Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Qi, Structure, Connection, Gravity

"Qi" is a sort of generic term that can cover a number of things. A Chinese friend of mine who speaks excellent English said that when he grew up he always thought of qi as meaning contextually something like "the energy in things around us". So air can have qi from oxygen and pressure, as an example. The earth can have qi in gravity (the ground support and the pull downward). Food has energy within it.  A light bulb can use the qi of electricity. And so on.

The human body can use the Qi of the Earth (see the essay on Reeling Silk and Six Harmonies) in the sense that the solidity of the ground can provide a supporting force that can be applied to objects (your computer is being held up by the ground in just that way right now). Downward forces can be effected by harnessing the body's weight through overall connection.  In other words, the notable qi aspect of the earth is gravity and in the classical sense as much use should be made of the ground’s support and gravity’s weight in doing everything.  A simple example might be for a native porter to carry a load on the head by letting the structure of the body convey the ground’s solidity to the load.  Structures and channels along which the qi of the earth and the qi of heaven work are representative aspects of the Qi of Man.  More on that topic later.

If your partner is in a good stance, he can be difficult to tip over and he can probably hit hard from that stance. Assuming your partner is not using a muscular stance, but is instead letting the "qi of the earth" go through his frame, he can be relaxed but solid. On the other hand, if you are facing your partner and twist him into some awkward stance, it is easy to push him over because he “has no qi”. “No qi” in this case doesn't mean that there isn't some mysterious energy flowing through the person’s meridians; it means that the "qi of earth", the solidity of the ground, can't be propagated through an awkward or unconnected body frame.  You “have qi” depending on the way you have developed your body and the way that you use the qi from the earth and the qi from the heavens/air.

The first thing to note in this discussion about qi and body mechanics (there are other issues about qi than just this one) is that without the two primary powers of the solidity of the ground going upward and power of weight/gravity pulling downward there is no power except muscular power.  What if you push sideways off from a wall, by the way?  That wall has no stability if it is not supported by the earth somewhere. So the wall’s strength also derives from the powers of gravity.  Sideways forces from the body can be generated from angled versions of the two primary powers of gravity.  The classical preference is to let the solidity of the ground or the down-weight of gravity do as much work as possible by manipulating the body and the dantian.

The Three Internal Harmonies

Generally speaking, the body’s qi from a structural viewpoint is twofold: the bones/skeleton propagate the support of the ground upward and outward for the “Yang qi”; the connective tissues, tendons, etc., allow for pulling forces, the “Yin qi” in a downward and inward direction. 

The body has a natural ability to adjust alignment directions from weight, weight-shifts, incoming forces, and so on.  For instance, if you are carrying a heavy back-pack, your body will automatically make force compensations for the different and off-center stresses the back-pack’s off-center weight/mass causes.  You can actually learn to voluntarily manipulate the body’s normally involuntary force-compensation mechanisms in order to the direction and origin of the forces of gravity through the body’s frame.  Willfully manipulating the direction and origin of forces is generally referred to as using the “Yi” or “mind intent”. 

But what is being manipulated? The qi involves micro-adjustments, functionally, and those adjustments will involve the muscles, connective tissue, and bones, but on a very small level of movement.  You can get a feel for this aspect of qi by standing in a good, centered stance with one foot in front and one behind.  Weight is in the middle.  Imagine a very strong wind coming into your front and you stand against it by letting the back foot handle the push (don’t tense the body; let the foot hold the wind push).  Then imagine the wind suddenly comes from behind and pushes you so that the front foot is holding the force.  If your body was centered, you shouldn’t have to make any shifts or adjustments.  Now, alternate imagining a front-wind push for a couple of seconds, then a back-wind push, then a front-wind push.  Try not to make any muscle tensions in your body, but just feel as it adapts to the slowly changing wind directions, front then back then front, and so on.  You should feel a slight tingle in the body with each body adjustment to the changing wind.  That tingle is the qi as it prepares for each force change.

The tingle of “qi” preceding a force being readied was noticed by the ancient Chinese and was encapsulated in the old saying about the Internal Three Harmonies: “The heart (“Xin”, the root of “desire”, in the old view) triggers the mind (the “Yi”), the mind triggers the qi to where it is needed, and the qi precedes the strength (the “Li”).  So the saying was “Xin – Yi, Yi – Qi, Qi – Li”.

Using the mental manipulation of qi, we can engage an incoming force in any of a number of directions, blending with it so that the resulting force of the encounter becomes what we wanted for an outcome.  See the first essay in this blog on “Jin” for a slightly more-detailed discussion of the simple interaction of forces using the mind-directed qi. 

Another thing that we can do is mentally manipulate the qi to set up contradictory forces within the body; these forces can create balance (as in the Six Directions) or they can be used to augment force generation.  However, the qi precedes any forces; forces do not generate qi.

The Strange Directions of a Push or Hit
Although it might seem a little bit off-topic, it’s worth noting a further point about the traditional nomenclature and view of the dantian’s relationship to a directed-qi push.

When you push or hit someone with the ground’s solidity that is propagated through the body, it’s easy to think of the force from the ground to the hand (shortest practicable path, please!) as being extended by the joints expanding.  For instance, I could arrange with my “intent” to have a ground-solidity-connection from my foot to my hand and I could simply expand that connection by straightening my knee, my bowed back, my elbow, and so on.  That’s usually the best way to learn, but there is a more sophisticated perspective someone who has developed the dantian’s control of the connected body (see again the discussion on Silk Reeling and Six Harmonies).

In the traditional view, forces originate from the dantian and to push someone, qi is sent simultaneously from the dantian to the ground and to the hand while the dantian rotates.  So, in a way, a push or hit to someone is really a push to the ground using the solidity-of-the-ground, or jin, path.  If you’ll think about this perspective, it means using the strength of the lower body to push with the upper body.  Even to raise your arms, you actually send the qi to the ground first.  You “sink the qi”.


  1. The fundamental problem in CMA is how to convert a horizontal force to vertical force ..

  2. You cannot convert a force, ks. You can only blend in a force so that there is a resultant force going in the direction you want. With a little practice, the body can, for examply, simply arrange to meet an incoming force with a relaxed force upward from the foot: then the incoming force is actually pushing itself away. There are a number of examples of arranging forces using this form of "intent", but in none of them do you actually "convert" the incoming force. You simply meet his force with a force that yields a resultant force going where you want it.

  3. Mike, what i meant is roughly what you wrote, basically an incoming force is horizontal, and with a suitable ground path it can be 'conducted' to the ground more or less vertically because we are standing. What i wrote may not be 100% accurate but it is more 'poetic'. :)

  4. Ah, OK. Unfortunately for me, I tend to be very literal about physics terms like "force". ;) A force cannot be "converted", but it can be added to in ways so that the resulting addition of force has a different direction. The two ways to do this are, of course, (1.) adding a force up from the ground and (2.) adding some force from the weight toward the ground. And of course having a well-connected body is necessary to aid in conducting the forces. It's a good topic. If you want to start a discussion on it on the 6H Facebook page, I'm sure others would join in.

  5. Thank you for this thoughtful blog. After 8 years of Yi Quan I have been focused on these issues of Dan Tain awareness, gravity/traction, lines of force/strength propagation through the body. Western understanding of the human body is much more limited than non-specialists tend to realize. And yet, Qi and Hunyuan whole-body strength isn't magic. I can see some of the same principles operating in a basketball players' free-throw shot or a baseball batter swinging a bat. Keep posting please, very stimulating.

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  7. going too school..