Qi (Chi) is the vital lifeforce energy which forms the basis for the practice of Qigong and Tai Chi exercises. Its quality, quantity, and movement throughout the body is the foundation of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Many cultures have their own representation of qi, for example, ki in Japan, prana in India, and mana in many Indigenous cultures. In the West, the term ‘biofield science’ is becoming an increasingly popular definition to represent all these different concepts. Yet in Western societies, the existence of qi remains disputed, even dismissed, despite there being a growing body of evidence of the benefits to people’s health and well-being from practices focused on qi. I see examples of this when talking about qi and its effects; some people are quite interested and attentive, and some people’s eyes glaze over in a mask of skepticism.
Why is there such reluctance to accept the existence of qi? My personal belief is that it comes down to one word: evidence. Much of Western society is based on the principle of, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” This is demonstrated in the Western medical model, which bases best practice on scientific evidence; that is, a thing can be observed, and/or its effects can be repeatedly observed and are not due to chance alone. There is much merit in this practice and it is the reason why many medical practices have proven useful and effective, and others have been discontinued for being at best shams, and at worst just wrong and potentially dangerous. However, there is also a risk in assuming that if the science cannot prove something ‘is’ (as opposed to proving it ‘is not’) then that thing isn’t real. If humanity had accepted that, we never would have continued looking for things like DNA or subatomic particles because the science of the day stated, “we cannot see these things, therefore they don’t exist.”
As I tell my students, part of the problem for qi is that I cannot stick a needle in your arm and extract the qi; I can’t take a blood sample and put it under a microscope and say, “look! There’s the qi!”. In fact, until recently much of the research on qi and qi practices like Qigong have only been able to provide evidence on the effects of these practices. For example, there is a great deal of published research showing evidence of Qigong practice reducing blood pressure1., improving sleep2., and boosting immunity3.. There are even studies that demonstrate direct affects on the body at the cellular level4,5..The evidence for the effects often comes from comparing Qigong practice to other forms of exercise, or what is termed “sham Qigong” – that is, performing the exercise without any thought or intent or even knowledge related to qi; this is often used to determine a ‘placebo effect’ – or to doing nothing at all. While this has been great in confirming and promoting the benefits of such practices for health and wellness, it does not necessarily confirm that the reason these things are so effective is because of their affect on the body’s qi. Consequently, while the effects cannot be denied, they are often attributed to some reason other than qi.
Fortunately there is research taking place that hopes to confirm and demonstrate the existence of qi. Much of it still relies on demonstrating the effects of the application of qi energy, that is, having a Master of Qigong direct their energy towards a given ‘target’, however this is different to the approach of examining techniques like Qigong, the rationale being that, in the absence of other interventions, it must be qi that is producing the observed phenomena. Some interesting examples include:
- a study by Takaota and colleagues, who demonstrated that neutrophils show enhanced signalling and activity when exposed to a sealed saline solution that had qi energy applied to it, as opposed to untreated solution6.;
- a similar study by Fukushima and colleagues, who demonstrated a similar affect on leukocytes exposed to a sealed saline solution that had qi energy applied to it, and this affect was stronger than the effect of exposing the sealed saline solution to microwave or infrared radiation7.;
- a study by Chien and colleagues, who demonstrated that the qi emitted from a Qigong Master’s palm could both raise and lower air temperature, as well as increase or decrease fibroblast cell growth and DNA synthesis, and increase or decrease the respiration rate of sperm cells, depending on the Master’s desired effect8..
Practitioners of Tai Chi and Qigong who have experienced and connected with qi will soon tell you that qi is very real. We are probably still some distance away from having a level of evidence that is accepted by the scientific community, and from there the broader community, however I have no doubt that day is coming. In the meantime, you can do your own investigating by engaging in practices like Tai Chi and Qigong and seeing the effects they have on your own body. Keeping an open mind, and allowing yourself the opportunity to experience it first-hand might be all the evidence you need.
1. Ma, J., et. al. (2023). The effect of traditional Chinese exercises on blood pressure in patients with hypertension: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2023: 1-16.
2. Ko, L-H., et al. (2022). Effects of health qigong on sleep quality: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 71:1-6.
3. Oh, B., et al. (2020). The effects of Tai Chi and Qigong on immune responses: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Medicines, 7(39): 1-21.
4. Jhaveri, A., et al. (2008). Therapeutic touch affects DNA synthesis and mineralization of human osteoblasts in culture. Journal of Orthopaedic Research, 26(11): 1541-46.
5. Yan, X., et al. (2006). External qi of Yan Xin Qigong differentially regulares the Akt and extracellular signal-regulared kinase pathways and is cytotoxic to cancer cells but not to normal cells. International Journal of Biochemistry and Cell Biology, 38(12): 2102-13.
6. Kataoka, T., Sugiyama, N., and Matsumoto, M. (1997). Effects of Qi-gong vital energy on human neutrophils. Journal of International Society of Life Information Sciences, 15(1): 129-137.
7. Fukushima, M., et. al. (2001). Evidence of Qi-gong energy and its biological effect on the enhancement of the phagocytic activity of human polymorphonuclear leukocytes. The American Journal of Chinese Medicine, 29(1): 1- 16.
8. Chien, C-H., et. al. (1991). Effects of emitted bioenergy on biochemical functions of cells. The American Journal of Chinese Medicine, 19(3-4): 285-292.