Acupuncturists frequently talk about the concept of something called qi, which is loosely translated as “energy” or “vital force.” So what is qi? And what do we mean in acupuncture when we say that qi is flowing or stagnant?
From a Chinese medicine perspective, qi can be difficult to describe. Acupuncturists believe that qi is both material and immaterial; it is the basis of all life in the universe. One well-known acupuncturist, Giovanni Maciocia, writes that, “Qi is the basis of all phenomena in the universe and provides continuity between coarse, material forms and tenuous, rarefied, non-material energies (Foundations of Chinese Medicine, 2011, p.42).
Types of Qi
Chinese medical theory teaches that qi exists in many different forms. This may be best understood by looking at another definition of qi, as, “that which transforms.” So what does that mean? Qi is the energy that powers the transformational processes throughout the body. You could make a Western analogy that qi is sort of like the body’s ATP, or that it is comparable to atomic and particular energy, which exists in solid, liquid, and air states, only, it’s so much more than that.
For instance, there is Wei Qi, the qi that defends the body against external pathogens, essentially our immune response. Or Ying Qi, the qi that flows with the blood, and nourishes all the internal organs, much as blood brings nutrients and oxygen to the body’s organs in Western medicine. Or Gu Qi, the qi that is extracted from food, that goes on to provide energy for the body and create the nutrient aspect of the blood. Or Qing Qi, qi derived from the air that we inhale into the lungs. These types of qi are considered acquired qi, because acupuncturists believe that they are derived from food and air, and are created after conception.
Another aspect of qi is congenital qi, or Yuan Qi. Yuan Qi is original qi, it is the qi that we have available at birth, and it is integrally related to a person’s jing, or essence (but that’s another article). Yuan Qi comes from our parents, and is derived at our conception, and determines the strength of a person’s constitution. A Western analogy might be DNA—you could think of Yuan Qi as your genetic makeup; it determines perhaps your physical appearance (what color your eyes and hair are, how big your body is), your intelligence (IQ or mental handicaps), your constitutional strengths and weaknesses (maybe most athletic endeavors are easy, but you’re a terrible dancer because you can’t stay on beat). Yuan Qi is a primordial qi of birth, growth, and development.
Another type of qi that Chinese medicine recognizes is organ qi, the qi associated with the functions of the different organs of the body. One simple example is Lung qi, which is related to the Lung organ, and descends, drawing air into the body. Sometimes Lung qi can be rebellious, for instance, when you have a cold and you cough. Another example might be Bladder qi, which is related to the Urinary Bladder organ and descends to help you urinate. When an acupuncturist tells you that your Lung qi is rebelling, she’s talking about the qi of these organs and their functions.
So, let’s summarize. Qi is both a material and immaterial energy that is the basis for all life in the universe. We have some qi at birth, and acquire other qi from air and food. Qi is related to our body’s organs, it flows in our blood, and it is a powerful, transformative force. We’ll talk more about qi soon, and how it flows in meridians or channels that acupuncture points lie on.
- Maciocia, G. (2005). The foundations of chinese medicine: A comprehensive test for acupuncturists and herbalists (2nd ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier.