Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Chi is not energy

Humans can't transmit energy like this
What is chi? This is a fundamental question of the internal arts. To my mind is it also the root cause of why Westerners are sceptical of practices such as yoga and tai chi. Internal arts teachers rabbit (or should that be parrot) on about chi being energy (as they were instructed), but chi is not energy and I will explain why.

Energy, in scientific parlance, is a specific property of the universe that can never be created or destroyed, only converted from one form to another. This conservation of energy law is fundamental to all science and cannot be credibly disputed. Energy can be stored in many forms, from electricity, to heat, to momentum and so on. For example, electromagnetic energy (sunlight), can be converted to chemical energy by plants, plants can be processed to create oil ("bio-diesel"), which could then be converted by an engine into kinetic energy (motion), and so on and so on - an endless chain of energy conversion. The question is can I change any form of scientific energy into chi, and back again? Can I put chi into an energy chain as I have just done in that example? I believe the answer to this is no, and therefore chi is not energy. Until someone can devise an experiment which proves otherwise, and thousands of people have tried to do so for decades without success, that will remain my position.

However, it's easy to be negative and disagree with something, it is of course more difficult to be constructive, and so here is my explanation for what chi is.

Chi is efficiency.

Although energy can always be converted from one form to another, in practice what happens is that when it is converted, it changes not into another single form, but into many different forms simultaneously. So for example when I convert electricity to light in a lightbulb, I also generate heat. As a whole the energy of the system is still conserved, but I have only managed to convert (say) 50% of my electrical energy into light energy, which is really what I'm trying to achieve. This percentage is normally called the efficiency (of the lightbulb). If a new form of lightbulb comes along that allows me to convert 80% of my electrical energy into light energy, that new bulb is more efficient than the first one. Chi is better thought of as being an analogy to this efficiency, rather than the energy itself. These new lightbulbs will give off more (light) energy for the same amount of electrical energy input, but it does not inherently have more energy itself, it is just more efficient. This is excatly what chi is, a property of the system, not a physical quantity. So if you "cultivate chi", you do not have more energy, you just become more efficient at using the energy you do have, and so you appear (even to yourself) more energetic.

So to express this in more internal arts like terms, imagine trying to block/deflect a punch. If a Tai Chi Master does this ("who has cultivated a lot of chi"), they will be able to block the punch with minimal effort. They can do it with minimal effort, and hence use only a tiny amount of energy, because the master is extremely efficient at coordinating his body. However, if the novice tries to block the punch, he will find it much more difficult and will use a lot of energy to defend himself. The novice is not very efficient at using his body, or to phrase it another way he lacks chi.

The significance of what I'm saying is that in practical terms nothing changes. In our classes we can still "cultivate chi" (or "enhance efficiency"), and train in the same way we've been doing for centuries. Internally within our own bodies it feels as if we do have more energy (just as our new lightbulb will shine more brightly) and so we get that glow and feeling of health. However by reinterpreting chi as efficiency rather than energy, the concept of chi is no longer at odds with Western science. There is no longer any discrepancy between Western science and Chinese medicine. The major obstacle of scepticism has been removed.

To see this in practise consider that tai chi is about coordinating the body in an efficient manner. The more efficient you are, the more you will be able to perform with your current level of strength. Or alternatively, you will be able to do everything you do now, but without using so much energy. Of course it is not just about muscle strength, but also about the way the internal organs work together and the whole array of complex interactions, all of which can of course be made more efficient. As you train more and more, the tai chi principles will start to become subconscious and will carry through to your daily life. You will feel full of beans, less tired and all those other great things that tai chi brings, not because you have "increased your chi energy", but because you have increased your efficiency and are able to do more with less.

