Qi is a very important concept in Chinese medicine. As it turns out, it’s a very important concept all over the world! The following is an excerpt from “The Way of Qigong” by Kenneth S. Cohen.
Invisible life energy is a universal concept and is most commonly associated with breath, heat, air, and/or sunlight. Evidence of a shared, perennial philosophy of health can be found among all ancient cultures.
God breathes the “breath of life” (ruach) into Earth to create the first human. The Hebrew name “Adam” ids rived from the same root as Adama, Earth. The Breath of God (Ruach Ha Kodesh in Hebrew, Spiritus Sancti in Latin) is synonymous with the power of Spirit. A similar idea is expressed in the holy scripture of Islan, the Qur’an (Koran). The words nafas, meaning Allah’s own breath, and ruh, meaning Allah’s own soul, “are used to mean the human breath and human soul – confirming the fact that we are originally from Allah, of Allah, for allah, and in the end will return to Allah.” Shaykh Hakim Moinuddin Chishti says that “breath” is not the same as air or oxygen. Rather is is a divine energy that regulates human emotions and the equilibrium of the body. “Both the quantity and quality of breath have a definite and direct effect upon human health.”
In Greek, the vital breath is called pneuma, a word first used by the philosopher Anaximenes (ca. 545 BC). Anaximenes said that life begins with the breath. All things come from it and dissolve into it at death. The soul is breath and is that which controls and “holds together” (prevents the disintegration or decomposition of) human beings. As air or wing, it encloses and maintains the world. Cambridge University professors G.S. Kirk and J.E. Raven in their work The Presocratic Philosophers, label a section of Anaximenes’ writings “The Comparison Between Cosmic Air and the Breath-Soul,” ideas that are remarkably parallel to the Chinese words Yuan Qi, “Cosmic or Original Qi,” and hun, “breath soul.” Vital breath creates a unity between microcosm and macrocosm. In Kirk and Raven’s translation, “The life-principle and motive force of man is, traditionally, pneuma or the breath-soul; (pneuma is seen in the outside world, as wind) therefore the life-principle of the outside world is pneuma; (therefore wind, breath, or air is the life and substance of all things).”
Hippocrates (460-377 BC) considered the founder of medical science, believed that the forces of life, like qi, must flow. When chymos, the body’s fluids – principally blood, bile, and phlegm – are in harmony, one is healthy. In The Nature of Man, he writes, “A man enjoys the most perfect health when these elements are duly proportioned to one another in power, bulk, and manner of compounding, so that they are mingled as excellently as possible. Pain is felt when one of these elements is either deficient or excessive…” When a component of health is isolated and out of balance with the other elements, in excess in certain places and absent form others, the result is pain and illness. According to Hippocrates, balance is the natural state. The role of a physician is “not to manipulate the patient as one would handle something inanimate, but to remove, both from within and from outside the patient’s body, obstructions to healthy recovery.”
Among the Kung San, the indigenous people of Africa’s Kalahan Desert, life energy is num. The num is stored in the lower abdomen and at the base of the spine and can be made to “boil” through ecstatic dance. In Boiling Energy, by Harvard lecturer Richard Katz, an elderly healer explains, “The num enters every part of your body, right to the tip of your feet and even your hair.” Num makes the spine tingle and the mind empty, without thoughts. The healer of healers “see people properly, just as they are.” At this point int he dance, the healers can project healing num or pull sickness form those who are ill. Shamans, num kausi, the “masters or owners of the num,” might help a student enter the proper state of transcendent consciousness (kia) by “shooting” arrows of num into the student’s body, often by snapping the fingers. (Some Native American healers project energy in a similar way, by slapping the palms together.) LIke modern physicians, the Kung believe that people carry illness within the body. When disease flares up, it can sometimes be cured by accumulating num, increasing the inner reserve of healing power. The Kung are also willing to use modern antibiotics. No treatment is 100 percent effective. As healer Gau says, “Maybe our num and European medicine are similar, because sometimes people who get European medicines die, and sometimes they live. That is the same with ours.”
