by Aaron Hoopes
Chi is the prime moving force both within the human body and outside in the universe. Chi is not breath, it is the power that makes it possible for us to breathe. Chi is not simply “energy,” it is what gives energy the power to be energy. Chi is the power behind movement and thought…and it is everywhere. It is in the oxygen we breathe and the blood that flows through us.
It is difficult to define chi concretely. It cannot be seen or measured, it cannot be touched or captured. It is everywhere yet we have no way to touch it, make it tangible, or even prove its existence. Therefore chi is a difficult concept to accept. The Western mind likes the tangible, the concrete, and the specific. It likes a scientific explanation that defines, dissects, and categorizes. Chi transcends explanation. It doesn’t fit easily into a strict biomedical framework. It is simply indefinable. If, however, we are able to take a leap of faith and try to believe in the idea of chi, then maybe we can open our spiritual eyes and envision what our physical eyes cannot see or open our mind to understandings we cannot normally comprehend.
The ancient Chinese believed chi flowed through the body along sacred channels called “meridians,” just as blood flows through arteries and veins. Traditional Chinese medicine considers blockage of chi, or even the incorrect movement of chi through the body, as the cause of both mental and physical disease. People with strong chi have a healthy and youthful appearance, a strong immune system, and are full of energy, while people with weak chi appear frail and haggard, tire quickly, and fall ill often.
Chi within the body is like power in a rechargeable battery. Occasionally it needs to be replenished. The chi of the universe is inexhaustible, yet the body needs fresh chi to maintain its vitality. You take in food, water, and air and convert them to energy within your body. During sleep, while your veins are relaxed and open and your brain is calm, you are able to take in a fresh supply of chi. If you are stressed or nervous, you become rigid and circulation is blocked, you have difficulty sleeping, and your reserves of chi dwindle. When you are exchanging the chi within you with the chi of the universe, you feel healthy and vigorous. By energizing the body with chi it is revitalized naturally, enabling it to fight off illness and maintain good health. The vitality chi gives to the physical body is generally obvious, but it also gives vitality to your mind. Chi is not only physical energy, it is also mental energy. Realization of this is a key to becoming aware of chi in your life.
Chi inside the body needs to be continuously connected with the chi flow of the universe. If it is unable to connect, it may become stagnant. This stagnation is usually due to insufficient circulation. If the blood cannot flow smoothly, then the chi will also be unable to flow smoothly. The most common place for this chi stagnation is in the extremities. The toes and fingers are at the furthest point from the heart and the first to be cut off when there is insufficient flow.
The heart pumps oxygen - and nutrient-rich blood into blood vessels that carry it throughout the body. After circulating and delivering oxygen to all the cells and tissues, the blood returns to the heart through the veins, flushing out the old stagnated blood and removing toxins and poisons that have built up. The lungs add oxygen to the blood and remove the carbon dioxide. Then the blood starts through the circuit again. Physical movement assists this vital blood flow. Feeling this flow is the first step.
Stand up with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold your hands straight out in front of you. Relax the shoulders. Now imagine that your hands are wet and you are going to shake the water off them. Begin slowly and shake both hands loosely without tension. Continue to shake, increasing the speed as you get used to the feeling. The aim is to drain them of tension. Hold them loose and relaxed. Shake harder. Change to a side-to-side movement, as if clapping thin air. Next, switch to an up-and-down movement as if you were dog paddling. Shake them around in a circle. Let your elbows join in and flap about wildly. Next wiggle your forearms as if they were made of spaghetti. Continue for two minutes, alternating the kinds of shakes. Stop and let your arms hang down at your side, and rest for a moment. Do you feel anything? The tingling sensation in your fingers is the fresh and clean oxygenated blood circulating through your hands. Now, imagine what it would be like to have your whole body feeling that way.
Next we need to ensure fresh chi is getting to the area. Perform the Shake exercise for two minutes. At the end of the two minutes begin to massage the left hand with the right hand. Start with the left index finger and give it a thorough massage. Rub it up and down, back and forth. Lightly scrape it with your fingernail and then gently twist and pull it. Repeat this with each finger and then switch and do the same for the other hand. Concentrate on your breathing and imagine as you massage that you are breaking up any old, stagnant chi and letting it be washed away by the blood circulating through you. Feel the new chi entering the area, bringing a fresh vibrant feeling. Finish the exercise with another session of Shake. You can also perform a similar exercise with your feet and toes.
It is important to be concentrating on your breathing while doing this exercise. Deep breathing exercises bring an abundance of chi needed to replace the chi being shaken out and massaged from your extremities. Visualize the chi entering your body and energizing your fingers and toes. Experience the feeling of chi.
Since chi exists in the air we breathe and the blood that flows inside us, deep breathing brings chi and oxygen into the body, increasing blood flow, and thus chi flow, within the body. Once we are breathing properly we can try to touch the energy.
Start in Standing Balloon Posture (see figure: photo to be attached) and begin deep Abdominal Breathing. Breathe slowly and deeply. Hold your hands out in front of you at shoulder height as if holding a balloon the size of a basketball. Breathe and relax for ten complete respirations in and out. Next, begin to imagine the balloon is actually a ball of chi energy between your palms. Relax and breathe. Gently begin to push your hands together lightly squeezing the ball between them. Relax and breathe. Next, slowly expand the ball by gently pulling your hands apart. Relax and breathe as you continue a slow expansion and contraction. Match the timing of your breathing to the motion of your hands through expansion and contraction. At some point you should begin to feel a subtle yet solid presence between your hands. That is chi. Don’t focus on the feeling or you will find it quickly disappears. Instead, draw your focus back and concentrate on your breathing. Remember that chi is a subtle, invisible force that requires patience and the ability to relax until you feel it. Try to use only a small part of your awareness to observe the chi.
When your mind and body are working together in a relaxed manner, a tremendous amount of energy is able to flow through your being, energy which is inseparable from the chi of the universe. It is everywhere. The key is not to force it, just slow down and relax long enough to become aware of it.
This article has been reproduced with the permission of Aaron Hoopes and was first published in Kung Fu Magazine Online in 2004.
Aaron Hoopes is a native of Vermont and the founder of Zen Yoga. He is the author of: Zen Yoga: A Path to Enlightenment through Breathing, Movement and Meditation, Breathe Smart, and Perfecting Ourselves: Coordinating Body, Mind and Spirit. He has studied the martial arts, Eastern philosophy, and alternative medicine in the United States, Australia, and Japan for over twenty-five years. He has a degree in Asian History and Japanese Culture from Tulane University and spent a number of years in Japan studying under Masatoshi Nakayama, the chief instructor at the headquarters of the Japan Karate Association, until his death in 1987. He holds a third degree black belt in Japanese Shotokan Karate and is a certified instructor and one of the Hoitsugan Instructors. He is also certified as an instructor of Shanti Yoga and Meditation as well as Tamashii Tai Chi. He is trained in Chinese Qigong (Chi Kung) Energy Healing and studied Shiatsu Finger Pressure Therapy under Hitoshi Koeda in Japan. In addition, he has extensive knowledge of Iyengar Yoga, White Crane Qigong, Okinawan Karate, Shorinji Kenpo, Wing Chun Kung Fu and Zen Meditation.