The bicep and tricep working as a pair
Fundamental to tai chi training is relaxing the body, another principle that is easy to relate to the efficiency interpretation of chi. In order to move around we use muscle strength. Muscles work in pairs, for example you tense your bicep (and relax your tricep) to bend your elbow, and you tense your tricep (and relax your bicep) to straighten it again. Your bicep and tricep operate as a pair (in simple terms). It is however difficult to fully relax muscles. If I could totally turn off my tricep (i.e use 0% of its strength), I would only need a tiny amount of my bicep strength to bend my elbow (i.e. 1% of its strength). That would be very efficient indeed and achieved through relaxation.

If however I cannot fully turn off my tricep and it uses 5% of its strength say, in order to be able to bend my elbow I have to overcome the strength and use 6% of my bicep strength. I have wasted a lot of energy to achieve the same effect. The more I am able to relax my body therefore, the more efficiently I can operate and the more I can "feel the chi".

I fully believe that chi is all about the sensations within your own body. It is like the opposite sensation to pain. If I feel pain it means something is going wrong. If I feel chi it means something is going right, it means my body is working at peak efficiency.


  1. Hello. I am so glad I found this site. I'm still fairly young, a high school senior, but I have been interested in parapsychology ever since I can remember. I am Asian so I was always familiar with the idea of ki, but I have actually discovered it only recently. I've never taken martial arts classes so it's only point where I can bounce it off my fingers after concentration for like twenty minutes and I don't know what to do with it afterwards. Anyways the more I thought about ki and how unfortunate it was that it sounded like complete hippie gibberish when it was put into words (especially in English!), the more I wanted to find a way to explain it logically. I am really glad I stumbled on this blog, because it is the embodiment of the vague idea that I had in my head. I am fascinated by your website, and hopefully when I am done with college applications and have more time, I will be able to read your posts and other materials about ki in depth. Oh,and few questions: what is your opinion on Ying and Yang? Were there any formal academic courses (like in school) that you took? I guess most of the things you know were self-taught?

  2. I really happy to have found a blog dedicated to tai chi and authored by an engineer as well as practitioner/instructor. Your thoughts on translating qi as efficiency rather than energy are still novel to popular discourse outside of the TCM/Taichi industries and have been well received (although I am currently a graduate student in an Integrative-TCM program in Chicago I try to bring these kinds of topics to the dinner table as much as I can without becoming one of THOSE kind of people).

    I agree that it is essential (especially for those of us without a background in chinese language) to focus more heavily on the aspect of qi as a facilitator of energy conversion rather than an abstract and separate part of "the chain." This really does illuminate many concepts in internal arts practices and the physiological theories they are based on in a much more concise way than saying we are "filling the sea of qi."

    I would like to probe your thoughts a bit if I may, as many of my classmates (myself included) are too swamped with learning all there is to know about the actions/qualities of the herbs and acupoints to address this issue properly. Specifically I must submit: If qi is simply a semantic conglomerate/equivalent for efficiency, how do you reconcile the susceptibility of acupoints to the influence of needles - or as in acupressure where as practitioners we say 80% is intention and 20% is pressure-based hand technique?

    In practice we say that acupoints are places where "qi surfaces and lingers," does it make sense to you that these spots act like potentiometers (sorry if this analogy is way off - I fix electric guitars but am no engineer)? If so, what is it about the needles/acupressure-intention technique which gives us access to this mechanism? Why have we found no distinct structural components at these points, and what makes them significant over a spot on the body mere millimeters away?

    Hope this questioning finds you in good spirits, I will be book marking your blog.

    Confounded in Chicago

    1. Thanks for your comments and support both ;-)

      Isaac, in answer to your questions about acupuncture points, as I do not have any formal training in acupuncture I am not really qualified to judge it one way or the other. I have had a couple of treatments in the past however (in combination with other treatments) so equally I can't really make any statements as to its benefit or otherwise in my particular case.

      Irrespective however, I understand that there is some correspondence between the electrical conductivity of particular point in the body and acupuncture points? Is this so? I would like to see the scientific basis for that if so. I fully accept that there are electrical currents flowing within the body (bio-electricity and nerves etc), and it seems entirely reasonable that there are points which are more and less conductive throughout the body. I understand There have been some trials that show it is effective. However, I also heard of a study which showed that there was no difference between reported benefits of proper acupuncture, and actors who just placed needles randomly. Like I say, don't really know much about it, so can't be definitive.

