The Trouble With Qi

The longer I spend in martial arts circles, the more wary I become of the whole "qi" methodology. Here are three issues that need to be examined.

1) Is "qi" real?

By this, I'm referring to "qi" as an explicitly spiritual phenomenon - as something that is specifically outside of natural, or scientifically explainable phenomena - the "qi" that we are told is NOT just breath, or physics, or mental focus, or body mechanics, or the combination of all these things. Here I'm referring to the "qi" that is allegedly some kind of supernatural "life force." Exponents often claim to be able to manipulate this force, both inside and outside of their bodies, to derive and develop powers that are, by definition, superhuman.

2) If it is real, where does it come from?

This poses a very real problem. If, as we are told, "qi" is an omnipresent, spiritual "life force" - the animating energy within all things, shouldn't there be moral limitations on drawing upon it for personal power? How does the force differ from nature spirits, fairies, angels, ghosts, demons or djinn? How would manipulation of such forces differ from magic? If you invite such a force to enter your body from outside, how does that differ from spirit possession?

Despite the fact that there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support the concept of supernatural "qi", many people willingly believe in it. For some, belief in "qi" in itself acts as a kind of religion, and religious cults are built around it, on that basis (the Falun Gong / Falun Dafa cult, for example).

The phenomenon of experiential "qi" (usually in the form of physical sensations) is somewhat akin to the seeing of ghosts. People claim to see ghosts and I'm quite sure that they do experience something - it would be foolish to deny that. But just because someone experiences something, that does not prove that their interpretation of the phenomenon is correct. Today's ghosts are, after all, yesterday's fairies and some people see aliens instead. I'm sure that most people would agree that to worship or deliberately try to summon ghosts, fairies or aliens would be a very bad idea.

I myself have experienced some quite profound physical sensations and visual disturbances of the sort that certain people might describe as "qi." I have experienced similar sensations with the practice known as Reiki. I now know that "qi" and "Reiki" sensations are utterly meaningless - merely a psychosomatic trick - a form of deception and self-deception working in unison. And far from being beneficial or at worst harmless, as is usually claimed, such charlatan methods are potentially very harmful. As with many other pleasant sensations or altered states of consciousness, such practices can be habit forming and can even lead to more severe psychological problems, such as the condition known as "Qigong Psychosis" or "Qi-Gong Psychotic Reaction."

3) Is it morally or spiritually acceptable to use "qi"?

This is an issue where surely there is no room to sit on the fence. However, many people do just that, without really thinking through the issue of whether or not they have a consistent religious or spiritual justification for what they are doing. In 21st century culture, people's souls are up for grabs, whether you are into Qigong, Reiki, Yoga, Crystal Healing, Tantra, Tenaga Dalam, Channelling, Wicca or whatever. Some people will dabble freely in anything and everything, without any concern other than "Does this feel good to me?" "Does this feel right for me?" This is in spite of the fact that we are specifically warned against consorting with supernatural or occult forces in several major world faiths, including Sikhism, Christianity and Islam. People might need to think carefully before entering into practices that would not normally be considered acceptable or credible within their existing moral, religious or scientific world view.

Even within Chinese Daoism, the original philosophical texts are very different from the folk superstitions and occult techniques that were merged with them hundreds of years later to create Religious Daoism. Religious Daoism was created to compete with the incoming Buddhist religion, but in so doing, much of the original message was lost. Rather than trying to live a simple life in harmony with nature, and accept death as an inevitable part of life, the religious Daoists absorbed all manner of contradictory folk beliefs including the worship of local gods, exorcistic and mediumistic techniques and chemical and meditative procedures from elite traditions, relating to the pursuit of longevity and immortality. In much the same way, Buddhism changed shape dramatically in Tibet, when it was fused with the local shamanistic Bon tradition.

The question is, can we really afford to treat spiritual practices as lightly as any other consumables on the supermarket shelf of 21st Century consumer culture?

Where I stand

"Qi", in the way it is often explained, is NOT real and furthermore, if it was, it would be a force that I, for one, could NOT justifiably manipulate, for to do so would be akin to magic, which is another phenomenon I have experienced and now turned my back on completely. So-called "qi sensations" can indeed be cultivated, but to interpret them as the presence of some kind of malleable, supernatural force is a flawed mystification of natural sensory phenomena. Any demonstration of "qi" to achieve superhuman feats is simply a combination of trickery and trained natural skills. Further, any form of deception, including self-deception, is morally corrupt. Simply put, martial arts are better off without the tantalising trickery and temptations of "qi" cultivation.

Relative Madness

An interesting trend growing within our increasingly relativistic culture is the promotion of open-mindedness to the status of a virtue. Indecision is not in itself a good thing. As Catholic journalist and writer G.K. Chesterton pointed out, the mind, like the mouth, should only open in order to close on something. It is perfectly reasonable for an inquiring mind to draw considered conclusions based on research, study and experimentation, just as scientists conduct experiments in order to arrive at conclusions. The very purpose of inquiry is to arrive at the truth.

Consequently I do not have an open mind on the subject of qi. Qi does not exist and no invisible energy channels exist for it to travel through. No evidence exists to suggest otherwise and as yet, there is only evidence of its absence.

