The word qì is one that has crept into the vernacular of many Americans due to the growing popularity of acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine in the US. However, many people still struggle to fully understand the true meaning of this word. Do you know the definition of qì? Could you use it in a sentence? And frankly, why should you even care about this ancient Chinese term? Today I plan to answer all those questions.
First, I’ll cover some qì basics. I will then review some of the many and mostly incomplete definitions of qì before revealing the true definition of qì. To conclude, I will then do my best to fuse this eastern philosophy with western biology, so you have a clearer understanding of what qì is and why it matters.
Vocabulary.com defines Qì as:
Hmm, isn’t it contradictory to say that it’s a “life” force and then say every thing has it. I’m sorry vocabulary.com, but there is no qì in your desk or your shoes or anything that is not living.
Dictionary.com defines Qì as:
Ouch, thanks for the strong vote of confidence in my profession, dictionary.com! Remind me not to visit your site ever again! Oh, and by the way, your definition of qì also falls short.
Urban dictionary.com offers a number of definitions of Qì, of which my favorite was #5:
Ah, now I can see that I’ve finally got your attention! Perhaps this qì stuff has some potential!
Chinese Definition of Qì:
Even though the literal translation is gas or air, it’s important not to view this term strictly in the literal sense. This will be clearer as we get into the different types of qì.
Now let’s go even deeper and look at the ancient Chinese view of the different types of qì. For the purpose of today’s blog, I’m only going to highlight the top four of the seven types of qì listed in the image below. First, we have Air Qì, which the Chinese referred to as Kong Qì which we derived from the air we breathe (a gas). Next, we have Food Qì or Gu Qì, which was derived from the food we eat (a form of material energy). These forms of qì would combine or gather in the chest, forming what was known as Gathering or Zong Qì (think of the energy needed for the heart to pump blood throughout the body). The Gathering Qì would then flow through the body to ultimately create one's True Qì or Zhen Qì (our underlying life force).
Now that we are starting to form an understanding of qì based off the Chinese definition and have taken a look at it's different types, let’s shift gears and look at one of the body's key processes, that of cellular respiration, from a biomedical perspective. Cellular respiration is the process in which we take oxygen from the air we breathe and combine it with glucose that is broken down from the food we eat and use it to enable our mitochondria to create adenosine triphosphate, or ATP which then powers the chemical and mechanical reactions necessary to support cellular life. As a result of this process, in addition to ATP, we also create carbon dioxide (which we exhale from the body) and water vapor.
Without this process, our cells, which are the basic building blocks of human life, wouldn't be able to survive let alone thrive.
So, what does cellular respiration have to do with the flow of qì throughout the body? When we take a moment to overlap the two models from above and compare the four types of qì that we highlighted in the first diagram on top of the model of cellular respiration, we see that they fit quite nicely in the image below.
Take a moment to follow along as we follow the path of qì and my own interpretation of how it maps to our process of cellular respiration. First, fill your lungs with fresh air qì which brings in oxygen. Next, when you go to have your next meal, eat a healthy diet to ensure you provide your body with the highest quality food or gu qì which your body will break down into glucose (and other important nutrients the body needs). Next take some time to exercise so that you can strengthen your hearts ability to gather your air qì (oxygen) and your food qì and transport it throughout your vascular system so that your cell’s mitochondria can absorb the oxygen and glucose and convert it to ATP energy or True Qì to power the chemical and mechanical needs to maintain healthy cells.
I hope this blog has provided you with a clearer understanding of not only what qì is, but how by eating a healthy diet, breathing fresh air and exercising you can create and circulate an abundance of qì to sustain health and well being.