      My second point would be to ask why you would wish to link what I say about "chi energy" in tai chi, with what you understand about acupuncture? I would posit that there is no connection. It appears to me (as a layman) that the only apparent link between them is that in traditional Chinese terms both involve manipulation of "chi energy". But as my central hypothesis is that "chi energy" does not exist in physical terms, but is rather a "way of viewing the world" their linkage is purely cultural (and coincidental). In other words, until you can demonstrate that "chi energy" exists, you cannot make any inferences about the relationships between acupuncture and tai chi.

      As an analogy, we can say that taking aspirin has certain medical benefits (i.e. like acupuncture). Equally we can also say that exercise like swimming say has certain medical benefits (i.e. like tai chi). But if you want to claim that both benefits are actually achieved because the two different actions are in fact ways of manipulating some divine esoteric life force (i.e. chi) - I would want proof that it exists. Without this proof, it is meaningless to speculate about the connections between the two entirely independent effects.

      So I would say that aspirin and swimming are pretty much independent of each other, just as acupuncture and tai chi are basically independent of each other. If you say that they are not, you need to prove what the connection is. Proof of existence of the connection (i.e. chi) is a fundamental requirement. Equally as chi is supposed to be all pervasive and everywhere, it should in fact be a pretty low bar to nail down somewhere or some experiment where it does exist! I personally feel that the lack of proof speaks volumes.

  3. SW,

    Thanks for your quick response!

    Interesting conjecture you bring up about the "chi" in taichi having no connection to the mechanisms of acupuncture. I see your point on how they evolved with in a context where the word chi became a focus around which many different phenomenon were studied. In my introductory classes we discussed chi as the processes of transformations within the body more than as an independent energetic substance. When I do discuss the substantive aspect of energy with my peers we tend focus more on bioelectricity theory than trying to posit a scenario where chi is some "undiscovered" thing.

    I am not personally concerned with identifying chi as anything we (as scientists or westerners - i dont care about labels) haven't already discovered. I do think however, that by looking at energy/transformation efficiency through the perspective of "one chi" that we can come up new, fascinating and ultimately globally beneficial ideas about our bio-sphere and this existence we live in. How do you feel about a definition which encompasses both the "action centered" view of chi as transformative capacity and the "object centered" view of chi as bioelectricty? I push for something like a "dual existence" of chi is due in part to acupuncture channel theroy - where pathologies are observed as conducted along specific exterior regions of the body (i.e. the channels at the skin or muscle/fascia levels), and appear with presentations which are at the visceral level.

    The best connection I can make between tai chi and TCM at the moment (just off the top of my head - its finals week here) is through the MingMen and the Kindeys. In tai chi we try to focus on the MingMen point in the back (near the kidneys) as "opening up." The MingMen is said to house "ministerial fire" which warms the body and allows for normal physiologic transformations to occur (like keeping the extremities warm through good circulation or through maintaining the process of ATP synthesis or what have you). When there is a deficiency of Ministerial Fire, we will see pathologies developing in the kindey channel/viscera which can include: problems with the reproductive organs or pain in the medial/posterior knees (along the channel) as well as low-back pain, urinary issues or hematopoietic deficiency (at the visceral level). In tai chi we can attribute low back pain during practice to a "closed mingmen," which starts to touch on this. I am holding myself back from tying this together in a nicer way at the moment because I have a biochem test coming up in an hour which I should really gear-up for. In your practice do you discuss/observe any channel theory related things? I'd like to know how detailed to get in order to avoid repetition.

