Is there really such a thing as "chi"?

A recent SD column discussed the Chinese concept of “chi” or “qi” in the context of feng shui. In that discussion, the word appears to mean, more than anything else, a kind of esthetic and functional harmony.

But I’ve sometimes heard alternative-health gurus talk about chi as if it were something very different – not a metaphor, not an abstact concept, but a real physical force in the universe, just like gravity and electromagnetism. Acupuncture is based on the theory that chi flows through your body, along meridian lines just below the skin, and needles can be inserted to change its flow. Martial artists appear to believe something similar – the art is all about controlling and harnessing your chi for use in combat. Chiropractors don’t use the word, but their theory about “vital energy” flowing along your spine and nervous system to your extremities seems very similar. (So far as I know, what flows along your nervous system is only information, not energy – energy comes from the food and oxygen in the blood.) And while Cecil’s column mentioned that the Hindu-Yoga equivalent of chi is “prana” (breath), it is tempting to equate it, rather, with the “kundalini” or “fiery force” energy which is supposed to flow up the spine, by way of the seven “chakras”.

So: Is there anything to any of this? Or is it all total nonsense? So far as any of you know, is there ANY hard scientific evidence that chi or qi or kundalini exists? Has it ever been detected in a laboratory? Has a physician ever dissected a corpse and found something that might be identified as a yogic chakra or an acupuncture meridian?

“The chi that can be detected in a laboratory is not the true chi…”

The short answer is no, chi or ki can’t be directly scientifically verified like an electron. However, those who claim to be in tune with their chi can do some impressive things with it in terms of athletic ability (like an aikido or tai chi practitioner) or health benefits (like a qi gong or tai chi practitioner). It’s like a musician being “in the pocket” or an athlete being “in the zone.” Trying to determine where the pocket or the zone is is missing the point. The line between “real existing thing” and “creative visualization” may be to some degree a western interpretation of a concept peculiar to eastern thought. You can’t hold it in your hand or quantify it, but it may be in some sense a real thing.

This may be like “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” I worked with the concept of ki quite a bit in studying Aikido. Here’s the perspective I came away with:

In terms of Western science, the efficacy of various movements can be explained in terms of leverage and angle of application relating to joints and muscles. But to try to assimilate and understand all those scientific details in order to apply them is an overwhelming mental task. It would distract one from the essence of what he’s doing to disect this movement into the pysiology, physics, and geometry that underlies it.

Learning about and understanding ki, however, is not difficult. By conceptualizing the movement of ki through the body (and beyond), one can almost naturally move in the desired way. A grasp of ki is much easier to achieve and apply than a scientific grasp of what’s going on, and many people find it amazing what they can do when they’re thinking in terms of directing ki rather than moving limbs.

So I would say no, ki does not exist as a measurable physical entity. But if one puts that aside and embraces it, it is a noticeable force, and there are practical applications for the concept.

One main point is that “what flows along the nervous system” is not just information. It is a range of chemical reactions, which produce energy. Also energy does not come from the food and oxygen in the blood. Energy is always in existance, but is transformed. eg solar energy from the sun into chemical energy in a plant. (basic physics)

As for chi, it is a basic flow of energy in the body that has not been scientifically proven as yet. However main complementary therapists can sense “a block” in chi in the body. Hopefully there will soon be a way to “measure” chi, however there are many people who cannot believe in anything without human scientific backing

It’s more a specific state of mind and/or sense of coordination you devellop. It pretty well boils down I think to the same little squirts of chemicals and electric signals going through our brains that allow us to do simple things like walk and not drool on ourselves.

We’ve probably all experienced it on some level… ever have a good streak of luck making sales, or can you wield a chisel really well practically sans thinking when turning something on a lathe?
Same deal basically, but the people who really get into chi are trying to learn how to get into that state of mind on command, without relying on chance or other factors.

The exact physiological patterns going through someone’s head don’t lend themselves very well to scientific study or measurement yet though; try coming up with an algorythm or chain of chemical reactions detailing all the synapses and crap that are going through the mind of a gymnast doing a backflip off the top bar - and the kicker - try then having some squirlley little geek in a white lab coat read the print out and go repeat the gymnasts performance himself.

