Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What is Qi? (in Martial Arts)

Simply put, qi is life energy (pronounced “chee”, often spelled “chi”). A direct translation is “breath.” According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), this energy flows throughout the body like rivers over a landscape. The main channels are called meridians and branch out to nourish every part of the body, much like blood vessels. Blocking or disrupting the flow of qi is said to result in illness and poor health. The main goal of TCM and internal martial arts is to improve qi flow, resulting in better health.

How can this concept be reconciled with western thinking? Some people think it is impossible—that qi is not even real. The spiritual aspects of qi lie outside the realm of science, but much of the idea roughly coincides with scientific fact. Modern science requires precise definitions and measurable quantities in order to analyze any physical phenomena. It is a well-known fact of physics that energy is all around us, and it takes many forms—often converting from one form to another. From a Western point of view, qi can be thought of as a general model of energy as it interacts with the body.

Within the human body, energy takes many forms and serves many functions. Stored chemical energy enters the body through eating and breathing. Nutrients and oxygen are then absorbed and transported via the blood to every cell in the body. Muscles convert chemical energy into kinetic energy—producing movement ranging from blood flow to walking. Chemical energy is converted into electricity by the nervous system to facilitate communication between cells. These nerve signals travel everywhere in the body to and from the brain which forms an elaborate electrical network whose complexity rivals any supercomputer. When converting from chemical energy to any other kind, some heat energy is produced. The body's metabolism requires a certain amount of heat to function just right, and a balance of internal and external temperatures must be constantly maintained. As mentioned in the previous post, heat naturally spreads from hot areas to cold ones. In cold environments, the body's heat energy flows outward which means more heat must be produced to keep the internal temperature correct. In hot environments, heat flows from the surroundings into the body, and the body works to expel heat faster. Another form of energy relevant to bodily function is gravitational potential energy. Gravity pulls the body downward, and the muscles constantly work against it to keep the body upright and the blood flowing. In the martial arts, keeping one's balance is crucial.

Balance is a recurring theme in Eastern philosophy, and it certainly applies to qi. The body works to prevent becoming too hot or too cold. Muscles work together to maintain a stable posture for staying upright. Any strenuous activity requires an appropriate amount of rest. Muscular tension is matched with relaxation for energy efficiency.

Another important component of qi is the mental aspect. “Focusing your qi” can be a powerful method of meditation/visualization. Imagining qi flowing through one's body is an ancient practice of developing the ability to relax and concentrate at the same time. It can also subconsciously affect physical performance as well. If you think about energy flowing from your feet to your fist, your body's coordination and strength may be improved during a punch. This is a result of muscles working harmoniously (efficiently) to produce and direct force and kinetic energy. Qi visualization can also result in some control over autonomic functions such as heart rate and blood pressure.

As you may have realized, energy in the Western sense is constantly flowing within the body, but scientific inquiry separates it into many different categories. When you see energy as one continuous phenomena, without worrying which form it takes, you will have some understanding of qi. Eastern philosophy tends to look at the big picture and find general rules rather than dissecting a subject into exact parts. Both approaches have their pros and cons. Both could benefit greatly by “comparing notes.”

Saturday, October 8, 2011

What does Yin-Yang mean?

Yin and yang are complementary opposites. Whenever you observe a system that oscillates between two extremes, you are witnessing yin and yang at work. Whenever you see two interrelated parts that form a whole, that is yin-yang. Nature has countless examples of this principle. The seasonal cycle goes from maximum heat in summer to minimum heat in winter. Electromagnetic waves oscillate between maximum and minimum field strengths. Even subatomic particles can show yin and yang qualities. The electron is the yin particle; it is relatively weightless and has a negative charge. The proton is the yang particle; it is very massive, or full, and has a positive charge. They have opposite charges and are thus drawn to each other. Together, they form a complete, neutral atom. Fused into one particle, they become the neutron, the wuji particle. Wuji means perfect balance or stillness, when yin and yang have combined and neutralize each other. Thermodynamics is a good example of this. Given enough time, a concentration of heat (yang) will spread to cool areas (yin) until there is uniform temperature everywhere (wuji). This is how the universe works. Yin and yang originated from Daoist efforts to find patterns and cycles in nature. Categorizing things into either yin or yang is not as important as recognizing the dependence between the two. Think about the balance rather than the labels. The yin-yang symbol, also called the taijitu, shows how yin and yang form an endless cycle. Below are some examples of yin and yang.


Saturday, October 1, 2011

Frustration from Translation

At times, researching Chinese culture and history can be confusing and frustrating because of inconsistencies in translation. For instance, when trying to learn about the concept of life energy, one might see the word “qi” (pronounced “chee”) used in a certain document. In another document the word “chi” might be used (not the Greek letter). If you are not accustomed to this phenomenon, you might get disoriented. “Chi” and “qi” are translations, or Romanizations, of the same Chinese word that means “life energy” or “breath” and are spoken in the same way. Same meaning and sound, but different ways to spell.

There are multiple systems of romanization, and each system will give different spellings for the same Chinese word or character. The Wade-Giles system is arguably the most recognizable one in America. It was the most popular system during the twentieth century and is still in use today. Whenever you read “Tai Chi,” you are witnessing the influence of the Wade-Giles version of romanization. The international standard version right now is the Hanyu Pinyin system, commonly called Pinyin. In Pinyin, “Tai Chi” is spelled “Taiji.” Both spellings refer to the martial art that is becoming a popular method of both exercise and relaxation in the West.

As a general rule, this blog will use the Hanyu Pinyin system, but fancy marks around letters will be omitted for the sake of simplicity. For example, "八卦” means “eight symbols.” English texts from the last century might often translate this as “pakua” (Wade-Giles), but the modern standard (Pinyin) would be spelled “bāguà.” On this blog, the word will be spelled “bagua.” Below is a table to help clarify the concept of romanization.

Life energy
Eight symbols
Supreme ultimate
Fist or boxing
Martial art or hard-earned skill
T'ai Chi
Tai Chi