    As far as the sham-acupuncture studies that you mentioned.. I can not really speak about them unless I read the study itself, I am familiar with the trans-cutaneous electrical stimulation comparisons but they don't touch on how we can affect viscera/bowl function at all. I know many of my peers and professors take issue with the idea of putting needles in the body randomly. Particularly my points teacher would outcry that one could cause damage to physiologic function with a needle in the wrong spot. After finals I will do some searching on the research publication sites and get back to you, if you'd like me to review anything specific for discussion it would be a more than welcome suggestion!

    1. A good place to start would be the wonderful NeuroLogica Blog. I did a quick search and found this post on acupunture, which has some good points to make (to my mind) and links to research.

  4. Something I forgot to bring up in relation to my connection between chi energy of tai chi and TCM though Channel Theory - just like points, there are no structural-object components to the channels outside of normal body tissues, but unlike points we can not really have "sham pathologies" in patients.

    In the future we could also talk about pulse reading in TCM if that would interest you. That gets into very cool things about reading pathologies in various parts of the body through feeling qualities of the pulse at the radial artery. Its pretty accurate and without chi theory wouldn't make any sense at all!

    Hoping this finds you in good spirits,

  5. Chi is real, and humans can transmit energy through their hands and fingers. I have felt this happen on numerous occasions. For one example, I have received qigong therapy, during which time my teacher injected chi into my body through his fingers.
    The associated sensations were clearly palpable and profound, and the effects of the treatment were both immediate and lasting.

    No, my experiences as a whole or in part do not constitute an iota of scientific study with its associated rigor and methodology. And I agree with the author to be skeptical of unsubstantiated mystical claims and "hippie babble." I despise such rubbish. It is dangerous and foolish to believe in outlandish claims without testing for oneself. Therefore, I don't expect to convince anyone who reads this comment to be convinced that chi is real. But my results suffice for me, so I encourage you to seek results of your own that suffice for you.

    Don't close yourself unnecessarily to the potential of taijiquan. When it comes to chi in my life, I consider myself incredibly lucky to have met masters of these arts who can show me past all the mumbo jumbo to reveal the truly wonderful opportunity to work towards something I previously thought impossible, towards mastery in an art that will continue to shape my life for its remainder. As a teacher, I want to inspire others to do the same.

    Believe it or not, there are skeptics out there--real down-to-earth science-journal-reading reasonable people--who can shoot chi from their fingers.

    1. Thanks for your comment! Faith can never be reasoned against, so I won't try. But my experience has taught me the opposite. For example, I attended Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei's weekend workshop a few months ago. In one of the Q&A's someone asked him about "emitting chi" - he looked exasperated and answered "Don't concern yourself with such things, just practice the form".

      Chen Zhenglei is indisputably one of the greatest living tai chi practitioners. Although you may believe that he could "shoot chi from his fingers", the reality is he dismissed the notion and returned discussions to body mechanics.

      It was clear that although he uses (Chinese cultural) references to chi and energy flows in the way he speaks, there are no mystical or supernatural implications of what he was saying. Chi is simply an ill-defined and problematic translation of "the feeling of energy". Tai chi is all about biomechanics and how the body feels.

      "Don't concern yourself with such things, just practice the form"

  6. Very nicely put! I had always considered chi as a functional view of the world and I am glad to see it discussed this clearly.

  7. Qi is not efficiency - working your Qi and body to become more efficient at something is simply you becoming better at it. That doesn't mean you are not working your Qi because you are! Qi is that vital motive force that gives movement to all living things. It is warming, activating and moving, and without it life does not exist i.e. if I have no Qi I am dead.

    Just because someone does not understand the theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Qigong, internal arts or has not experienced it, does not mean it is not real. There is nothing mystical or supernatural about it - although I agree that people use flowery words to make it seem so.

    I can say this because I am trained in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Medical Qigong, and Internal Martial arts. Emitting during Qigong if done scientifically and with the correct medical protocol does produce real results. Emitting Qi is possible and has being measured in clinical trails as heat etc, It is what practitioners of medical qigong do, they emit Qi to influence positive change in people who need it.