Some fifty or sixty thousand years ago, long before the Chinese spoke of qi, Australian aborigines were cultivating life energy as a key to healing and spiritual power. According to my friend, ruin Tribe elder and medicine man Gaboo, “People who had this energy could communicate telepathically across vast distances. They formed the aboriginal telephone line.” In Voices of the First Day, a classic of aboriginal spirituality, author Robert Lawlor notes that, like the Chinese, the aborigines concentrated on an energy centre four inches below the navel, “where they said the cord of the great Rainbow Serpent (kundalini) lay coiled. Through the same centre the Aborigines drew body heat from the ‘rainbow fires’ that helped them endure cold.” Aborigines, like other indigenous tribes, believe that people today have less of this life energy than in the past. Because life energy is the common source and link between people and nature, the loss of it parallels the loss of connection between human beings and their relations: the plants, animals, stones, water, sky, the earth, and all of creation. Restoring life energy to its original condition of fullness may be the key to recovering lost potentials and realizing that”the Kingdom of Heaven is in our midst.”
Native American tribes also recognize the existence of a subtle healing energy. The Navajo say that the Winds (nilch’i) gave life to human beings and all of nature. THus, James Kale McNeley, Ph.D., a teacher at the Navajo Community College, speaks of the “Holy Wind” in his Holy Wind in Navajo Philosophy. As the Winds swirled through the human being, they left their mark as lines on fingers and toes. The Winds are also sacred powers, sources of healing guidance. They are considered messengers of God or the Great Spirit. When Native Americans pray to the “Winds of the Four Directions,” they become intuitively aware of solutions to life problems. According to one Navajo elder, if the Winds’ guidance is not followed, if one refuses to follow God’s instructions, “…our Holy One takes out the Wind that was within us. He stops our heart.” In SiSiWiss, “Sacred Breath,” an indigenous healing tradition from the PUget Sound region of Washington State, healers project power to their patients through dance, song, and laying on of hands. Some SiSiWiss chants include specific breathing methods to either drive away disease or invite helping and healing spirits.
IN the Lakota (Sioux) language, the word for soul, woniya, is derived from the word for breath, ni. In 1896, the Lakota holy man, Long KNift (George Sword), told physician James R. Walker, “A man’s ni is his life. It is the same as his breath. It gives him his strength. All that is inside a man’s body it keeps clean. If it is weak it cannot clean the inside of the body. If it goes away from a man he is dead…” The Lakota sweat lodge healing rite is called inipi because it purifies the ni. “Inipi causes a man’s ni to put out of his body all that makes him tired, or all that causes disease, or all that causes him to think wrong…”
IN Hawaii, the most powerful healers are known as Kahuna Ha, “Masters of the Breath.” The sacred healing breath, ha, can be absorbed at power places in nature (heiau), through dance (such as the hula), and deep breathing exercises. Some Kahunas learn how to store healing energy in the heart. Then, when the healing energy is projected through laying on of hands, the ha is coloured by the healer’s love and positive thoughts. In traditional Hawaiian counselling and mediation, all parties in a conflict first calm their minds by breathing deeply. This helps them to be less reactive and to find a better solution. The ha can also be transferred from a healer to a patient by blowing directly on the patient’s body. When a Kahuna Ha is near death, he/she may transfer lineage and power by breathing the ha onto a student or family member. The Hawaiian word Aloha, often used as a respectful, heartfelt greeting, also means “love.” Love is the “meeting face-to-face” (alo) of the breath of life (ha).
Of course the closest parallels to qi are found in Asian countries, particularly India. In India, the life energy, prana, is described as flowing through thousands of subtle-energy veins, the nadis. one of the goals of Yoga is to accumulate more prana through breath control exercises (pranayama) and physical postures (asana). THe student is also taught to conserve prana, and not to waste either his inborn, genetic store or that acquired through meditation. Some yogis believe that we are given a certain number of breaths at birth. If we learn to breathe more slowly, we use up our endowment at a slower pace and thus live longer.
There are remarkable parallels between Yoga and Chinese yin-yang theory, the philosophy that health is a balance of complementary opposites: fire and water, mind and body, self and nature. Hatha Yoga balances the solar (Ha) and lunar (the) currents of life energy. By reversing the courses of the two pranic breaths, one fire-like, one water-like, longevity is assured. Fire is made to descend, water to ascend, thus unifying mind (fire) and body (water) and preventing the dispersal of life energy.