What Are So-Called "Qi Sensations?"

People who are staunch advocates of "qi" and "qigong" often cite their own personal so-called "qi sensations" as supposed evidence of the "qi" phenomenon. I will address this issue in the second half of this article. First I will discuss what "qigong" is, for the sake of anyone who does not know.

The term "qigong," literally meaning "breathing exercise / work" or "energy work," is itself a fairly recent invention, replacing the term "neigong" which meant "internal work." So-called "internal work" described forms of exercise that worked the body in a more holistic and subtle way than "waigong" or "external work" exercises. "Neigong" exercises were thought (by the reasonably practically minded) to focus on developing overall muscle tone along with tendon and ligament strength, instead of more localised muscular bulk (such as that developed by weight training.)

Nowadays, the terms "qigong" and "neigong" are used almost interchangeably by many practitioners to describe a very broad range of different types of exercise, from static or moving strengthening and stamina building exercise, to stretching, joint mobilisation warm-up exercise, overt physical movement (including the refinement of specific movement qualities), self massage, subtle or overt torso contortion (said to massage your internal organs), meditation, visualisation and specific breathing methods, all muddled together in any kind of combination. It is often (falsely) claimed that these exercises are very ancient and highly potent exercises, promising the practitioner enhanced longevity, virility and possibly even spiritual benefits. In truth, new exercises are being invented all the time, only to be passed off as ancient, esoteric, calisthenic wisdom. The claims made for such exercises can and do range from mild or wild inaccuracy and exaggeration to outright lies.

The boundaries and focus of such exercises have become so blurred that pretty much any exercise involving almost any aspect of your body and / or mind can be and often is optimistically or grandiosely termed "qigong" or "neigong." Massively increased emphasis on the concept of "qi" and on the experiencing of so-called "qi sensations" as a measure of success, has radically altered the nature of many of the exercises (and even whole martial arts) from useful combat training to damaging and dangerous pseudo-spiritual self delusion.

So what are the so-called "qi" (or "chi") sensations that everyone raves about?

The most commonly talked about "qi sensations" feel like warmth (or cold), tingling or prickling. They are often associated with exercises that involve standing very still in various postures for prolonged periods. Tingling and seemingly "magnetic" sensations are also reported when people perform repetitive movements while maintaining certain postural structures in unnaturally still positions, such as maintaining very fixed hand shapes throughout.

I too can stand with my arms held in a certain position or perform some limited movement drills and feel tingling in my hands, but that does not in any way prove the existence of a so-called "life force" energy called "qi." The "qi" rationale is only one possible explanation for these or other sensory disturbances equated with "qi," and it is one with no evidence to support it. You could be made to stand still with your arms out in a country that does not have the concept of "qi." Indeed the method is employed as a form of torture by some armies. Any tingling experienced might then be termed "pins and needles."

Alternatively, you could be sat in a chair and your arm could "go to sleep" as a result of inertia, so that you might experience "pins and needles" in it. That does not prove that an energy called "qi" exists either - there is nothing to indicate that the buzzy feeling is anything to do with some imaginary life force. "So what are 'pins and needles'?" I hear you cry.

In Western medical science, the phenomenon is called "paraesthesia" and is believed to occur for a number of reasons, including reduced blood flow to the affected area - which is easily caused by stasis. Tingling can be a sign that a nerve is still alive, but under threat, whether that is due to reduced circulation, nerve damage (or pressure) or some forms of illness. Paraesthesia can also be caused by hyperventilation or breathing excessively: "Hyperventilation also causes the sensation by making the blood more alkaline, thus driving calcium into cells and lowering plasma calcium." - NewScientist July 07 (Numbstruck) which could be linked to the breathing methods employed during many "qigong" type exercises. Paraesthesia is not seen as a positive sign and this raises a vital issue. Why are people so sure that these sensations are positive when experienced in the name of "qigong"?

I have experienced strange sensations myself when standing in held postures, however I do not think that they were in any way useful in themselves. Please note that I am not saying that people should cease standing in held postures - what I am saying is that one should do so with a different focus. Posture holding should be done to develop strength and stamina while learning to eradicate unwanted muscular tension, all the while making fine adjustments to try to perfect one's structural alignments. The process should also involve constantly trying to sink deeper into your stance through that process of relaxation. I have found that with this goal in mind, any strange tingling sensations will quickly go away and this is a good thing. Rather than seeking to cultivate and fixate on tingling sensations, we should seek to eradicate them.

I have also experienced strange tingling and seemingly magnetic sensations when I have been performing repetitive movements incorrectly, that is without the correct rotation of the limbs required for accurate Taijiquan movement. Focussing on maintaining those sensations has only made the quality of the movements suffer, whereas executing the movements in a martially literal and useful manner has made the sensations cease, due to correct muscle engagement.

