This is one of the most common questions Americans ask about Chinese Medicine, and not an easy one to answer. Qi (pronounced “chee” and sometimes spelled ‘chi’) is possibly the most essential and the most controversial aspect of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Biomedicine often feels it can quite easily dismiss parts or all of TCM by maintaining that modern science cannot verify the existence of qi. The false idea that qi is an ‘energy’ like electricity has worsened this controversy.
Is Qi Energy?
Some TCM practitioners say qi is ‘energy.’ This is not too bad of an explanation. But don’t go away thinking we believe there are electrical circuits running through your body! Some scholars (D.E. Kendall, and Paul Unschuld) maintain that the idea of qi as ‘energy’ was a mistranslation from the Chinese.
Then What is It?
In terms of basic TCM ontology (“what exists”), Qi is one of the four basic constituents of the body:
Yin Blood Qi Yang
< — Substance Function — >
< — Cold Hot — >
(Yin and Blood are substantial, yin is cold; qi and yang are functional, yang is hot)
Consider this convenient car-engine analogy: Yin is water from the radiator to cool the engine, blood is oil, qi is the force that moves the pistons, and the engine can be said to be in a yang state when operating. Perhaps the explosion itself is yang, while the force of the explosion is qi. We can also say that the gas contains a qi that has yet to be utilized.
(In the actual chinese character for the word, qi is the steam rising from a cooking pot of rice. I hope that explanation made sense to ancient Chinese, because it doesn’t make much to me! To be fair to the ancient chinese, we can think of the steam coming from the rice as being less substantial, more yang than the rice itself, but still…)
What Happens Without Qi?
Another way to understand things is by their absence (darkness is defined as the absence of light). Without sufficient qi,
* your digestive system cannot break down food or transport nutrients to the rest of your body
* you become easily fatigued and are always tired
* you lose your appetite
* your limbs are heavy
* you might wake up frequently at night because you need to urinate
* academic/organizing thought is difficult or impossible
* everything is overwhelming (you cannot ‘digest’ what is going on)
* you tend to worry (the emotional component – TCM is a holistic medicine that does not separate body and mind)
How Do I Get More Qi?
The proper diet goes a long way. TCM dietary principles are too complex to cover here (I must say though that it is surprising to many patients, perhaps because vegetarianism is thought to be synonymous with alternative medicine, that TCM advocates eating meat and mostly cooked foods).
Herbs that increase the qi include ginseng, and codonopsis.
Avoid activities that drain the qi – Be sensible about your energy expenditure by living a balanced life; don’t be too sedentary or too active. If you are a couch potato, your qi can’t flow without exercise. If you are a type-A personality, relax and don’t use yourself up too early in life – you may live to regret it!