What Is ‘Chi’?

From our friend Jess Kaplan come links to two YouTube clips, both of which show two chi-gung practitioners — one a Tibetan giving a martial-arts demonstration, and the other a Javanese healer. What we see in each is quite extraordinary, and will certainly tax the credulity of skeptical Westerners.

What are we to make of all this? I hardly know what to make of it myself. I have practiced southern Chinese kung fu for 33 years now, under the tutelage of several formidable masters, and can tell you that there is something, apparently real, to which the term ‘chi’ refers. It has always been hard, though, for a skeptic like me — even while experiencing some of these phenomena firsthand in my own training — to say with certainty what is an objectively existing ‘substance’ of some sort, and what is a subjective experience of more commonplace phenomena.

Kung-fu training includes a great deal of attention to the flow of ‘chi’, and the meditative and physical exercises that we do (such as the practice set called the “Iron Wire“) certainly create some potent effects. At the more ordinary end of the scale one often feels various parts warming, strengthening, or tingling, as the attention, posture, and controlled breath direct the ‘chi’ into them — and any serious practitioner will know that when the flow of ‘chi’, directed by the breath and the correct body mechanics, is properly synchronized with the striking hand, the blow has an effect that seems entirely out of proportion with the effort made. Indeed, we often have new students who are curious, but doubtful, about the ability of seasoned practitioners to strike with disabling power from just an inch away, and it is always startling for them when I or one of our other seniors do it to them. When delivering a blow like that, there is a definite feeling of something internal being directed from one’s nether regions (specifically, points just below the navel, and in the perineal region of the groin) up through one’s middle and out through the striking hand, all timed and guided by the breath. But I have always wondered whether this is all just good mechanics, or whether there really is some actual substance, still off the Western scientific radar, at work here. Is the subjective experience just the mind’s way of guiding the body? The warming of the parts is real enough, but is it due to increased blood flow, or something more exotic? Certainly, when being struck by a kung-fu adept in this way (something I have been on the receiving end of on far too many occasions), the blow has a curious, penetrating sharpness, and an effect that lingers unpleasantly.

Harder to account for is the experience of expanding one’s ‘chi’ outside of the body. In practicing many of our chi-gung exercises, the hands are brought together, nearly but not quite touching. In my early years my sifu used to asked what I felt as I practiced the breathing exercises in these positions; I could usually feel some warmth, but little else, and could see that this was not what he was hoping for. One day, though, a couple of years into my training, I took up one of these postures after a particularly energetic class, with quite different results.

The posture was what we in Hung Gar call ‘crane’ stance: not the one-legged position familiar from The Karate Kid, but rather one in which both feet are on the floor, about shoulder-width apart, with the toes turned in slightly and the knees drawn together. The pelvis is rotated up and forward; beginners are often told to imagine a guy wire attached to a point just bleow the navel, and anchored to the floor a couple of feet in front of them, against which they are pulling, thereby rooting themselves to the ground. For the cultivation of ‘chi’ the hands are positioned in front of the lower abdomen, with the palms facing the body. The thumbs are extended, with the hands nearly touching, so that the space between the thumbs and forefingers forms an open triangle. The tips of the thumbs and forefingers are just a half-inch or so apart.

Standing in this posture, the practitioner breathes slowly and attentively, imagining the air flowing in a circular path: in through the nose, up along the top of the skull, down the back and into the lower abdomen, then out through the mouth. (The tip of the tongue touches the palate just behind the upper teeth to complete a circuit between two major meridians.)

I had done this many times already — though I had only been at it a couple of years at the time (this would have been 1978 or so), I had been training with my sifu six days a week all along — but this time was different. I felt, every time that I exhaled, that there was an expanding bubble pushing outward from my abdomen, and that it was only with a marked effort that I could contain it with my hands. It felt exactly like the repulsive force between two magnetic poles of like polarity. I was flabbergasted: this startling phenomenon just did not fit into my taxonomy of the physical world, but there it clearly was.