The presence of unusual physical sensations in themselves shouldn't come as too much of a surprise - when holding postures or repeating slow movements in fine detail, we are using our muscles in quite a different manner than we would employ them during everyday activities. Blood and lymph circulation are affected, muscles can start to tremble, your pores might dilate, you might feel hot and sweaty - this can be attributed to the constant exertion of the large leg muscles. But none of this in any way indicates the existence of a life force called "qi."

Another kind of "Qi Sensation"

There will no doubt be those who shout that what I have described above does not describe "real qi" sensations, such as the sort that they experience. They may not attribute the above effects to "qi" saying that " "real qi" is when you move your "internal energies" to and from your "dantian" ("elixir field") below the belly button out to the extremities and back again." So what are they doing in the name of "qi"?

This other kind of exercise credited with producing "qi" sensations involves subtly contorting the body, and in particular the torso, in conjunction with creative visualisation techniques and / or specific breathing methods. What is actually being felt is the torso muscles themselves, working and moving in sequence - this is what creates the illusion of a wave of "energy" progressing from one part of the body to another. All that can really be felt is sequential muscle engagement - anything else is imagined and superimposed. When properly executed, the limbs can feel as if they are being pushed into place by the muscle groups beneath them, upwards from the ground, or outwards from your abdominal region, but you do still have to make this process happen, whether consciously or subconsciously, and you can prove this to yourself by consciously making it stop. Any experience of the body moving itself is just a result of movements being drilled into the body to the point where you can execute them instinctively and again, this does not prove the existence of a single energetic life force which combines numerous different physical and mental functions. The process involves multiple commands to be sent from the brain out to the various muscles employed, even if the practitioner does not consciously acknowledge the fact.

A useful analogy here might be that of a car factory. If you were to visit a car factory, in all probability you would not think that the bringing in of materials such as metal and paint was the causal factor in the car production. Nor would you think that car manufacture was the causal factor of the distribution of the finished product out to various car traders. Although the factory might seem to operate as a well oiled unit, you'd probably realise that the industry was being managed by someone. That company director or team of directors would have coordinated the training of all the separate personnel within the manufacture process to be in the right place at the right time and to do their individual jobs as and when required. The operation would need to be masterminded. The same is true of your body - it needs to be trained and directed to do the things it does and you are the one in control.

Save Your Breath (and typing fingers!)

Sometimes people write to me to argue about this topic and I really must ask you not to bother. I have studied the matter in some depth and I know precisely what I am talking about. Just because your teacher calls a specific type of exercise "qigong" and another kind "neigong" or whatever, and explains it all in a certain kind of way, does not mean that the school down the road will agree with him. Chances are they will think your teacher's explanation is ridiculous and only they have the true understanding. My assessment comes from studying with numerous teachers and researching from a number of other sources. There is nothing even approaching consistency or accord throughout these disciplines. Seriously folks - all this "qi" stuff is just smoke and mirrors. Accusations that I "don't understand," that I am "missing something rudimentary," or that I must be really "low level" merely demonstrate wishful thinking on the part of the "qi" believer. I simply happen to be one of the few or only people prepared to accept that the concept of "qi" is nonsense and acknowledge the fact publicly.

Read more of my articles on "Qi"

A practical guide to qi

The trouble with qi

"100% Qi-Free? How can that be?!"


Further reading

The following links do not necessarily reflect our views on everything, but we think that other voices need to be heard on this matter.

Sima Nan: Fighting Qigong Pseudoscience in China.

The Roots of Qi.

Acupuncture - Where's The Point?
Telegraph journalist Damian Thompson reports on an important German study, proving what I've suspected for sometime - so-called "meridians" and "qi" have nothing whatsoever to do with why acupuncture seems to work for some people. It makes no difference where the pins are inserted - the patient merely produces endorphins in response to being punctured with pins. I've certainly never had any lasting benefit from acupuncture for my osteoarthritis, despite having had several courses of it with three different qualified acupuncturists.

Breaking Through the Barriers of Darkness: Recognising the Cult of Qigong for What It Is
A Christian perspective from the "China For Jesus" website.

Stop Pseudoscience!
Here is a petition that some concerned parents put together after "Medical Qigong" was taught in a school without parental knowledge. At the bottom of the petition are many links expressing opposition to the qigong craze. If you wish to explore those links, please note that the "International Institute of Medical Qigong" have subsequently transferred details of courses dealing with their most disturbing occult teachings to a sister site on Daoist Mysticism / Magic.

Martial Arts - Are They Harmless?
A Christian perspective on occult elements inherent within many traditional martial arts.

The Truth about Spontaneous Chi Kung (Jinns / Demonic Possession).
A concerned Muslim's perspective. Read also his personal story.

I Do Not Believe in Ki
Shotokan Karate Instructor Rob Redmond explains why he does not believe in ki (the Japanese name for "qi" / "ch'i")

How People Are Fooled by Ideomotor Action
Ray Hyman Ph.D. discusses how people may be fooled into thinking "qi" exists.

taiji concepts DVD
Martial Tai Chi™