    Clinical trials for TCM require different protocols to Western Medicine by the nature of what is be assessed. There are hundreds and thousands of these which have being done in China, Japan, Russia, Austrialia, US, UK etc.

    Qi is a complex principle that has no real direct translation into English and is even harder to explain with a language barrier. Most masters don't discuss emitting Qi because it is not the same for everyone - some people get it quickly and others do not, some never do. That in part relates to their own internal condition as well as what is being taught to them. Also a master is not just going to show someone how to emit qi on a weekend course it just doesn't happen that way, if they are going to show you it will be after years of practice, something I have experienced myself.

    I respect your attempt to investigate this and somehow feel you will get closer to the real meaning of it with time.

    1. Hi Philip – thanks for your post, I think you articulate the TCM perspective well.

      The issue, to my mind is to be absolutely clear when you are talking about a belief, a faith, or a religion; and when you are talking about the results of application of the scientific method, that adds to the body of logically consistent and predictive scientific theory. You seem to mix the two:

      “if I have no Qi I am dead” – This is your belief, your religion. I respect that, but it is an opinion based on faith. Perfectly valid, but not something that can be reasoned about in a scientific context.

      Then… “Emitting during Qigong if done scientifically and with the correct medical protocol does produce real results. Emitting Qi is possible and has being measured in clinical trails as heat etc”

      Please can you provide references for this? No doubt if the results are convincing they would appear in all sorts of reputable medical journals. I have looked but have yet to find any convincing study. Perhaps you can provide an extensive bibliography as it is your field? [Note being published in itself is not that convincing (indeed this blog itself is “published”), hence lots of publications in TCM specific journals does little. But publications in jounals such as the BMJ or other journals with high impact scores would lend credibility to your agreement.]

      “Clinical trials for TCM require different protocols to Western Medicine by the nature of what is be assessed.”

      This is usually the crux of it. These “different protocols” is basically a euphemism for “throwing away the scientific method”. If you believe it works, and is scientifically provable, then there should be no difficulty in following the scientific method. The fact that these studies can’t speaks volumes. Quantum physics, Behavioural psychology, Stem cell research, Material science, Medical science etc etc are all completely different fields that use different techniques; however they all use the scientific method to demonstrate cause & effect. Out of all the mind-numbingly large number of things that have been studied successfully by science, I fail to see why TCM & Qi alone should be given a special exception not to conform.

  8. I should have added - if I become efficient at something it doesn't mean I have more Qi it means my kungfu is better. You can have poor quality Qi and still be very good at something like moving a body part.

  9. I been practising Tai Chi for a decade now, searching the answer if there is Chi for another decade. Coming a bit from new age background I was thinking that of course there is chi and Tai Chi masters have so much of it that they throw people around. I still do it exists but the issue is way more complicated than the naive idea of some external supernatural force out there. So I can't explain it, but I can point to some scientific data, anecdotes and my personal experiences.
    Tai Chi is very complex to understand. I have been trying to understand it all my practice time, and each time my practice goes deeper, I have to rewrite my definition for Tai Chi. I guess on my death bed I can say my final definition about it.
    Few things in my everyday practice point to direction that the proper Tai Chi force is not just newton mechanics.
    1) There is something about the quality of the force. If you observe when true Tai Chi master pushes people they often smile, feel uplifted and more energetic. If students try to push same person with brute strength they may move equally far away but there is no smiling and it's just fighting force with force. Tai Chi force feels different.
    2) When testing sword form. There is wooden sword between students. Student can with almost invisible movement close or open/lift or sink other ones force. And the feeling for the person who is testing is very distinctive. How one can transmit such a noticeable difference in force, when physical motion is just about 1 inch and there is solid object between students. Of course if novice tries the same thing it's totally different even if student only have wooden sword to feel it through.
    3) Using Yi/attention. If student is able to project yi properly the force is greatly amplified. Even though the physical motion is same for each try. Nothing else changes, only eyes focus more and mind expands. More power and once again the feeling of the power is very different and this is usually the point when people start smiling.
    These are few examples that have been baffling in my own practise. My Sifu has demonstrated affecting students without touching as well. He is first one to say though that that kind of thing probably doesn't work in real fight so it's just for fun and for practising. This I agree. I haven been pushed in that way, and it definitely feels fun, but I don't think I would've moved if I really wanted to stay still. It wasn't that strong. And that's another question really and tell us nothing about if there is chi or not.
    People who developed Tai Chi didn't care if mystical chi existed or not. They were interested only to get most power out. They use whatever is there. Tai Chi works (when done correctly) if one believes in chi or not. But same time being too physical/mechanistic oriented may lead us astray and then we never find the diamond that is in the art. Let the scientist keep searching and us practising in old way.
    I remember few years ago being baffled again by the Tai Chi power. One of our teachers came and said to me. “Let it go. I'm scientist and was first 7 years trying to figure out how this can be. I never could explain it. Finally I stopped trying to analyse that and then the Tai Chi started working for me.”