I was not able to reproduce the experience the next day, or for many weeks afterward, but little by little it became easier and easier. I told Master Chung about it; he gave a grunt and said it was “about time”. When I asked him what, exactly, it was, he said — plainly irritated at having to explain anything so obvious — that I was simply feeling my chi.

I have to confess that even thirty-odd years later I still don’t know how to account for it. I can summon up the “bubble” any time I like (though its intensity varies greatly with my general well-being), and it certainly feels to me as though I am directing ‘chi’ into my targets when I strike them, and that it is doing most of the work. I know I am able to generate a lot of power with very little motion. But I feel no closer to understanding what sort of phenomenon it really is (good mechanics plus a helpful illusion, or something more exotic?) — and furthermore, despite having associated closely with more than a few “old-school” grandmasters over the years, I have never experienced at first hand anything like what is shown in these videos. The first clip, of Lama Dondrup Dorje (a.k.a. Sifu Yueng), is so unbelievable that it is tempting (and quite possibly correct) to assume mere charlatanry. But then again, I do have compelling first-hand experiences of my own ‘chi’, so for all I know it might be possible to cultivate it to this seemingly absurd level. I really just don’t know what to think.

I will say this: whatever it is, if it is real I see no reason to imagine it is anything supernatural, and so I don’t see why we can’t train our instruments on it and begin to figure out just what the hell is going on.

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19 Comments

  1. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I’m at work, and I can’t check out the videos right now (access to youtube is blocked by my employer), but I agree that there’s definitely “something to” chi. And like you, I’m not at all inclined to think it’s beyond natural explanation — though I do think it’s beyond our present scientific understanding of what constitutes “nature”.

    My experience with this “thing” is nowhere near as extensive as yours. It’s appeared unexpectedly a few times — sometimes “spontaneously”; on other occasions after I’d been doing some intense breathing exercises. On one of those latter occasions I was able to “throw” my chi to a person who was 20+ feet away, eliciting a rather startled reaction from the recipient. But most of my self-aware encounters with chi have been at the hands of good acupuncturists. (Unfortunately, in my experience, many “certified” acupuncturists can’t tell if they’ve placed needles accurately. As the subject of treatment, I know immediately when a needle hits the “sweet spot”, and I won’t make a return appointment with any acupuncturist who thinks they know better and can ignore my subjective reports of what’s happening.)

    Posted February 2, 2009 at 10:35 am | Permalink
  2. Jesse Kaplan says

    Thank you for the honorable mention and open-minded return to the mind-body problem.

    Posted February 2, 2009 at 12:51 pm | Permalink
  3. Kevin Kim says

    Best example of ki I ever heard — and I may be stealing this from Joe Hyams’s Zen in the Martial Arts — talks about the contrast between (1) the baby that feels light when it wants to be picked up, and (2) the house cat, of similar weight, that seems to be oozing out of your hands and back toward the floor because it doesn’t want to be picked up. Very simple, very commonsense, and most of us have experienced both cases.

    I, too, think of ki as a natural phenomenon, but the history of the word is rather muddled. Throughout Chinese history the term signified different things depending on the school of thought. The notion of ki as “subtle energy” or “vital force” seems to have won out, but some schools view ki merely as sound waves, and others take ki to refer to all dynamic energy in “turbid” and “clear” forms, making up everything in the universe — all objects, all forces.

    Switching gears: I was interested to read this:

    The tip of the tongue touches the palate just behind the upper teeth to complete a circuit between two major meridians.

    In Zen meditation, we’re also advised to keep the top of the tongue against the alveolar ridge, but the reason given is a practical one: it aids drainage of saliva while you’re sitting still.

    Kevin

    Posted February 2, 2009 at 1:45 pm | Permalink
  4. Ron D says

    Hi,

    I’m leaning on the skeptical side. There are three interesting comments listed below from the first video’s link.

    1. “the guy who is atacking is using his legs to push himself backwards,and another thing is that he never falls on the ground, a clear sign that he is in control of his movement.”

