Anyone who knows something about Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) or Chinese internal martial arts (e.g., Taijiquan, which is the most well-known Chinese internal martial art) would invariably have heard of the word Qigong (or loosely speaking, the cultivation or manipulation of air or life force through work or exercise). TCM is based on the theory that good health comes from a balance of Qi and an absence of blockage of Qi in one’s body. Internal martial arts are based on the theory that one can increase one’s power by channeling the body’s Qi to a particular part of the body, e.g., the hand or foot.
Even though TCM practitioners and internal martial artists speak about Qi frequently and they certainly believe that they can feel the presence of Qi in their body and guide the Qi through their body, they still cannot provide a clear-cut definition of Qi that can be understood by someone who is not an expert in that field. I also cannot provide a clear-cut definition, but for the purpose of this article, I will define Qi as an energy, some sort of bioelectrical energy that exists in the human body (mostly inside, but also near the exterior of the body). The term “Qigong” refers to the practice that increases the Qi and its circulation within the body. The fact that a clear-cut definition of Qigong cannot be provided is one of the reasons for the importance of the proposed research discussed in this article. One of the results of such research is a better definition of Qigong that non-experts can understand.
The essence of Qigong is that there is something called Qi that can exist in one’s body and this Qi can circulate within the body. The circulation could be actively controlled and directed by the practitioner, or once the practitioner gets into a Qigong state (more on this later) the circulation could be automatic (but the practitioner could still end it by getting out of the Qigong state). It is also possible that a Qigong master can induce Qi and Qi circulation in another person by applying his/her own Qi on this person; this is what is usually involved in Qigong healing. Because Qigong has been around for at least a couple of thousands of years and has been practiced by millions of people all over the world, there are many different types of Qigong and many different effects or claimed effects of Qigong. In this article, we will be concerned only with Qigong in relation to health and martial arts. We will not be concerned with the religious aspects of Qigong as claimed by some people.
How does one get into a state that allows one to feel the presence of Qi and get the Qi to circulate, i.e., how does one get into a Qigong state? Because of its long history and the large number of practitioners as previously mentioned, there could be many different methods. In general, a common denominator is that the person needs to relax his body and mind. That is why it is often said that the person needs to be in a meditative mode. Then there are at least two general approaches: One is a more pro-active approach, and the other is a more spontaneous approach.
In the more pro-active approach, which requires significantly more persistent practice, the practitioner could stand upright in a relaxed manner, with knees slightly bent. Both hands could be in front of the body as if holding a big beach ball, or one hand is up and in front of the body with the palm upright and facing away from the body, while the other hand is lower and slightly to the side of the abdomen with the palm facing the ground. At the same time, the practitioner should consciously visualize where to direct the Qi, e.g., to both hands when holding a beach ball, or to the outstretched hand when only one hand is extended outward, or to the Dantien, which is the physical center of gravity of a person’s body, located in the abdomen (about three finger widths below and two finger widths behind the navel). Initially a non-expert would most likely feel nothing special, nevertheless, he should continue to do this practice, including the visualization. After standing in that stance for 30 minutes or more with each practice and after sustained practice of weeks or even months, the practitioner may get into a Qigong state by starting to feel a tingling sensation in his hands including a pulsation at the center of the palm as though the heart is beating in the palm, and then perhaps even a Qi force that moves his arms in circular motions.
In the more spontaneous approach, the practitioner would stand upright in a relaxed manner, with knees slightly bent, and the hands loosely hanging by the side of the body. Stand in that position for 30 minutes or more. In the spontaneous approach, the practitioner would usually get into a Qigong stage much earlier, perhaps even during the first time trying this. Different people could behave differently in a Qigong state. For example, some may have his arms moving in a circular motion, initially in small circles, then gradually in bigger circles, and then into smaller circles again until the Qigong state ends. Some may start walking, either forward or backward. Some may sway their body back and forth, to the front and then to the back, or to the left and then to the right. Some may start rotating around the vertical axis of their body. Some may even lie on the floor and start moving their body in circles. Even though this is spontaneous, the practitioner is aware of the movements and can stop the movements if he so desires.
The more pro-active approach can be used for martial arts or health improvement purposes, while the more spontaneous approach is used for only health improvement purposes because the Qi is not consciously directed and controlled.
Proposed Research Project
For the many people in this world who practice Qigong on a regular basis, Qi is as real to them as their breath, their heartbeat, their conscious mind. They can feel the Qi in their body. They can guide the Qi to circulate to different parts of their body. They can feel sensations in their body, e.g., tingling sensations in their fingers, when they are practicing Qigong. The issue then is that there must be experimentally measurable manifestations of Qi. Can we devise experiments, either with existent scientific or medical measuring devices or with new or modified measuring devices, to detect differences in various measurements between an average person in a non-Qigong state and a Qigong expert in a Qigong state?
