No really, what is it? You can spell it qi, chi, or ki, depending on the cultural context. Books often will give the general definition of ‘life force energy’, which makes sense, but still doesn’t quite capture the essence of qi. In studying zen shiatsu, we learn about the muscles, tendons, and bones of the body as well as the meridians and acupoints, areas of the body where qi is concentrated or pathways for it to travel. During a session, my focus is on these energy channels as much as rotations of the joints or tension in the muscles. I’m working with all of your qi.
There is qi in everything – in living bodies such as animals and plants, but also in our food, in the air we breathe. Qi is the name for the impulse that exists in chemicals and molecules compelling them to join together or break apart. It is not a magical entity that only exists in Eastern medicine, it’s a different word and category of describing life experience. In Western biology, we know that our lungs take in air that is made up of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, these molecules enter into our blood stream to be used for the chemical mechanisms of metabolism, cell regeneration, and other processes that fuel the body. In TCM, we call this same process the intake of Lung Qi. Different words, same observed experience of living.
People might assume qi is something that exists outside of our Western understanding of biology, but instead think of it as a different way of understanding the processes in life with which we’re already familiar. Sometimes it’s a broader category, like the breathing example I gave. The points and channels on the body, used in both acupuncture and shiatsu treatments, are located below the skin but above the muscle, in the superficial fascia that covers every part of us. These are not the only places where qi is found, it’s just the most concentrated areas, so they are effective ways to access qi. Our fascia has been shown to have the ability to conduct electricity, so qi can also be thought of as the electrical currents that flow through our body: the spark of our heart beat, the pumping of blood through the vessels, the movement of lymph and craniosacral fluids through our channels.
When we cut our skin, strain a muscle, break a bone, inhale a virus, our body springs into action to repair itself, through blood clotting, cell regeneration, inflammation, removal of dead cells, and hundreds of other tiny mechanisms. Why? What motivates the body to recover? This process can also be said to be qi – the compulsion to live, to maintain health, our spirit. Naming it doesn’t solve the mystery or explain the origin of spirit, it simply gives us a label and acknowledges its existence and observe how it works, and what we use to help us cultivate, nourish, and direct qi into our bodies and the world in the best ways possible. During a shiatsu session, I’m neither giving nor taking qi from you – I am working with the qi you already have, seeing what areas might have excess, where there are deficiencies, where there are blockages creating the imbalances, and work to help clear any “qi traffic jams” and encourage your body to do what it is naturally and organically predisposed to do: heal itself.