    2. “everytime these masters are asked to do the same techniqe to someone other than their students, it does not work”

    3. And proof positive of the above: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gEDaCIDvj6I

    Check this vid out. It will make you laugh or cry, but I don’t think it will make you a believer.

    I must add that I believe Chi is real, but not the claims of any superhero type powers.

    Ron

    Posted February 2, 2009 at 3:27 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Ron,

    I can hardly blame anyone for being skeptical about what is shown in these videos, particularly the first one. As I mentioned in my post, this is so far beyond anything I have ever experienced that I “hae me doots” as well.

    Posted February 2, 2009 at 4:16 pm | Permalink
  6. Ron D says

    Yea, I know very little about the martial arts, but I thought I might use my lack of knowledge to my advantage hoping it would give me an un-biased view. I have no experience, good, or bad, with the martial arts, so I thought I could be open minded about watching the videos.

    No doubt that channeling engery, focusing the mind, proper training, etc. can all lead to amazing physical results. That I can easily except. But, the force field bubble is where it seems a bit of a con, like the dude who claims he can talk to the dead by leading you with his questions. Who here doesn’t know someone with the “letter J”? (South Park did a take off on this, and it was spot on).

    Some other comments on YouTube claimed it was a form of hypnosis. I have no idea. But, I think the reason why I felt compelled to comment here is that I thought the martial arts was above this kind of trickery, smoke and mirrors, and this type of con. That’s what surprised me more than anything.

    And the video I linked to, shows someone who really is dishonest using the martial arts as his ploy. A 200 and 0 record? AND a $5,000 prize for anyone who can beat him as he only uses his mind to defend himself? IMHO, he deserved to get flatten, no matter how old he was.

    Ron D

    Posted February 2, 2009 at 9:39 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Ron, I would dismiss the whole thing myself (and indeed what is shown in these clips may well be nothing but fakery) were it not for my own experience with that very same bubble. As I described above, the first time it happened to me I was astonished to find that I could feel it expanding and contracting with my breath. (Obviously, though, it was on nothing like the scale shown in these clips.) It is either some actual extended field of some sort, or an extremely strange proprioceptive illusion.

    I’ll try an experiment (I’m surprised I haven’t ever done it already, after all these years): I’ll get a nice chi-bubble going, put someone else’s hands where mine usually go, and see if he or she can feel it.

    Posted February 2, 2009 at 10:59 pm | Permalink
  8. bob koepp says

    Ah… one small step toward intersubjectivity, one giant leap into objectivity. Perhaps a shared proprioceptive illusion.

    Posted February 2, 2009 at 11:15 pm | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    Well, it would be an interesting result regardless. I must say the feeling certainly isn’t “barely there”, and it doesn’t seem like an illusion: it is a palpable, expanding and contracting ball of force. It’s very strange, and I’ve never known just what to think about it.

    Posted February 2, 2009 at 11:40 pm | Permalink
  10. Charles says

    I have had some experience with the martial arts–not nearly as much as Malcolm, but enough to have personal experience with gi (chi, ki). Approaching it from a purely philosophical standpoint, though, I have to wonder if gi being considered “supernatural” is not simply a Western interpretation of a concept that is not fully understood there.

    In Korean philosophy, at least, gi has been paired with i (principle, reason) to explain the workings of the universe, but neither was considered supernatural. They were considered quite natural–the foundation of all that is natural, in fact. The best way I can think of explaining it is by using the example of humors, which dates back to the Greeks. The four humors (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, black bile) were thought to determine a person’s personality, and imbalances in these humors led to illnesses (this actually bears a striking resemblance to the Asian theory of constitutions, but that’s a story for another time).

    Although this theory has since lost favor, it never asserted anything supernatural. It was, instead, an attempt to find a natural explanation for diseases and illnesses that had been previously attributed to demons and other evil spirits. The idea of gi and i, I believe, is similar–it is an attempt at a natural explanation of the workings of the universe. I believe that it is only a lack of understanding that causes it to be seen as something supernatural in the West.

