What is Chi?

What is Chi?

Yin Yang The practice of Qi Gong and Tai Chi has many benefits for the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of people’s health. One of the main ways this occurs is through building up Chi and encouraging it to circulate around the body. The meaning of the word “Chi” is difficult to translate as it has many different meanings in Chinese when used in different situations.


It is often translated as “internal energy” or “vitality power”, but as there is no similar concept in western medicine it can be hard to grasp its meaning.
The characters for Chi in Chinese mean “vapour” or “steam”, and “rice”. Eating cooked rice is a good source of energy for our bodies – one of the central ideas in Chinese medicine is that the air we breath and the food we eat are major sources of Chi (you can see the page on the Ch’ang Ming diet for more information on the best foods to eat to encourage health). But these two characters also show how Chi can exist in different forms, from the immaterial state of steam, to the solid form of rice. In its immaterial form, it is the energy that animates us and gives a sparkle in the eye. But when the flow of Chi is blocked due to health problems, tension, or injury, the flow stagnates and in extreme cases solid lumps or tumours can appear. When Chi condenses, it can take a physical form.

There is also a parallel in modern physics of how Chi is in a constant state of flux between the physical state and the energetic or immaterial state. Although matter appears to be solid on the scale we see it, if we were to look closely at the atoms and particles that make up matter they are made of pure energy. If water molecules are vibrating slowly then they form ice (solid), and as they warm up and vibrate more quickly they can change into water (liquid) and then finally into steam (gas). It is similar with Chi – although it can have different forms it is still essentially the same Chi.

There are different names for the different forms of Chi in traditional Chinese medicine. A quick look at these can help to show how Chi flows around the body in a circuit. Each of these different forms of Chi can move around the body to help the transformation of the other forms of Chi.

Yuan Chi (Original Chi)

Yin Yang This is the start of the cycle. We are all born with a certain amount of “Jing” which is the energy that we inherit from our parents. The health of our parents at the time of conception determines the quality and amount of Jing that we have, and this is a finite resource that we cannot replenish, but we can conserve it through staying healthy and living life in moderation. If we use it all up in wild living, then we age more quickly and it is very hard to reverse this process.

Yuan Chi is this essence, or Jing, that has been transformed into Chi. It has its root in the kidneys (where the Jing is stored) and is distributed around the body through the Triple Heater meridian. It is the foundation of all the Yin and Yang energies of the body and it lives in the Ming Men (or Gate of Fire) between the kidneys. It emerges at the 12 source points of the meridians.

Gu Chi (Food Chi)

This is the first stage in the transformation of food into Chi. Food is “rotted and ripened” by the stomach and then sent to the spleen to make Gu Chi. The Triple Heater referred to above is also known as the “Three Spaces”. The stomach and spleen are in the middle space or heater. The Gu Chi is sent from the middle heater to the upper heater. Here, in the lungs, it combines with air to form Zong Chi, and then to the heart where it is transformed into blood.

Zong Chi (Gathering Chi)

Zong Chi nourishes the heart and lungs and helps them with their functions. If it is weak the extremities, such as the hands and feet, can be cold through poor circulation. As it also gathers in the throat and influences speech, the strength of the voice can vary with this form of Chi.

Shen Chi There are two different forms – Ying Chi and Wei Chi


Ying Chi (Nutritive Chi)

Ying Chi nourishes the internal organs and flows with the blood as well as in the meridians. It spends two hours in each meridian going through all the organs in each 24 hour cycle. The organs are nourished by this, and each organ has a 2 hour period when it is at its strongest, and on the other side of this 24 hour cycle, a time when it is at its weakest.

Wei Chi (Protective Chi)

Wei Chi flows mostly through the exterior layers of the body – the skin and muscles – and protects the body from external influences (such as wind, cold or heat). It is controlled by the lungs which regulate its circulation to the skin. In the daytime Wei Chi circulates in the exterior with its maximum strength at noon. In the night it withdraws into the interior to protect the Yin organs. This is why it is easier to catch a cold at night, when the exterior protection is weaker.

(Much of this explanation of the types of Chi is taken from www.internalhealers.com where you can get a more detailed explanation).

Although the descriptions of the different kinds of Chi can help explain the theory, the practice of experiencing the flow of Chi is much more important. Qi Gong and Tai Chi helps the body to relax and become free of tension, and stretches the muscles, ligaments and internal organs of the body. This encourages Chi to flow, and most people can start to feel this for themselves after a month or two of doing Qi Gong and Tai Chi. Over time Qi Gong and Tai Chi also helps to build a reserve of energy with which the body can heal itself of past injuries and health problems, and which can improve people’s overall health.

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