What is chi?

Chi, also spelled qi (or ki in Japanese) is one of those things in the martial arts that generates a lot of controversy. For those who don’t know chi is the supposed mystic power, used in the martial arts to do seemingly miraculous feats. The word chi itself is almost synonymous with the phrase “breath power” and its the explanation of the health giving power of arts like tai chi and chi kung (qigong).

Chi is also a term used in traditional Chinese medicine. It is the explanation behind the workings of acupuncture and other forms of TCM.

The controversy stems from several different causes. First, there are so called skeptics who automatically disbelieve anything which seems paranormal, or is explained with paranormal terminology. Second, there are, in fact, charlatans who use trickery to “demonstrate” chi effects. Third, chi is a loose term and , as I shall explain, actually references a number of different phenomena. Lastly, I believe that, with chi, there are some phenomena which science cannot yet, but may someday, explain.

To me, skepticism should imply and open but inquisitive mind. In the U.S., for some reason, it has come to mean anyone who disbelieves anything which is outside the current canon of scientific knowledge. The funny thing about this form skepticism is that it demands scientific proof, but disallowing any explanation of an effect from the front flies in the face of scientific method itself. In an infinite and expanding universe anything is technically possible. It is also the folly of some “scientific” minds to ever believe that they know everything there is to know about the universe or even any single aspect of science. New discoveries happen daily in every field from mathematics, to optics, to biology, to physics.

So, the following is my understanding of “chi”. Understand that it is incomplete, as I believe no full explanation exists.

Chi is a combination of physical forces
Through proper body alignment, the conditioning of tendons, physical skill, and the ability of the mind to lead the body -  martial artists through the centuries have been able to perform miraculous physical “stunts” which are impossible to untrained people. Some of this involves breath control (such as that used by weightlifters) to support the internal structure of the body.

Most of what the martial artist is doing is at an unconscious level. Imagine a baseball pitcher trying to explain every muscle twitch involved in throwing a perfect fastball. In order to explain what is happening, we use the term chi, as a shortcut term for the collective of breath support, energy focus, muscle tension and relaxation, targeting, coordination, balance, etc.  I believe that a lot of martial arts demonstration feats (such as breaking) are the result of this type of “chi”.

In Chinese medicine, there are many different types of “chi”. In this case, think of “chi” as energy. In Western medical terms we might talk about cellular energy, muscular energy, the energy from the oxygen in the blood, the chemical / electrical energy carried by the nerves, etc. It’s a similar idea.

Chi is mental focus
If you want to hit someone really, really hard in the torso, you do not focus mentally on their torso. You focus on a space a few inches to a few feet behind them. When you focus on their body, unconsciously, the brain throws the brakes on when you reach the target and you hit less hard.

Why does it do that? Safety. Imagine that every time you take a step, you try to push your foot through the ground instead of stopping when your foot does. You would destroy your knees in no time. Do you need to think “stop pushing down” every time you take a step? Of course not, your unconscious mind tells your body to stop.

Chi is something which science can’t yet explain
So, is there a supernatural component side to chi? Well, I would argue that supernatural simply means that there is something that science can’t yet explain. I am aware of a number of relatively scientific tests of “chi” which defy what we know about cause and effect in the universe.

I recently saw a kung fu practitioner bend a spear with the point held against his throat. I’ve seen this stunt before and always chalked it up as an old time strong man stunt. However, this time a couple of scientists measured the force exerted on the spear and made sure the spear point is real. The force on the spear went above what the sensors could measure which was over 2900 pounds of pressure. This is many more times than enough to slice through any soft tissue. The area of the throat used cannot be developed muscularly to resist such force, and no skin callous was present. The scientists admitted that they had no explanation for their results.

In a study published in a  peer reviewed journal, a medical qigong practitioner was able to register significantly on scientific instruments meant to detect radiation. That same practitioner was able to change the molecular structure of water to statistically significant degree in a double blind study.

There have been a number of studies of the effects of qigong on various medical conditions. Most of these are understandably done in China. I was able to find one in an American Oncology journal that showed that qigong had a significant positive effect on many health factors of people undergoing chemotherapy, even when compared with other exercise or relaxation programs.

I personally do believe that something is going on, which is currently beyond the ability of science to fully explain.  Does this mean it’s BS? I don’t think so. After all science can’t yet fully explain why we yawn, the placebo effect, or gravity. Perhaps someday science will explain chi phenomena in scientifically acceptable terms, and perhaps someday will know why there’s gravity.

I will not go into the spiritual side of chi as that borders on religion and religious faith is its own thing.

Chi is fake
There have been people throughout history who demonstrate supernatural powers using trickery. India is ripe with “God men” who use magic tricks to fool villagers into giving them money.

I have seen video on Youtube of a pretty well known fake ninja using a very well known magician’s trick to demonstrate his supernatural power.

Martial arts is full of guys with fake credentials, fake belts, fake military experience etc. Some of them are extremely financially successful. It’s not my place on this site to call any of them out.

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