Qi (氣) has many meanings in Chinese; the most common one is air. In the context of Taijiquan(太極拳, T’ai Chi Ch'uan), it means “Internal Energy.” Quan (拳) literally means a fist. When it is used after any name it becomes a martial art style. For example Taijiquan (the pinyin spelling for T’ai Chi); Bagua Quan(八卦掌), and Xingyiquan(形意拳), the latter two are other famous internal martial styles. This article will discuss Qi and Quan, their connections, and how to improve qi to enable your quan to reach a higher level.
What is Qi?
Qi is the life energy inside a person. This life energy comes from the combination of three things: the air breathed in through the lungs, essential Qi from the kidneys, and the Qi absorbed from food and water through the digestive system. Qi circulates throughout the body, performing many functions to maintain good health.
Like other internal martial art styles, Qi is the driving force of the internal power (jin) in Taiji. The mind (yi) directs the qi, and the qi drives the jin, in practice, yi, jin and qi are inseparable. I will discuss this later.
Qigong, the exercise of qi cultivation, is one of the oldest exercises in Chinese history. Its origin dates back more than one thousand years. There are numerous types of qigong; generally speaking it is a variety of breathing, gymnastic, and meditative exercises.
Martial Art and Tai Chi Qigong
Qigong can be related to martial arts and other styles. In practical terms Qigong can be done sitting, standing or moving. There are hundreds and thousands of martial art styles in China, almost all of them have their own brand of Qigong. Generally speaking martial art style Qigong is moving, more practical and is part of the discipline. Although different styles place varying degrees of significance on their Qigong, internal styles place greater significance on Qigong. Most Taiji practitioners agree that Qigong is an integral part of Taijiquan.
Chinese culture, other martial arts, Buddhism and Confucius all have had some influence on what Taiji is today; it has incorporated Daoism’s philosophical understanding of nature into its forms. Taiji is based on the law of nature. There is no evidence that true Taiji incorporates any religious component from Buddhism or Daoism.
The core energy of Taiji is qigong — should one wish to focus on martial arts and train with emphasis on that aspect, they will find the power of Qi makes Taiji a most effective health exercise as well as a powerful martial art
Stationary and Moving Qigong
Many Taiji styles incorporate a set of stationary Qigong forms, which usually involve standing and maintaining different postures for varying periods of time. Like sitting meditative Qigong, it allows better concentration on the mind and the Qi without being distracted by moving and coordinating the whole body. On the other hand, Qi is dynamic (it circulates throughout the body) so when practicing Qigong, being in a stationery position could create an imbalance between the mind and the body. It is accepted by many that if practiced incorrectly, Qigong practitioners could be so wrong-tracked that they become mentally disturbed in a very profound manner (the literal translation of this term is “losing fire into the devil reign.”) People are known to become crazy when their mind is thus wrong-tracked. It is considered to be the most dangerous risk in practicing Qigong. This is also known as the "Qigong Deviation Syndrome." Practicing moving Taiji Qigong maintains a nice balance of the mind and the body and thus bears no risk of “Qigong Deviation Syndrome."
There is another serious health risk with stationary Qigong: the body is designed to move. Deliberately remaining still for long periods, particularly when standing, can cause excessive stress to the joints, muscles, and slow down blood and body fluid circulation that would make many medical conditions such as arthritis and poor circulation, worse,. Standing for too long can lead to a flare up of arthritis, swollen legs, too much stress to the heart and some people can lose consciousness. Slow, smooth and continuous movement is much better for balance, relief of pain and general wellbeing - yet it is just as effective to cultivate Qi if not more so.
What is Quan?
Quan is “fist” in Chinese, thus any name followed by Quan is a martial art style. Here I am going to use the word Quan to mean martial art. The ultimate purpose of Quan is to subdue or control your opponent. There are two types of Quan; the internal and external. An example of internal Quan is Taiji, and that of external is Shaolin. Within either type there are many different styles. It is generally more challenging to learn the internal Quan for effective self-defense. The external Quan uses techniques that are more directly related to fighting, stronger muscles, blocking and punching, where the quicker and stronger tend to win. Whereas in the internal arts, one is more focused on cultivating Qi (which may take a long time to reach a good level), thereby integrating it into the body to bring internal energy and greater health to the person. With high level of Qi it is directed by the mind (yi) and able to drive internal power (jin) before it can be effectively used for self-defense. In a way it is like many things that take more time and patience to acquire initially...it would end up more powerful and last longer.
Improve Qi to Better the Quan
Strong Qi not only makes one healthier, it also improves the level of Quan. Let me confine this to Taiji, and to explain two important concepts that would improve Qi effectively. These are the understanding of Opening and Closing, and the Circulation of Qi.
Opening and Closing
Alternating opening and closing continuously is evident in all Taiji forms. Like drawing a bow to shoot an arrow, the drawing is storing energy that is the opening. The shooting is releasing energy that is the closing. This can be confusing because the opening and closing relate to the use of Jin (internal power), and not necessarily relate to the outward appearance. For example in the Yang style Single Whip movement, the end movement is a closing movement, not opening, although its outward appearance is that of opening up.
As in all Qigong, correct breathing is of vital importance: breathing in while opening and breathing out while closing. Chen Jin (Chen Xin - 陳鑫) one of the most famous Chen style masters, whose writing was responsible for making Chen style known outside the Chen village, said when opening you are solid outside and soft inside and when closing you should be soft outside and solid inside.
For example, in the Chen Style 36 Forms, Number 34 called “Forward Cannon Punch” bringing both fists backward and downward to near the left hip is drawing the bow, then the punching with both fists is shooting the arrow. Breathe in while storing energy, your outside is solid and inside soft. Then breathe out when punching out, with the outside soft (and elastic) and inside solid (Qi sinks to the Dan Tian). When breathing in, Qi moves upwards and when breathing out, Qi sinks downward.
Opening and closing is closely associated with stretching out and relaxing. It is important to be aware that the muscles, ligaments and tendons can be stretching out even when moving closer to the body. When stretching out one must not become over-stretched to the extent of becoming stiff, otherwise the Qi will stop its flow. The converse is true in that when relaxing, one must not collapse the muscles, ligaments and tendons: there should be a certain amount of ward off force (peng jin) remaining, otherwise Qi collapses and the flow stops.
Opening and Closing, breathing in and breathing out, this is the law of nature. All martial art styles follow this alternative pattern, although external styles tend to break the force when the power is delivered, for example in punching out, thus creating a weakness. Taiji uses circular movements to facilitate the circulation of qi, making the changing of energy smooth and continuous without a break. The internal energy become stronger as it flows, continuously gathering more qi. This is better illustrated by the concept of Qi Circulation.
Circulation of Qi
Qi circulates throughout the body along the Conception and the Governing Vessels - the two major energy meridians (or Qi channels). They run along the midline of the body just beneath the skin. The Conception Vessel goes from top of the head (bai hui or GV-20 acupuncture point) down the front of the body to the point between anus and sexual organs (hui yin or CV-1 acupuncture point). The Governing Vessel goes from the hui yin point to bai hui up the back of the body. Qi escapes slowly and insidiously through the bai hui point as it circulates past it. Qigong and Taiji help retain and cultivate the Qi. To many people Taiji’s goal is “To live forever and to stay forever young.” The key to that is Qi cultivation. To do this it is helpful to be aware of Qi, and to consciously direct its circulation so that it can be enhanced.
Figure 1 Move Qi upwards along the Conception Vessel.
Once one understands the opening and closing, the next stage is to move Qi upwards along the Conception Vessel as you open or breathe in. The breathing should be done with mouth gently closed, tongue lightly touching the upper palate, taking the Qi to the middle of the chest (at the acupuncture point of Shan Zhong, (see figure 1). As you breathe out, bring your qi down to Dan Tian – that is an area three-finger breadth below the belly button. In the beginning take care to understand and confine your practice to forms where you know which movement is opening and which is closing.
Avoid forcing your breathing. If you run out of breath, or are not sure whether to inhale or exhale, just allow yourself to breathe naturally. When the body’s posture and movements are correct, the breathing will become correct naturally.
After a suitable period you can circulate the Qi in the above manner (this may take a long time). It depends on your health, talent, frequency of practice… etc. At an advanced level when your forms are well balanced and the flow of movement is even and strong, and with your postures being correct, you will start feeling the abundance of Qi in the Dan Tian. You can then start working on circulating Qi more elaborately. As you breathe in, feel Qi flowing along the Governing vessel just underneath the skin and rising up to the scalp. At the out breath Qi sinks down to the Dan Tian, and from the Dan Tian it moves further down to the hui yin point. On the in breath Qi continues up along the Governing Vessel, and then comes down along the Conception Vessel again in a circle. (see figure 2).
It may be difficult to reach this stage without the guidance of a good teacher and a lot of practice. Then there is a next stage where your Qi can be directed at will from Dan Tian. This is more challenging, and best to be taught by teachers in a face to face setting.
I have been conducting the Exploring the Depth of Tai Chi for Arthritis workshop which teaches participants how to incorporate Qi into their Taiji and how to use this method to circulate and deliver the Qi. This instruction helps to cultivate Qi more effectively and make progress in tai chi much quicker and more enjoyable. (3)
There are many essential principles that are important to reach higher levels of Taiji, but I believe that you don’t need to be perfect in any of these principles to develop your own Qi or Taiji to a high level.
It is the understanding of these essential principles along with diligent practice that will put almost anyone to a very high level. Knowing opening and closing, and circulation of Qi are two of these essential principles that help to develop and improve skill.
This entry originally titled “Qi and Quan” appeared in Qi: The Journal of Traditional Eastern Health & Fitness (Qi Journal) Vol. 11. No. 1: Spring 2001.