A well-known qigong master was interviewed on a BBC Radio 4 programme recently. The interviewer asked him what was happening during qigong practice and enquired, "What exactly is qi flow?". The master's response was "It means that the energy in them [the practitioners] is flowing..." When pressed further to say what that meant, the master went on to describe some of the benefits that are generally claimed for qigong practice, such as better health, vitality and longevity, rather than engaging in any more precise definition of what precisely is meant by the idea. Asked where qi comes from, the master claimed that it is everywhere in the universe in a limitless supply and can be tapped into by the practitioner. His students than went on to describe the helpful effects on their lives of their qigong practice.
While I do not doubt that qigong has many perceived benefits for those who choose to undertake it as a form of mindful exercise, it seems to me that the rather vague descriptions of the nature of "qi" as "energy", "life-force" and so on are not useful. The fact is that qi is a pre-scientific concept that comes from a culture which did not have the analytical means at its disposal which are now available to us. Science does not accept the existence of qi as a separate and previously undetected phenomenon and indeed, given that modern physics now has instrumentation that can detect particles and forces down to the subatomic level, it seems unlikely to me that it ever will.
In fact, even in Chinese, the word and concept of qi is very wide-ranging. The character itself (氣) represents steam rising from rice as it cooks. The word can be used to mean "gas", "breath", "air", "odour or flavour", "weather", "mood or atmosphere", "morale" or "spirit"; it has thus come to take on physical, emotional and spiritual connotations, though it is notable that none of these definitions includes the term "energy" - the use of the character as part of a word to signify "momentum", however, perhaps comes close. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, qi is considered to be a vital substance which circulates through and connects the parts of the body by means of the various "acupuncture channels" and "meridians". In the martial arts, qi is considered to be drawn upon by the practitioner to develop both her strength and power as well as her focus and concentration.
Does this mean that when we practise our qigong or tai chi we need to discard such an unscientific, esoteric and variously-defined concept? Does the very complexity and unprovability of the notion of qi mean that there is a danger of Westerners being seduced by a fascination for what they see as a mystical, oriental culture into woolly thinking, a denigration of the achievements of science and medicine or even become victims of outright charlatanism? Indeed, how can we continue to practise, if we do not accept an idea which seems to be so fundamental to the arts that we want to learn?
I would give a qualified "yes" to the first two of those questions. I do not use the term "qi" very much, if at all, in class, for fear of being misunderstood and I think that there is a danger that Westerners will take literally what many Chinese themselves no longer believe in simplistic terms. My answer to the third question is that it is possible to study these arts if we consider qi not be be an actual physical force but more of a metaphor for the ways in which aspects of the body (such as physical alignment, movement, breathing, nervous stimulation or relaxation, circulation of the blood and lymphatic systems) and the mind can work in coordination with and influence each other.
Andrew Howard is a Chen-style Tai Chi Instructor teaching in West Dorset, UK.