Qi (also spelled chi) is one of the three treasures in Chinese Medicine along with jing and shen. (If you haven’t already, read the Introduction to the Three Treasures here, then move onto All About Jing.)
While jing is the foundational energy in our body governing our constitution, aging and much more, qi is the everyday energy that we use.
The Chinese character for “qi” is the same word for air, as it functions in much the same ever-changing way. In the West, it is sometimes translated as vitality or energy.
Ron Teeguarden describes it as, “Qi is the invisible force which enables the body to think and perform a voluntary movement. The power of qi can be seen in the power that enables a person to move and live.” Here is a video from him telling you a bit more about qi.
In Western science, qi is still not widely recognized. This is because you can’t cut open the body and find qi or the meridians it runs through.
As Charles Moss puts it, “The ancient Chinese defined qi by what it did rather than what it is.”
So it is helpful to understand qi not as a thing (you can’t hold it in your hands), but instead as a process (moving your hands requires qi). It moves throughout not just the meridian channels but the other energy systems in the body.
Richard Jahnke says that “Qi is free, it is everywhere, and everyone has direct access to it through simple method that are easy to learn and practice. Qi can be cultivated purposefully to resolve any challenge or enhance any function.”
You “get” qi from the food that you eat, the water you drink, the air you breathe, and the movements you do. This can be done with more intentionality through various energy practices like qi gong or tai chi.
All of this so far has been put in quite broad terms. So let’s narrow it down. When it comes to Chinese medicine there are several different types and function of qi.
Qi and the Lungs
There are two primary organ or meridian systems for qi. While jing is stored in the kidneys and shen is said to reside in the heart, qi works with the lungs and spleen.
(To add to the confusion, jing is sometimes called prenatal qi. Its thought of as a more refined, or denser, form of qi.)
This goes back to how we get qi in our everyday lives. We breathe in air which is done by the lungs. Conscious breathing is a part of just about any qi gong and most exercise programs. Breathing, being one bodily function that can be done consciously or unconsciously, allows us to just go about our life, or tap into something deeper.
Qi and the Spleen & Nutritive Qi
The second primary organ system involved in qi is the spleen. In the West, the spleen isn’t thought of as a very important organ. In fact, it can be removed and you can still live without it. But in TCM it is very important. The spleen system governs digestion and metabolism. It also plays a big role in the immune system.
Nutrition and calories are derived from food which fuel our metabolism and all the processes in our body. This can be thought of as drawing the qi out from the foods to create nutritive or ying qi.
Qi and Blood
Blood is seen as a denser form of qi than the rest. As blood flows everywhere in your body so does qi. “While Blood engenders Qi, Qi is said to command or move the Blood.”
It is closely related to nutritive qi as that is used to build the blood.
Certain herbs are said to help build the blood, like he shou wu.
Protective Qi (Wei Qi)
In ancient China diseases were often caused by the “Evils”. Hearing this now, most people think that the people were primitive. Put today we’ve just replaced it with different terms; pathogens like viruses and bacteria.
More specifically, the Chinese looked at the changing environmental factors and how those played a role in causing disease. As harmony is all about balance, you realize your body never is really in homeostasis, but is always adapting to the environment. It can’t happen.
Thus a specific kind of qi, known as protective or wei qi, helps in this area. You can think about this as your immune system, which is why many of the qi tonics help the immune system so much like Reishi mushroom.
Qi Stagnation and Deficiency
In Chinese medicine it is recognized that qi can be in harmony, deficiency or stagnation. The first one of which is healthy qi while the other two show different problems.
Depending on where in the body the qi may be stagnating or deficient you’ll be treated differently. This can manifest in all types of physical as well as psychological issues.
The basics of keeping your qi in harmony are all the commonly recommended things for health, eating right, drinking plenty of quality water, exercise, etc.
When it comes to herbs, while they can supply qi like food, their function tends to be more in optimizing the use, absorption and other aspects of qi to bring it into harmony.
Some provide direct energy like Polyrhachis Ant.
Adaptogens like Rhodiola are qi tonics as they assist in many of the functions of qi.
For more information on qi check out the resources below.
- Teeguarden, Ron, Radiant Health (Warner Books, 1998) pg. 24-28
- Jahnke, Roger, The Healing Promise of Qi (McGraw-Hill, 2002) pg. 12, 14, 27
- Moss, Charles A., Power of the Five Elements (North Atlantic Books, 2010) pg. 49