What is Qi?
Since Qi and air are the same character in Chinese writing, it is very easy for people to think of the air we breathe and breathing itself when Qi is mentioned. Some people even inaccurately describe or translate Qigong as a Breathing Exercise. Although breathing plays a very important role in many Qigong systems, the Qi in Qigong is completely different from the air we breathe. According to Chinese Classic Writings and Traditional Qigong Theory, Qi has at least the following characteristics.
Qi in nature is the basic material that makes up the Universe and all things in it. It is shapeless and does not have a physical appearance. Normally, it cannot be seen or touched, yet it permeates the whole Universe. The classical description of Qi is: It is so big, it does not have an outside; it is so small, it has no inside. It can be called Qi or Yuan, or Yuan Qi, or Taiji, etc. The ancient Chinese believed that this shapeless Qi was the source for all things with shape and physical appearance. In other words, all activities in the Universe are the manifestations of Qi.
A manuscript in the Sòng Dynasty described Qi in the following way: “The Extreme Space does not have shape, it is the Qi’s Original Body; it condenses and disperses, resulting in the changing of Qi’s temporary appearance/shape.” In The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, it is said that, “Qi moves, it activates vitalities; Qi disperses, it forms the final shape; Qi circulates, it nourishes; Qi stops, it changes appearance.” It means the growth, birth, and death of all things are the manifestations of Qi.
There are no exceptions for humans. The classic text said, “Man’s existence is the result of Qi’s condensation; when Qi condenses, man will be alive; when Qi disperses, he will be dead.” It also said, “Water condenses into ice, Qi condenses into man.”
Human Qi refers to the special substance which is shapeless and has no physical appearance but maintains the physiological functions of the human body. In the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, it is said that, “It is activated by Shàng jiāo (上焦), defines the flavors of food, nourishes the skin, replenishes the body, and polishes the hair, as if irrigated by the fog and mist, it is called Qi.” It also said that, “In Yáng Qi, the finer kind nourishes Shén (mind activities), the soft kind nourishes the tendons.” Qi is the root of the human’s physiological activities. There are many writings on “Qi within the Body” in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Depending on its location and functions in the body, it has different names; for example: it is called Zhēn Qi, Yíng Qi, Wèi Qi, Zōng Qi, Yuán Qi, Meridian Qi, Zàngfǔ Qi, Prenatal Qi, and Postnatal Qi, etc.
According to Qigong theories, the physiological process of the human body is the process of the interaction and transmutation between Human Body Qi and Nature Qi. If one can successfully obtain Nature Qi to “service” oneself, one will be healthy. If not, one will become sick or die. The Human is part of Nature Qi—practicing Qigong strengthens this process. Thus, the Qi in Qigong is included in the Qi in Nature and the Qi in the body.