“Who Moved My Chi?”

Suanne Lewis 11/07

There is a lot of mention about “chi” (sometimes spelled ki or qi) in complementary health care circles, but those new to the field may wonder just exactly what this word means. In health traditions based on traditional Eastern, particularly Chinese, medicine, chi refers to energy, the universal energy believed to be stored in our bodies and available to us in the environment. Other ancient healthcare traditions, like Ayurveda, believed to have originated in India, refer to prana and apana as similar concepts.

Chi is said to flow through our bodies in energy channels, called meridians, supplying our muscles and organs with life-giving healthful oxygen supplied through efficient and thorough breathing. Yet, despite the natural function of our breath from the time of birth to our death, most of us can benefit from training and practice in how to make the best use of our breathing apparatus, learning to more fully fill our lungs and direct the breath to areas of our bodies most in need of it. Yoga is one system that has developed various breathing techniques for relaxation, meditation, pain relief, and increased flow of energy, for example. Some of these strategies form the basis of progressive relaxation techniques used in modern healthcare facilities for improvement of surgical outcomes and chronic pain management.

The motivation of many complementary health practices is to circulate, unblock and balance the chi in our bodies. This purpose stems from an underlying belief that illness and discomfort evolve from energy blockages or poor circulation of chi throughout the body. One ancient practice, Chi Gung or Qi Gong, on which many newer approaches are based, is a slow, meditative series of repetitive movements and postures, which target specific areas of the body, improving the movement of chi through these areas, thereby releasing toxins from the body and increasing a sense of well-being.

T’ai Chi, based on traditional Chinese medicine, has many systems developed over the centuries, but each system is said to have developed from an original form compiled during the Ming Dynasty, circa 1300 A.D. T’ai Chi practice is based on principles of posture, balance, and movement from our center of mass, called the T’an T’ien, roughly equivalent to our “solar plexus,” somewhere about one to three inches below the navel. The T’an T’ien is believed to be the center of chi in our bodies. While the original systems developed into forms of combat and self-protection, forms of T’ai Chi are used today to develop improved balance, lower blood pressure, decrease stress and increase concentration. Clinical practitioners report that children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder have been found to improve concentration and self-awareness through developing skills in T’ai Chi.

T’ai Chi Chih, is a modern system, developed about 1974 by an American T’ai Chi Chuan master, Justin Stone, who believed in the benefits of T’ai Chi, but also knew that traditional T’ai Chi was difficult to learn and perform without a long-term teacher. Stone developed a simplified version of 19 movements and one pose, which is simple to learn and practice, even in a seated position. While participants report lowered blood pressure, better balance, increased energy, improved overall health, and greater creativity, an actual scientific research study conducted at UCLA found that seniors who practiced T’ai Chi Chih had a greater immune response to the herpes zoster virus, responsible for the painful condition we call “shingles,” in addition to improved physical functioning overall. A small study of T’ai Chi Chih reported in the October, 1997, Journal of Gerontological Nursing found this form of movement useful for older adults in improving and maintaining balance.

Acupuncture is another complementary technique focused on moving and balancing chi that has been used for many years in China, Japan, and Korea for the treatment of anxiety, stress, insomnia, and depression. While scientific research on effectiveness of acupuncture is still sparse, preliminary studies on its effectiveness for treating symptoms of depression suggest that it is a promising complementary treatment to other standard treatments.

A National Institute of Mental Health funded research project at the University of Miami showed that the use of massage therapy for depressed adolescents actually significantly lessened a physiological marker of depression. Previous studies found that when depressed patients undergo EEG (electroencephalograph) testing, the right frontal lobe is markedly more active than the left frontal lobe. In this study, right frontal lobe activity was significantly lessened after massage.

The question of chi movement and the myriad methods for accomplishing it is an ancient and fascinating one. As a lifestyle approach, most of us desire to feel energetic, well balanced, with all organ systems fully functioning. Yoga, Reiki, T’ai Chi, massage, and Qi Gong can help us with this endeavor. Current research is beginning to show support for the use of these and other energy-based techniques as beneficial complements to Western medicine, or as supplements when Western techniques cause difficult side effects. As with most new activities, before moving your own chi, it is best to check with your health care practitioner.