    When I studied karate, I told my parents about my experiences with gi, and they kind of freaked out. Being devout Christians, they were worried that our meditative practices had “opened the door to demonic influences.” Years later, though, when I came to Korea, I was surprised to discover that none of my Christian friends batted an eye when I told them of my experiences. My wife (my future wife at the time, actually) simply nodded her head like what I was saying was the most natural thing in the world. The idea of gi is so embedded in Korea culture that the idea of being taken aback or being at a loss for words is described using the phrase “(my) gi is blocked.”

    So, that’s my two cents, I guess. I think I’m coming at it from the same angle as you and Kevin, although I have to say that I don’t think terms like “subtle energy” or “vital force” (or “material force,” which is how I translated the term in a forthcoming translation of mine) necessarily indicate something supernatural. I realize that’s not what Kevin is saying, I just think it should be made clear that, however muddled the history of the concept might be, in Asia it has never signified something supernatural.

    (As usual, I have gone on for too long. How I wish there were a “preview comment” function.)

    Posted February 3, 2009 at 6:31 am | Permalink
  11. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – Yes, it would be an interesting result to take note of. I wasn’t trying to be snarky about turning to intersubjectivity; and I really do view intersubjectivity as a leap (or maybe a fall or a stumble — I’m a fan of slapstick) into objectivity. If that person across the room had not taken a step back, said “Whoa!” and looked at me a little fearfully, I wouldn’t say that I was able to throw my chi to her.

    Posted February 3, 2009 at 12:24 pm | Permalink
  12. Hi there!
    What you have seen on the video with master Donrup Dorje is not so superficial as it seems to be. Many masters have been developing the same kind of “empty power”, kalled Kong Jin. I am a 46 yer old women and have been studying tai chi for 15 years with Dr. Shen Hongxun. He lives in Gent, Belgium, but teaches in many countryies around the world.He moves his students around with his own chi, and it is great fun! He also gives you extra “power” to do the standings and release the negative chi-factors in your body. He claimes that everyone can learn the Kong Jin. I have experienced it, and it is a natural force, nothong superficial or “mystic” at all.

    Posted February 12, 2009 at 7:18 am | Permalink
  13. PDG says

    Check out this site for more in depth info-

    http://www.thetaobums.com/index.php?showtopic=5786&hl=chang

    Posted February 13, 2009 at 1:40 pm | Permalink
  14. Malcolm says

    Hi Kirsti, and welcome.

    What you describe is just the sort of thing I would be very curious to experience firsthand, but never have.

    Posted February 13, 2009 at 2:06 pm | Permalink
  15. Malcolm says

    Thanks, Pat – we’ll take a look.

    Posted February 13, 2009 at 2:07 pm | Permalink
  16. My teacher, Dr. Shen Hongxun has developed a system which first of all removes the negative chi-factors in the body. It is primarely based on spontaneous movements during different stances, a system called Taiji 37, with 37 different stances developing different chi-forces. Already at the first class I managed to get spontaneous reactions, and the students are crying, shouting, laughing and singing as the force gets through their body, expelling the blockages of negative chi-factors, called binqi.That is the fun part!
    After some years of training, you get light as a feather and “invincible”.Many of his students have reached a high level, developing many special chi-forces, used for healing self and others. He retired two years ago, but still give lessons and classes in Belgium, France, The Netherlands and Norway.He is also a Tibetan lama with the name Fu Re, and I have seen the Golden Light of Buddha in his presence- a wonderful, golden force with an immence feeling of love that is beyond this world…
    The taiji training has in many ways changed the way I see the world, and I am so grateful of the care, love and insight given to me from my teacher. To read more about Dr. Shen Hongxun and his Buqi Institute; see http://www.buqi.net
    Love from Norway!

    Posted February 14, 2009 at 6:46 pm | Permalink
  17. chi says

    Good info here. More chi articles are included here, for spiritual reference, too: http://qigong.masterthepower.com

    Posted March 5, 2009 at 5:14 pm | Permalink
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    Posted May 10, 2013 at 9:26 am | Permalink
  19. Malcolm says

    Funny, Henry.

    Posted May 10, 2013 at 10:48 am | Permalink