The Chinese term “Chi,” meaning “air” or “breath,” has a very wide range of reference in everyday language. It is often used, for example, with regard to the weather, which is known as “Tian Chi – Weather.” It is also used in many phrases referring to the mood, temperament and a person’s general ups and downs, including their physical state of health. By extension, it also comes into play when discussing the mood of the stock market, one’s luck, or the general state of modern society.
The idea of “Chi” might be summed up as a versatile and elegantly simple way of describing the forces of nature as understood by the ancient Chinese. Ancient texts indicate that the universe was conceived as originating in a chaotic mass of “Chi” which was then divided into Yin and Yang (i.e. “darkness and light,” “negative and positive,” “feminine and masculine,” and “the Moon and the Sun.”). It was through the complex interaction of Yin and Yang that all things visible and invisible came into being. Yin and Yang complement each other. From this core of fundamental belief, a vast and varied cultural tradition evolved among the Chinese.
Among the many fields of ancient Chinese scholars which incorporate the central idea of Chi, traditional Chinese herbal medicine and Chinese Chi-Kung are two of the most widely known today. Chi-Kung has become a contemporary rage and is now widely practiced all over the world. Chi means air or breath; and Kung means the technique or method. Together, Chi-Kung means a system of deep breathing exercise. Chi is the same as Qi, and Chi-Kung is the same as Qi-Gong. Chi and Chi-Kung are the usual English spelling, whereas Qi and Qi-Gong are the Romanized Chinese spelling.
The Innate Chi
In the conception of the ancient Chinese, human life does not simply arise as we understand it today, through the chance conjunction of a sperm and an ovum, followed by the unborn fetus receiving nourishment from the mother’s blood through the umbilical cord.
In their view, a human being also carried within him/her a mysterious and invisible “innate Chi” or congenital temperament. This innate Chi disposes over his/her physical and mental well-being, and differs from the “acquired Chi” which he/she breathes in after birth, or from the “Chi derived from the essence of water and grain” which he/she takes in through eating and drinking. These other types of outer Chi serve to assist and nourish a person’s innate Chi.
Mysterious Vital Wave Energy
Expressed in modern language, the idea of innate Chi might be translated as a kind of mysterious “vital wave energy.” Chi-Kung would be the techniques of deep breathing through which a person can discover, develop, nurture, amplify, direct and apply that mysterious vital wave energy. The ultimate goal of Chi-Kung is through the deep breathing techniques to develop the vital wave energy for health, vitality, mind development and spiritual cultivation.
The variety of techniques of breath control and meditation (Zen) which people in ancient times used to ward off disease, prolong life, cultivate moral character and discipline the temperament went by many names (such as Chi-Kung), and had been valued not only by Confucians, Taoists, physicians and Buddhists, but also by martial arts (Fung-Fu)practitioners, who stressed the importance of “training the muscles, bones and skin outside, and the breath inside.” The Kung-Fu masters further warned that “he who practices martial arts without training the Chi will achieve nothing.”
Most modern sports strive after mainly external, visible goals such as beautiful muscles, running faster or jumping higher. Chinese Chi-Kung stresses “cultivating mind, character and health together.” Developing mind, character, and cultivating spirituality are the more fundamental aspects. Chi-Kung students are taught that the most important thing in preserving good health is to free one’s mind of distractions and to moderate one’s desire. In order to protect and nurture one’s innate Chi, one needs to maintain his internal strength and keep the internal and external in balance, so as to “commune with the universe” and reach a state of enlightenment.
Motion and Stillness Complement Each Other
Chi-Kung is not restricted to any particular external form. Some styles stress movements, some stillness, while others combine the two. Nor does it require any special facilities or equipments. In ancient China, this simple form of self-training was part of people’s everyday lives, unlike today people believe that in order to acquire this “special skill” one has to pay and find some great men or bow down to some grand masters. From another angle, Chi-Kung also influenced Chinese lives, and helped create Chinese’s unique culture.
The Nei Ching (Canon of Medicine) text says: “Those among the ancients who understood the movements of nature, ate and drank with moderation, were regular in their habits, and did not get themselves tired in rash exertions. Thus they were able to preserve both their body and spirit (i.e. their vital wave energy) and to live out their allotted span, and survive over one hundred years.”
This book also says that if a person can skillfully avoid “ill winds” (i.e. bad Feng Shui, unhealthy surroundings and environments), not strive after fame and fortune, keep his Chi flowing smoothly and harmoniously, and not dissipate his spirit, then how could illness strike?”
How Could Illness Strike?
The Chinese medicine has a long and continuous tradition stemming from ancient times. It regards the human body as a part of the cosmos, and as a sort of independent universe in miniature. This concept reflects the Chinese attitude towards human life and has played an important part in influencing the way the Chinese live.
When making a diagnosis, Chinese herbal doctors take into account eight principal syndromes of the body: Yin and Yang, exterior and interior, deficiency and excess, and heat and cold. All these may be summarized as phenomena linked to the state of vigor and changes in equilibrium of a person’s innate Chi.