There are probably many different methods and many different manifestations of Qigong that can produce meaningful measurements from the perspective of science or medicine. Below we identify several methods and measurements. The purpose of such a list is for illustration purposes only, and not to limit our imagination and creativity to conduct this research.
- If Qi is some sort of bioelectrical energy in the body and in the neighborhood of the body, then perhaps the electromagnetic field in the neighborhood (e.g., near the fingers) of a Qigong expert in a Qigong state should be significantly stronger than that of an average person.
- Are there differences in the heart’s electrical activities as measured by electrocardiograms (ECGs) between a Qigong expert in a Qigong state and an average person?
- Are there differences in the electrical activities of the brain as measured by electroencephalograms (EEGs) between a Qigong expert in a Qigong state and an average person? In the more-proactive Qigong approach, the mind is used to direct the Qi. Are the EEG measurements different when the mind is consciously involved?
- Besides electromagnetic fields, does Qigong emit or change the emission level for other types of energy fields, e.g., acoustic field?
- In Qigong and especially in many exercises in internal martial arts, one always stresses that the Qi should be directed to and stored in the Dantien. The Dantien is below the diaphragm, the partitioned membrane that separates the cavity of the chest from that of the abdomen. Even though the word Qi in Chinese is the same word as air, air or oxygen goes to the lungs but cannot go the abdomen cavity. So what is the Qi that is going to the Dantien in the abdomen cavity? Are there physical measurements that can be measured directly or indirectly in the abdomen cavity that show the manifestations of Qi?
- Both TCM and internal martial arts talk about channels or meridians in the body in which Qi flows and vessels or reservoirs in the body in which Qi is stored. How are these Qi channels related to blood vessels which carry oxygen and other ingredients to various parts of our body? How are these Qi vessels related to our bodily organs? Are there measurements that can support the existence of these Qi channels and vessels?
- In medical diagnosis, fluorescent dyes are often used in a patient to observe differences inside a body between a normal person and a patient with an ailment. By using fluorescent dyes, are there differences inside the body that can be observed between a Qigong expert in a Qigong state and an average person?
- Practicing Qigong is supposed to increase one’s internal power (known as Neigong) for an internal martial artist. In his book The Essence of Taiji Qigong: The Internal Foundation of Taijiquan, Dr. Jwing-Ming Yang, a well-known teacher and author of books on Taijiquan and martial arts, said that the theory behind increasing striking power is actually very simple. He said that the average person generally uses his muscles at under 40% maximum efficiency, and the martial artist can use the mind to lead the Qi to the muscles to energize them to a higher level, thus increasing the martial artist’s fighting effectiveness. Similarly, leading Qi to the skin and muscles can enable them to better resist a blow without injury. If this is the case, then Qi must be manifested in some physically meaningful measurements in the body.
- TCM emphasizes that illnesses are often associated with Qi blockages. If we can figure out a way to detect Qi or detect the causal effects due to the presence of Qi or Qi circulation, then we can detect Qi blockages and can check on the correlation of Qi blockages and illnesses.
- While in a Qigong state, if a person’s arms are automatically moving in a circular motion, then part of the time, the arms are being lifted up against gravity. What is the origin of that force, and how does Qi or Qi circulation generate that force?
As previously mentioned, these examples are only for illustration purpose.
Seeking Collaborative Researchers
We are seeking interested parties, especially scientists and medical researchers, to collaborate on such a research program. It can be a win-win collaboration. We can provide knowledge and expertise on Qigong and internal martial arts, including access to world-class Qigong and internal martial artists. Our research partners can provide knowledge and expertise on scientific and medical research and measurement techniques. Such a collaboration can result in the following benefits:
- Provide a better understanding of Qi in terms of modern scientific and medical terminology
- Create a broader base to utilize the health benefits of Qigong
- Create a broader base to utilize the martial arts benefits of Qigong
- Push the frontier of research and make a significant contribution to scientific and medical knowledge in this important field that bridges the East and West
Of course, such research programs are not necessarily new, especially in China. However, it is still in an early stage of investigation, and much more research is needed in this fertile field.
If you are interested or know of people who may be interested, please contact Don Tow.
 For a discussion of Qi and a comparison of external and internal martial arts, see my earlier article “Brief Comparison of External and Internal Martial Arts.”
For a discussion of Taiji Qigong, see my earlier article “The Essence of Taijiquan – Part 2: Perspective from Taiji Qigong.”.
 For simpler reading, we use the word “his” to mean “his or her.”