The depths to which Traditional Chinese Medicine can go seem to have no end – It is a bottomless pit of interdependency, a roundabout which doesn’t really have a start or an end. Trying to pinpoint an exact position in TCM is a bit like trying to find a start to the yin-yang cycle – there isn’t one really, it’s just a revolving circle which is never completely yang or yin. Being able to give an overview then of the way Qi in the body is structured through the eyes of TCM is always open to be a never ending story because it just keeps going and going. In this article, I’ll be focusing on the way the human body interacts with the universal energies outside it and then delve into how our body works.
Our bodies are just part of a universal flow of energy that permeates everything. In the language of the Tao, we each are just part of the ‘the way’, never really distinct from it but a part of the greater whole. It is this concept that lays the foundation for traditional chinese medicine, Tui Na, acupuncture, shiatsu and a whole host of holistic and alternative therapies. They each view a healthy body as a combination of not just physical wellbeing, but also spiritual, mental and emotional wellbeing. Each of us must exist in harmony with the greater whole or it is impossible for us to be balanced within.
If our environment is causing us to be unduly stressed, emotionally drained or mentally fatigued then these factors have an impact on our physical bodies. Similarly, if we exist in a physically unhealthy environment, it begins to affect us on other levels, perhaps making us ‘crazy’, emotional or vacuous. We cannot be healthy in a holistic sense if we are out of balance on any level and when we go to treat an imbalance in a holistic sense, we cannot just confine ourselves to they physical symptoms of an illness, but seek to understand the relationship between the way we live and our the manifestation of that lifestyle in our bodies.
Qi (loosely understood as ‘energy’) is all around us. It is broken down into two parts – yang and yin. Neither is better than the other, just different. Yang is fast moving and warming, yin in slow moving and cooling. Energy is constantly circulating around us and so we find heavenly Qi descending and earthly Qi rising. The heavenly Qi, despite coming from the heavens, isn’t actually yang even though it is yang when in heaven – we refer to it as yin because it is descending! The earthly Qi that is rising we call Yang energy. This harks back that when we freeze time and attempt to discern what is going on, we treat energy according to its function at that time, not where is came from. Thus the qi of organs and meridians refer to the function of that organ rather than the organ itself.
Yang Qi rises up along our back and Yin Qi descends down our front. This microcosmic orbit revolves around our center area, with yang qi rising from the perineum up along the spine, over the crown of our head and down the front. Apart from this, qi is entering and leaving our bodies via our orifices and pores. At the superficial level of the skin, yang qi circulates in a defensive manner, protecting us from external pernicious influences. Yin qi is located at the deeper levels, moistening our organs and meridians. At all times, each is transforming into the other. We succumb to external pernicious influences when our superficial yang qi is too weak to prevent pathogens from entering the body. These then continue penetrating to deeper levels within the body until they arrive at the organs.We can also develop illness from the organs outwards if we are out of balance and the organ or organs affected will reflect the type of causation – for example, a very angry person is prone to liver problems or a grief stricken person prone to lung problems. Because we seek to re-balance ourselves, it is possible to treat a yang illness via its paired yin meridian or treat an imbalance of yin via working on yang. For example, we can look to the Large Intestine (yang) to help move unresolved feelings of grief affecting the lungs (a yin organ).
Qi then, is an every circulating energy. Although we differentiate between different types of fluids in our body (e.g. blood and jing), is is important to remember that they are all just various types of qi. Jing may be more dense and physical that our lung qi or our gathering qi, but at their most basic, they are all qi, transforming from one form to another constantly, just like yin and yang.
Our initial qi comes from our parents in the form of jing or essence. It is called pre-natal jing and it is this qi that forms our constitution. We don’t really replenish this qi during our lifetime but use it up slowly, mixed with qi that we ‘generate’ (see below) i.e. post natal qi. We can deplete this prenatal qi if we are overly sexually active, have a poor diet or overwork to extremes. This original qi, is our original essence (jing) that has been transformed into qi or another way of thinking about it, original qi is our jing in movement.
Original qi is also called Yuan or Source Qi.
Post natal qi is composed of qi that is generated via the food we eat and the air we breathe. It is all the energy that we enters us, through whatever form. When we feel a bad ‘vibe’ in an area, this is the result us being aware that the energy here is not suited to us and we should make an exit!
Post natal qi is composed of;
Air Qi – transformed bu our lungs
Food Qi – transformed by our Stomach and Spleen (‘Gu Qi’)
These together form Gathering Qi (‘Zong Qi’ or Chest qi). This is a more sublime form of qi than air or food qi and is more easily used by the body. Gathering qi combines with our original qi to form True Qi ~(‘Zhen Qi’), which is essentially the last stage of the transformation process. True Qi and Gathering Qi are governed by the Lungs.
True qi is split into two forms – nutritive qi (‘Ying qi’ – to nourish our body) and defensive qi (‘Wei Qi’ – to protect our body).
Nutritive qi circulates around our body and together with the blood, nourishes our body. Defensive qi circulates between the skin and the muscles providing a defensive barrier against external influences.It is the first line of defense against the external pernicious factors such as Cold, Heat and Damp.