What is Chi?

Chi, also referred to as Ki or Qi or Prana, is often seen as a mystical force that gives one supernatural power.  This idea has been brought to life by anime like the popular Dragon Ball franchise.  The concept has also been abused by a variety of “Martial Arts masters” to attract and exploit gullible followers.

I’d like to demystify the concept of Chi.   The concept of Chi is not easy to understand and as you deepen your exploration and knowledge on the topic it becomes more complex.  Still, I think that having baseline knowledge on the subject is important as it will give you a practical vantage point from which to begin your own exploration.  I’ll also provide my views and beliefs on what Chi is, but I would like for you to draw your own conclusions.


What is Chi?

Chi is defined as the vital life force that all living entities require to function and sustain themselves.  Chi is that subtle energy, also referred to as the body’s bio-energetic system, which surrounds and flows within the body and it enables the proper functioning of our anatomy’s many systems and even our psychology.  In these contexts, Chi is described as a stream flowing from a mountain.  It follows the path of least resistance as does a stream flowing from the mountain.  Chi has an impact on the 3 realms of an individual - Mind, Body and Spirit.  Achieving a positive step in any realm will have positive influences on the others.  Elevating oneself Spiritually will lead to free-flowing energy, allowing one to possess a balanced mind that is free of irritation and stress.  This  will lead to a healthy body that thrives due to the optimal functioning of its growth and maintenance systems.

Chi in Cultural Belief Systems

The concept of Chi exists in many cultures.  It is referred to by different names in each of these cultures but refers to the same life-force that is inherent in all living beings:

  • Prana – Indian
  • Qi – Chinese
  • Ki – Japanese
  • Mana – Polynesia
  • Orenda – Amerindian
  • Od – German
  • Ruah – Hebrew
  • Pnuema – Greek
  • Ruh - Islamic and Sufic

Interpretations of Chi

Biological System

In the most practical sense, Chi is interpreted as the elements which are vital to the preservation of the body.  Chi is therefore the air that we breathe and the nourishment we provide to our bodies.  It is carried through our blood and permeates the cells of our body.

qi gong

Vital force which enables biological functions

Prior to the development of modern science and a better understanding of biology, our ancestors described the body’s energy system and mechanisms in terms of Chi.  This goes beyond the practical idea of breath and nourishment.  Chi is seen to be that which is required to enable the various body functions like digestion, respiration, excretion, and growth.  In ancient India, Chi was categorised into the 5 Vayus:

  • prana - inward, inspiring energy
  • apana - downward, eliminating energy
  • udana - upward, creative energy
  • samanda - inward, churning energy
  • vyana - pervasive, circulatory energy

Awareness of the Body’s Autonomous Processes

Chi can also relate to an experience of the body’s autonomous processes such as the nervous system.  Yogic practices exist to take this experience many steps further so that one may gain control of these processes.  An example of this is the use of breath to manipulate the body’s sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.


Chi can be Manipulated and Projected

As Chi is understood to be a free-flowing bioenergetic system that has an impact on the Mind, Body and Spirit connection, developing an ability to sense it and control it is also a possibility.  Chi is understood to be an interpenetrating biofield similar to an electro-magnet in which negative and positive currents can flow.  This suggests that these electric currents can be controlled mentally as intention and through physical posturing.  In very simple terms, Chi control can be likened to the movement of electrical current through a circuit board.

chi manipulation

Chi in Martial Arts

Chi is an advanced concept in Martial Arts.  Many Martial Arts are designed to leverage Chi and move energy in specific ways based on assuming various postures.  This may become more apparent as one advances their Martial Arts practice.

Martial Arts is just one path towards improvement of the self.  It is a field of study that truly focuses on the building of Body, Mind and Spirit.  It requires the practitioner to experience his or her training at these 3 levels in order to improve.  Martial Arts demand holistic development in order to progress.  Chi is thus an important factor for a Martial Artist as it operates in all 3 domains.  

This is the reason that serious training in a Martial Art can be so mentally and physically exhausting.  A serious Martial Artist builds strength in Mind, Body and Spirit.  The key idea is that when the body feels like it is depleted of all its resources, a resilient mind takes over to push the body past its physical limitations.  The indomitable Spirit of the Martial Artist is the final well that the Martial Artist taps into to propel the mind and body when these have reached their limits.

Why is Chi Important?

Understanding the essence of Chi is not as important as using Chi as a concept for overall wellness.  Overall wellness is holistic wellness.  An improvement in the state of the Mind, Body and Spirit.  The concept of Chi provides a framework for us to see the interconnectedness of our Mind, Body and Spirit.  

We are not able to improve just a single aspect of ourselves without impacting the other aspects in some manner. If you exercise regularly, you will experience an improvement in your physical fitness.  This experience is not isolated to physical improvement but also an improvement in your mental state as well.  If you are sensitive enough to feel at a Spiritual level, you will likely experience an improved state in this realm as well.  This can be interpreted as a positive improvement in self-esteem.

In this way, the concept of Chi is important as it allows you to focus on improvement holistically without neglecting important aspects of your development.

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As a spiritual person, I believe in the presence of the Soul and that the Soul is the differentiator between animate and inanimate objects.  This is consistent with the belief that the Soul leaves the living entity when it ceases to be.  By extension, I believe that Chi is the Soul itself and the more inner work we do through Chi practices, the greater the connection to our Soul or Spirit is.  

There exist beliefs in Hinduism that we each exist with our own Soul with which we have travelled with through multiple lifetimes.  In addition to our individual Souls, a Super Soul also exists which is the origin of all life-forms.  A good metaphor for these 2 discrete pieces of energy is that the individual Soul is “oil” and the Super Soul is “water” and these can therefore not mix.  The goal is to change the nature of your individual Soul from “oil” to “water”, through spiritual practices and righteous intentions so that they become one.  When I am able to achieve this, I go back to the source and the single universal awareness.  “I” ceases to be and becomes one with the “whole”.  This is my ultimate and final goal and the reason I pursue Martial Arts so relentlessly.


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