The Chinese medicine’s Theory of Channels, which deals with physiological and pathological changes in the human body and serves as a guiding principle for diagnosis and treatment, has recently made considerable impact within the Western medical community. For example, the Theory of Channels has been applied to acupuncture, where needles are inserted into the acupoints and channels to help restore a harmonious Chi flow.
These channels include the arterio-vascular, lymphatic and nervous systems that are similar to the western medicine. The Theory of Channels is an insight into the working of the human body system. It transcends modern anatomical knowledge and is a kind of sublime wisdom of the ancients.
Researchers have concluded that these channels, which are the means that the innate Chi (the body’s vital energy) circulates, might well have been discovered by the ancient Chinese who practiced the arts of Chi-Kung (deep breathing techniques.) Having perfected these techniques to a certain stage, adepts are said to feel the movement of their vital energy through conduits inside the body.
The greatest virtuosos claim to be able to close their eyes and visualize the entire process of metabolism and circulation within themselves. A modern Chi-Kung master said, “The will is the master of the Chi. Chi is the energy which fills the body. Keep control of your will, so as not to disrupt your Chi, and only when cultivated with sincerity will the Chi cause no injury.
Since ancient times in China, there have been a vast confusion of different schools which aim to use Chi-Kung to cultivate the inner elixir. The common goal to all of them was the importance of trying to make the Chi circulated harmoniously around the major and minor channels (through which the innate Chi circulates around the body). Through the harmonious circulation they would transform the vital essence (Ching) into vital energy (Chi), transform vital energy into spiritual energy (Shen), then return spiritual energy to the void (Hsu), and at last through the void be at one with the Way (Tao).
Sitting quietly is not the only way to cultivate the internal elixir; the various schools have different ways of summoning up and directing the innate Chi. The well-known ones include Wu Chin Hsi (The Dance of Five Birds), Yi Chin Ching (Transforming the Muscles), Pa Tuan Jin (The Eight Lengths of Brocade), Liu Zi Jue (The Six-Character Rhyme), and Tai Chi Chuan (Chinese Shadow Boxing). All these styles have been widely practiced since ancient times.
The mysterious Chi-Kung
Above mentioned inner training can only be understood through personal experience, just as one may simply and directly know the difference between hot and cold by drinking water. Once a high degree of tranquility, physical and spiritual harmony have been attained through Chi-Kung (deep breathing techniques), their transcendent sensations and paranormal abilities enables them to perform things that lay people would call “miracles.” This is one reason why Chi-Kung is regarded as so mysterious.
In recent years, a number of scientists have set about investigating the secrets of Chi-Kung (deep breathing techniques.) They aim to test the human body’s vital energy from all kinds of angles, using infra-red light, heat, electricity, light and sound waves. Some have belittled these efforts as merely groping in the dark. But, undeniably the vital cultural tradition represented by the ancient Chinese art of Chi-Kung, is another significant attempt by mankind to plumb the mysterious riddle of life.
In the Search for Immortality
In ancient times, those seeking to cultivate their internal elixir had always striven for the same goals: Enlightement and immortality. But could one really become immortal by training the innate Chi? What makes the ancient Chinese place such importance on nurturing their vital energy, and what accounts for their dreams of possessing the secrets of eternal life?
A modern Chi-Kung researcher said:
“Man’s attitude towards life has much to do with his ideas about time and space. In ancient times man’s awareness of time and space led to the realization that at the end of his lifespan, no matter how successful that life had been, there awaits death. This sense of impending doom spured him to seek ways of transcending the limits of time and space.
The Taoists denied the validity of the material world and sought to achieve a changeless physical form. They regarded life as a phenomenon produced by cosmic forces of change, and birth and death purely as the products of nature.”
Through experimentation in the quest for immortality, starting with swallowing cinnabar elixirs, and then cultivating the inner elixir, Taoism in due course assimilated the spiritual exercises of Zen Buddhism and the Neo-Confucianist ethics of improving society. As it transformed itself into a widespread popular belief it thus became an integral part of the lives of the common folk.
Chi-Kung and the Return to Nature
Another modern Chi-Kung researcher said:
“Chi-Kung’s influences in the eastern hemisphere is no accident, for this is where the ancient Chinese culture originated. The Chinese see the universe as an integral whole, just as they do about the heaven and mankind; the long journey of life from birth to old age, sickness and death; the relationships between the individual and society, and even those between the microcosm of man and the macrocosm of the universe. Within this whole, they seek the best possible state of existence.”
“Tai-Chi” (pronounced Tie Chee) is composed of two characters. “Tai” means the greatest. “Chi” means the utmost point. “Tai-Chi” is a part of the ancient Chinese martial art which promotes health and longevity with freeflowing body movements that encourage proper breathing and balance. While “Chi-Kung” is the maintaining of good health and physical well-being, “Tai-Chi” is the developing of mind and body, and emphasizes slow stretch and relaxation in order to achieve greater flexibility, balance and movement.
Let’s compare a tense arm to a garden hose. What happens when a garden hose gets a knot? The pressure builds up and the water stops. We have to release the tension, the energy. This is called “the Chi.”
When we hit a certain age, our legs feel weaker. We lose more balance. “Tai-Chi” will help us get better coordination and help improve the longevity of our health. We will be more aware of our breathing. So, “Tai-Chi” is a healthy way to exercise.