Trying to understand Chinese Medicine without Qi is like trying to live without air, which is a pretty good simile, because qi (氣) is often translated as breaths.
Chinese language is character based, and a picture is worth a thousand words. To understand qi is to understand a poem. There is no one word to summarize this idea, in fact, there are hundreds.
So, we begin our understanding of this concept with a look at the character that represents it…
First and foremost, this is the character as it exists now. There is a several-thousand year history of the evolution of the idea of qi. So, this is the briefest history of qi possible.
The top of the character means vapors moving (气). The ‘inside’ of the character is an exploding grain (米).
Inside, there is power, outside there is vapor (movement, change). Vapor is invisible, but its effects are visible. It is for this reason, we translate qi as the invisible power behind visible phenomena.
There is a capacity to qi: palpable, but not tangible: feel it, but can’t touch it. There is a magnetism to qi: attractive and dynamic, but indescribable. A certain je ne sais quoi, as the French would say.
In Chinese Medicine, qi is nearly everything. It is definitely intertwined with everything physical and mental, because qi is what animates, permeates, and regulates all of the functions of the human bodymind.
One of the fundamental ways to keep ourselves healthy is to harmonize the movement of qi within our bodies and with respect to the movements of qi in nature (the four seasons).
There is a different qi, a different invisible power behind visible phenomena, in each season. The qi of spring is about moving upwards – sprouts breaking through the ground. The qi of summer is about moving outwards – flowers unfolding their brilliant petals. The qi of autumn is about moving downwards – leaves falling off the trees. And, the qi of winter is about moving inwards – bears hibernating in a cave.
Work with the movements of qi. Watch them in nature and feel them in yourselves. When qi is obstructed, there is pain. When qi flows, there is harmony.
If this is interesting to you, we recommend you read A Study of Qi, by Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallee. Many of the ideas here are informed and inspired by this wonderful text.