  10. We know the body is a tensional network, and that the tensions of those lines can be altered. Chi could simply be stored elastic energy in the tensional network of our bodies. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elastic_energy

    It's useful to note that SEE (or prestress) is essential for our tensional networks to exist. Without the tension, the structure will cease to be. The science goes back to a paper that Cornell Professor Robert Connelly published back in 1982: "Rigidity and Energy" (http://www.math.cornell.edu/~connelly/rigidity.energy.pdf). I'd also suggest that anyone interested in the topic start by reading Donald Ingber's SciAm article "The Architecture of Life" (1998): bit.ly/18PCvxN . After that, I'd recommend Graham Scarr's new text "Biotensegrity: The Structural Basis for Life" (2014).

    Finally, anyone who has studied the systems of major lines of tension (like Thomas Myers's Anatomy Trains) knows that there is not one solution for a concert of tensions to hold up the body or do some particular kind of work. The "efficiency" described in this article could well be reconciled by particular combinations of stored elastic energy in those lines of tension.

    I am disappointed with articles like this. I'm not disappointed that I have a different conclusion than the authors but that it didn't even occur to them to consider stored elastic energy for the phenomena they are seeking to describe and quantify. This is not mystical stuff; it's really not that difficult to start thinking this way.

  11. Very good article. I practice physical therapy. My medical background influences my objectivity. I just want to be fair. In being fair, we must observe certain laws such as gravity and physics and Energy. Fair enough to state a fact energy cannot be created or destroyed. When we die, what is that "energy" that was consciousness? Where does it go? It came from somewhere and just by the laws of physics, it has to go somewhere. It is not fair to say that Chi is not energy only because we cannot measure it. I agree that it is just a theory to say it exists because we cannot measure it at this time, but that does not disprove it does not exist due to our limited technology. There are unusual phenomena we cannot explain at this time. There is always an answer but the questions being asked are not allowing us to find the answer. The master who said not to concern ourselves with "throwing energy" I agree, just practice the form. No one needs such power even if it was possible. Why would someone want to acquire such power? I would give them the same answer "Just practice the form." My teacher is a great master. I do not believe in Chi but I darn sure FELT something I had NEVER EVER felt before and it was alarming. Was that energy? I don't know but I would not DARE to question him that it was anything BUT CHI ENERGY. If he believes it is Chi and it is just his faith, he transferred something my mind did not understand, through someone else, into me. I don't believe in it, but my physical therapy brain told me my bones and joints were only so strong and going to break. I am not sure how someone could be so efficient they could transfer their efficiency into an older person, through that person and into me, but I felt it. It was no mind trick.
    Suffice to say everyone has their opinions. There are a LOT of fakes out there too. There are also a lot of misguided people with weak minds who are easily led. I thank you for the article as it was fair enough. There is no proof either way in my mind at this time other than what I once felt through an older kyphotic woman who had me dancing around her as the master led her hands. The old masters are dying out and if we don't learn some of their secrets, if there are any, they will be lost to antiquity forever.