I am aware that a sizable number of people consider this statement unthinkable, whether their objection comes from a relativistic perspective (their criticism being my lack of open mindedness,) or from an insistence that science will one day prove that qi exists (which is a "blind faith" position, rather than a scientific one). It is nothing short of fascinating just how many people oscillate rapidly between relativistic perspectives one minute and materialistic ones the next, as if qi must be acknowledged irrespective of rationale. Such opinions are not reasonable: conclusions have been drawn first and justifications attached later. Motivations are frequently irrational: loyalty to the idea of qi signifying an emotional attachment to anything Eastern and / or pagan. Many qi-belivers have an identity investment in opposing traditional Western thought, whether in the form of science, logic, theology or philosophy.

I'm sure if evidence for qi is ever found, the medical world will embrace its discovery. As with many medical matters the ethics of the situation will also have to then be considered and, sadly, we cannot guarantee people will choose the most moral option. But in the meantime, nothing can be achieved by use of proto-science that cannot be achieved considerably better with tangible physical and anatomical facts.

A practical problem

Consider now the very small number of T'ai Chi and Qigong practitioners who are looking for fighting skills, rather than the vastly greater numbers who are looking for magical health cures or spirituality. There, as everywhere, "qigong" promises things it can not deliver.

Wild promises are made in connection to the cultivation of "qi", through the supplementary "qigong" practices of T'ai Chi and other martial arts that have taken on the recent "internal arts" methodology. Consequently, people come to T'ai Chi Ch'uan / Taijiquan classes expecting magical powers for very little effort. These people generally fall into two camps:

1) Those for whom the so-called "internal styles" are the only martial arts they are prepared to practice, because they have been sold the lie that all of the other martial arts use only crude, unsophisticated, or maybe "overly brutal" methods. This last consideration won't be of concern for all "internal artists" however - some will be more than eager to discover the fabled "death points" that knowledge of "internal energy meridians" can allegedly warrant. I've been asked several times by visitors if I would show them how to kill people just by touching them. I think a few new students may have even arrived seriously expecting to be able to learn how to harm, heal or disrupt another person's "energy field" without touching them. Here, as with every claim made in the name of "qi", such notions are completely false. Of course, the people who fall for such lies without serious evidence are not nearly so much to blame as the people who propagate those lies and indulge in deception in order to purposely fool others.

2) Those for whom T'ai Chi will be seen as a supplement to their other (main or "real") martial art.

Neither camp is likely to be very impressed by plain old martial techniques that require technical precision, physical effort and lots of practice to perfect. They expect instead that martial abilities will magically appear in their bodies as a result of standing practice, meditation, energy visualisation and ancient "sacred" sequences of effortless flowing movements.

Few from the first camp will have any kind of realistic expectations of martial practice. To be fair, it would be hard to live up to the speculation and hype that has grown up around T'ai Chi with anything so mundane as a display of physical martial skill.

Few from the second group will be prepared to unlearn their current martial repertoire; the big lie being that they can go on doing their Karate or Wing Chun (or whatever) and simply get the edge over their fellows by injecting a little extra "qi" or flow into their movements, cultivated by their T'ai Chi practice.

Rest assured that if either kind of prospective student visits your class to "see if T'ai Chi is for them," you could throw someone twice your size on the floor and relieve them of the knife they'd just thrust at you, and your visitor would most likely think "oh, is that all? If I wanted to learn how to do that, I'd take up a martial art."

Tradition versus Truth

If you are a teacher who feels that you are just sincerely passing on what was handed down to you, I expect you will not like this article very much. If you are such a teacher, I implore you to take a reality check and realise that no myth or tradition can be as sacred as the actual truth. There may be exercises or explanations in your teaching repertoire you have never really questioned. The time may have come for you to do yourself and your students a favour by seriously questioning and testing everything that was passed to you. Some of it may be pure gold, but I expect there will be some dead leaves and a few diversions in there also. Discernment is the foundation of the Taiji symbol and as Confucius / Kongfuzi put it so eloquently, "without the truth we can get nothing done".

On a personal note, I cannot understand the secular or pagan / mystical insistence that the animating stuff of the universe must be unconscious, given that it is capable of ultimately creating, or at very least manifesting itself as, sentient beings. Nor can I understand the insistence that the evolutionary process of variation and transformation must be random rather than purposeful, given that the process is so evidently geared in favour of existence, adaptability and survival in order for us to exist at all. The matter is a very important one and cannot be overlooked. The ethics of whether or not human beings should attempt to manipulate some kind of "universal life-force energy", if such a thing is possible, differs greatly depending on whether or not you see that energy as sentient and / or whether you believe in a Divine Creator Who places expectations on our behaviour. The question must surely be: if "qi" really exists as some kind of supernatural commodity, are you quite sure it is yours for the taking?

Challenging the Myth of "Qi"

If, like us, you are concerned about the problem of "qi", we'd like to hear from you. We can not promise to post every link we are sent, but we do intend to provide links to articles or sites concerned with this matter. You could be a scientist who thinks the whole "qi" phenomenon is a load of pseudo-scientific claptrap, a concerned religious voice who thinks that the use of so-called "internal energies" is morally wrong, or a martial artist who thinks that it is time to get real in our martial practice and work to eradicate silly and even downright dangerous myths and superstitions. Like ourselves, you might have multiple concerns. We think that the time has come to put the myth of "qi" under the triple microscopes of science, religion and rational martial practice.

Please get in touch.

Read more of my articles on "Qi"

A practical guide to qi

What are "qi sensations?"

"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.

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