In short, no it’s not a physical force, but that’s the best way people can describe the feelings they get to know how to draw out in themselves. I think the scientific head-butting results mostly from misinterpretations from and by each side in communicating what the hell is going on. Some people may actually beleive there’s some force out there, and that’s enough to allow them to perform better than they would without that belief. So even if it’s all in the head (which I think it is), that’s all it takes to acheive the real-world results they get.

We can’t really measure rage (which is all in the head), but we all know what it’ll make us do if we can’t control it, right?

Ooh, ooh, I get to make a greek alphabet joke! I knew my maths degree would come in handy eventually

Chi whiz!

Okay, if chi is a real thing, but not a physical force like electromagnetism, that makes certain kind of sense – but, then, if there are no real chi meridians flowing under your skin, how does acupuncture work? Or does it work?

The Discovery Channel has an interesting documentary on this. They took a trained martial artist and attached sensors to him which measured conscious thought and involuntary(automatic) reaction. He broke a board and they recorded the velocity of his punch as he did so. In the moments before he throw his punch, his concious brain activity dropped, his automatic response rose… the graph showing the acceleration of his hand was very smooth.
Then they had a student not trained in martial arts do the same. They told him not to hesitate, it would only cause him to hurt himself.
The student broke the board…his conscious brain activity did not fall to the same levels of the martial artist…the graph of the acceleration
of his hand was not as smooth, and didn’t reach the same velocity.
They tried to show this as a relation to Chi…how having a “clear mind” allows the body to react more efficiently. If this is indeed Chi(or part of it), it illustrates the complex relationship between muscle memory(the nervous sytem),the thought process, and how training helps them interface more efficiently.
Just my 2 cents…

…if there are no real chi meridians flowing under your skin, how does acupuncture work?

We dunno.

Or does it work?

There seems to be plenty of anecdotal evidence that it works. After years of dismissing it because it could not be explained scientifically, many mainstream Western medical entities starting accepting its use in certain situations.

Uh Gary, Accupuncture works not because the metal pins they use distract the electrical current naturally flowing through your body…

And to learn more about Chi - please read about Lao Tsu , and the Tao teh ching - pronounced Dow Day Jing - this explains the concept of chi perfectly. And the site attched is a very very good resource for this thread.

oops I should have previewed. In the first sentence, please omit the not.

actually, that was pretty much accurate :stuck_out_tongue:

Uh huh. And how exactly does that cause the observed effect?


“Western researchers are still trying to define in scientific terms why acupuncture works.”


“How it works is a matter of both scientific rationalism and gibberish.”

Like I said, we dunno.

I cannot beleive this discussion in straightdope
“So I would say no, ki does not exist as a measurable physical entity. But if one puts that aside and embraces it, it is a noticeable force, and there are practical applications for the concept.”
“You can’t hold it in your hand or quantify it, but it may be in some sense a real thing”
“As for chi, it is a basic flow of energy in the body that has not been scientifically proven as yet.”

Come on
If something cannot be measured it does not exist. All in the mind

Pray tell me what the measuring unit for justice is.

What about chiropractic? Does anyone out there know anything about the theory underlying chiropractic, and whether it is significantly different from the theory underlying acupuncture?

Also, what about kundalini? Does it exist? Is it the same thing as chi? Or is it prana that’s the same thing as chi, as Cecil assumed in his SD article on feng shui?

And what about “Kirlian photography”? The “Kirlian aura” obviously is something that’s really there, since it can be photographed with special equipment – but is it chi, or kundalini, or something more comprehensible, such as an electromagnetic field?

Cecil addressed Kirlian photography here:

You can also read about it at the skeptic’s dictionary.

They also have an article about chiropractic..

You, sir, rock. :wink:

Of course chi exists.

It’s the mystical force that extracts money from suckers who want to belive that John Edwards can talk to their dead aunt, that Miss Cleo can predict their future, or that hiring someone to arrange their furniture in a certain pattern will cure their cancer.

It’s just like orgone energy, only trendier!

Now now JRR chi aint that bad.
Gary T pretty much nailed it.

Chi is a concept, you could liken it to air pressure. Like air pressure, it is a simple way of explaining the combined effects of many small things happening together to make a large observable event.

Like air pressure its effect can be measured, you can certainly measure a martial artist throwing another accross the room. Also like air pressure it can be seen to be non-magical. It is just the complex interaction of many muscle movements to create a large effect, orchestrated by a well trained nervous system.

Cheers, Bippy