ‘skill, merit, achievement.’ Kung Fu is properly pronounced Gong Fu (with the O as in Go), and is used to compliment any extraordinary skill gained through extensive practice, such as cooking skill, athletic skill, carpentry skill, etc.
The left part of Gong means worker or labor when used on its own (also pronounced Gong):
The right part of Gong is the radical character Li, which means power, strength, or force (as in physics).
Thus the most literal translation of Qi Gong is ‘Breathing Skilled Discipline.’ Or to swap the words to match English grammar, “Skill gained through work with breathing.” This is the same root meaning and practice as pranayama.
Just Remember Yin is In!
Everything has a Yin and Yang aspect, and this is particularly true within Chinese culture. Some things seem simplistic, but please think with me in more detail about Yin and Yang in breathing and your body and see if it leads to new understandings and connections for you as it has for me.
On the most basic level, we say that inhaling is Yin and exhaling is Yang. This is at least true from the point of view of the air that we are breathing. Every Yin has its Yang, and the Yang counterpart of inhalation is that the lungs are expanding, which is Yang.
For a human, we can say that Oxygen the Yang to Carbon Dioxide’s Yin. It is opposite for trees.
The I Ching (actually Yi Jing, pronounced like ‘Yee Haw’ and ‘Jingle Bells’) is one of the oldest books in the world, and is mostly a graphic mathematical structure with poems attached. Whether or not synchronicity of drawing yarrow stalks or flipping coins matches up with a meaningful answer for diviners is not as much of a concern in this essay, as the usefulness of the Yin and Yang representations.
Here is the graphic for Yang in the Yi Jing:
Here is the Yin graphic:
With these two as the beginning, they are stacked into every available combination up to a stack of 6 lines, which gives 64 ‘hexagrams.’ The ‘hex’ is for 6, not for the witchcraft aspect of arcane divination systems.
If we go beyond the first step of inhaling and exhaling, the next group is of four:
We can represent these with the solid and broken lines:
The bottom line of the group is the first or primary line, and one can say that actively blowing air out is the ‘Yang of the Yin’ phase of breathing, whereas the empty stillness of holding out at the end of exhalation is the ‘Yin of the Yin’ of the phases.
Qi and Blood, Gas and Fluid
Chinese medical philosophy is often taught in succinct phrases which define relationships in the body. There are several which relate to Qi and Blood. It is taught that “when Qi moves, blood follows,” and that “Qi leads the Blood and Blood carries the Qi.” Qi is the commander of the blood, and blood is the mother of Qi. These are mostly from Giovanni Maciocia’s _The Foundations of Chinese Medicine_ by the way, which is one of the best of the intro textbooks to TCM.
It is also taught that the Intention directs the Qi (Yi–the intentional mind). Breathing is a special function of the body, as it is indeed the link between the conscious and unconscious mind. We don’t need to think about breathing for it to happen, but in an instant, we can consciously take control of breathing. This is why breath control exercises are the essential foundation to learning to control and regulate the body and mind.
So here we have the framework laid out clearly–your mind can control your breathing, the blood carries the fresh Qi (oxygen) in and the old Qi (carbon dioxide) out. Your body’s needs for oxygen and your mind’s concentration on areas of your body direct your capillary beds to expand and contract to deliver more Qi to the areas of focus, and this can trigger a cascade of hormone and neurotransmitter release. Acupuncture also directly affects the flow of Qi and Blood through simulating trauma and stimulating nerve signals.
None of these definitions or postulates requires mystical belief in an undetectable energy field, and all agree with modern medical science.
If Qi is best translated as breath and oxygen, what about the electricity in the nervous system?
The nervous system passes signals by sending an electrical pulse down the individual nerves and then passing the signal via chemicals (neurotransmitters) in the gap between nerve cells (synapse). Let’s say that the nervous system is a Yang to the respiratory system’s Yin, and that it has its own type of Qi. The electric part of nervous system transmission is the Yang of the system, the neurotransmitters (being more material) are the Yin. The nervous system runs on a very amazing type of Qi, which gets closer to the chinese notion of Spirit/Consciousness that is the word Shen (the root of Chinese medicine and Qi Gong is the three treasures of Sexual/Genetic Essence (Jing, in the navel center), Qi/(Energy from Air and Food) in the middle/upper torso, and Shen (spirit/consciousness) in the third eye center of the forehead. The nervous system is also dividable into the Yin and Yang of Sympathetic (active/external) and Parasympathetic (relaxed/internal) as well as afferent (signals moving from extremities to spine/brain) and efferent (signals moving from spine/brain to muscles/limbs).
Dhyana is the root of Zen?
While the literal meanings of Qi Gong and Pranayama are similar, as far as I know they didn’t lead to each other etymologically. That is not the case for the sanskrit Dhyana, which in yoga means ‘one pointed focus in meditation.’ This one point can be anything, but one of the strongest traditions is to focus on the third eye point. The Buddhist monk from India named Bodhidharma travelled to China around 500 CE, stayed at the Shaolin monastery, faced a wall for 9 years trying to figure out how to teach the monks to be strong and healthy, and then taught them exercises that led to Gong Fu, while his school of one-pointed focus of meditation somehow got translated as Chan from Dhyana, then made its way to Japan where Chan became the word Zen. In China, they call Bodhidharma Da Mo, and in Japan Daruma. There are other legends associated with him, such as that he cut off his eyelids so he would stay awake during meditation, and that where he tossed his eyelids grew the ‘first’ tea plants in China. Tea is then insinuated to be a gift to monks and meditators to help them stay awake (thus condoning the use of plant drugs to enhance meditation!). I’m taking the eyelids story as an allegorical legend, not historical fact. Please don’t try that at home, just have a cup of tea.
Breathing exercises in China existed way before 500 CE when Bodhidharma came along. Zhuang Zi (Chuang Tzu) around 350 BCE, wrote about breathing exercises as a longevity practice (he was ridiculing them, suggesting we shouldn’t get uptight about death). Before the phrase Qi Gong came along in more modern times, the breathing/stretching exercises were mostly called Tao Yin (not Tao as in Daoism/Taoism), which means ‘leading and guiding.’
Taoist Qi Gong teacher Mantak Chia focusses a lot on building “Qi pressure” in the organs & fascia. He uses the phrase ‘packing Qi’ to describe the combination of holding your breath under pressure and using postures and visualization to focus the pressure to different organs and abdominal cavities (and then even bones). I’ve worked with this and contemplated it for several years. When you inhale fully and your belly goes out, that is not air in your belly, but it is your lower abdomen responding to the pressure change it causes when you pull air into your lungs by lowering your diaphragm. Your thoracic diaphragm is a muscle along the bottom of your ribcage, separating your thoracic cavity and abdominal cavity. It is attached to the lumbar spine by strong tendons, and when you contract your diaphragm, it pulls itself down, lowering pressure in the lungs which draws in air and raising pressure in the abdomen, which pushes out the belly. When you take a deep breath and hold it, bearing down slightly, you increase the pressure everywhere inside the abdomen and diaphragm. Increasing pressure forces more oxygen to diffuse into the system. It also puts pressure on fluids, which pumps them or makes the sacs they are in firmer. This is why it is better to be punched in the belly while holding in air and tightening muscles, rather then being hit at the end of a relaxed exhalation. The pressure protects the organs, bones, etc., by making a bouncy sac around them. It takes quite a bit of practice and awareness to feel the various sections of the abdomen (kidneys, liver, spleen, bladder) ‘pump up’ with pressure while bearing down the breath held in, tightening various muscles, and slight changes in posture to transmit the pressure around the various organs. This type of exercise increases and maintains elasticity of all tissues, increases oxygen diffusion, pumps the lymph to remove old dead cells, and gives the mind something to focus on other than the stresses of life.
Qi Gong Psychosis?
There is a syndrome in China called Qi Gong Psychosis, and it is when someone goes crazy doing Qi Gong. I personally feel this is usually due to superstitious beliefs passed on by traditional teachers, such as that cats can steal your Qi, you shouldn’t walk in front of the soles of someone’s feet because they emit negative Qi, or simply the belief that you can go crazy doing Qi Gong, like the self-fulfilling belief that if you take LSD you’ll jump out a window. Sometimes by making Qi Gong more complex with superstitious warnings, a teacher can gain long-term dedication by a scared student. My reality differs, and it’s that shallow breathing in front of the TV is the primary ‘breathing exercise’ done today, and that it is harmful for the mind and body. Sitting outside by a nice tree or inside in a quiet spot and focussing on your breathing with any number of traditional breath-based meditations such as counting breaths, timing breaths, visualizing energy going up your spine with inhalation and down your front with exhalation (the Microcosmic Orbit) are all healthier than TV-Gong. Meditation can and does lead to new experiences of the body and consciousness, and it is nice to have a supportive social network to discuss them in. But please beware of adopting harmful beliefs that make things more complicated than they should be. There are many versions of “step on a crack, break your mother’s back” out there, and all of them can be effective at instilling obsessive-compulsive disorder in well-intentioned people. I suspect that meditation and Qi Gong attract people who tend towards OCD, and can aggravate psychosis in people on the edge, especially if they are intent on developing super-powers through ancient mystical exercises. Because of the number of cults out there who teach and use meditation and breathing exercises, it seems safer to me to practice on one’s own with the help of some books than to risk finding yourself chanting Aum Shinrikyo on the Japanese subway system. Personally, I’ve had great instruction from a number of teachers, though none of those teachers represented a comprehensive, pure system free of superstition and egotism. If you have the psychological strength to “absorb what is useful and discard that which is not,” by all means take some meditation courses with a local yoga or Qi Gong teacher. But please don’t be afraid to sit peacefully in your home or yard and breath deeply while focussing internally.
Hissing, humming, ommming, and purring
After getting basic breathing down, there are a number of exercises which make some noise. Slowly letting out a full breath with a hissing sound is one, as is vibrating any number of syllables such as A-U-M or A-E-I-O-U or E-I-E-I-O. When cats purr, the vibration reportedly helps to activate healing (such as stimulating bone marrow or just helping out microcirculation in stuck areas), and it is likely that humming or making tones has the same effect on us. If only I had as much time as my cats to sit still and purr!
Sitting, Standing, Walking, and Lying (down, that is)
These are the four traditional groupings of Qi Gong exercises. Some of these get very complex with memorized movements, others are very simple. I’m just pointing this out so you don’t think that Qi Gong is only done with sitting meditation or is only a complicated memorized series of physical motions like Tai Ji (Tai Chi).
In conclusion, the literal translations of Qi Gong and Pranayama are identical, and both at their core mean skilled discipline with breathing. Have fun exploring your breath, may you find it inspiring!