by Yolanda Asher, Debra C. Howard and Deborah Valentine Smith
Qi is Chinese for “vital life force energy.” In Japanese, this is called ki; in Sanskrit, prana. Qi is the essence that brings all living beings to life through an inter-outer-body communication network.
Every form of human therapy identifies a specific set of tissues or functions considered key to an individual’s vibrant health. The training in each discipline is based on thorough knowledge of the anatomy and physiology of their specialization.
Internists work primarily with the body’s chemistry; surgeons with structural components and abnormalities; chiropractors with the spine, joints and nerves; psychotherapists with the mental-emotional functions; massage therapists with muscle function and the circulation of blood and lymph; and energy workers—including Asian Bodywork Therapists—with the flow of qi (pronounced “chee”).
The body’s energy system
The concepts of qi and qi flow come from ancient Chinese medicine. Qi moves (communicates) all over, around and through the body and affects the mind and consciousness (shen). In Asian Bodywork Therapy (ABT), we come to know this network of qi as the energy anatomy, also called the meridian and collateral system.
The energy system is just as real as the circulatory and respiratory systems that carry blood and oxygen. It is composed of the various pathways through which qi flows, acting interdependently with the other systems. Just like blood and oxygen, qi must reach every cell of the body. In the same way that a vascular expert would address disease by studying the flow of blood in the tissues and blood vessels, the energy practitioner studies the flow of qi in the points and pathways.
So, what is the qi that flows through this system? Qi is communication itself; it can be compared to electricity. The terms “bioenergy” and “bioelectricity” are used to define electrical energy in living bodies. Western science says that in living tissues, energy is transported in the ATP molecule. Energy is the capacity to do work, or to put matter in motion. Matter is anything that occupies space and has mass.
Albert Einstein’s theory of the Conservation of Matter and Energy (E=mc2, where E=energy, m=mass and c=the speed of light) says matter and energy are interchangeable, and nothing is lost in the transformation from one to the other. The concept of qi reflects this continuity: its yin aspects correspond to the description of matter and its yang aspects, which are more subtle, correspond with the description of energy.
The Chinese character for qi includes two radicals—the symbol for uncooked rice at the bottom, with the symbol for something ethereal, such as steam or gas, at the top—bringing together matter and energy as the same fundamental substance.
Where qi comes from
Qi is created by the organs through the harmonious transformation of food into fuel and transformation of air into breath, orchestrated by our inherited personal constitution. The functions of qi are to warm and protect, to govern smooth and harmonious transformations, to initiate and accompany movement, and to keep organs and substances in place.
Organs make qi, and qi keeps organs running. Qi not only serves where it is produced, but travels throughout the body in specific, predictable pathways that are distinct from other, grosser pathways, such as the blood vessels and nerves. As with electricity, we can follow the pathways qi takes; we can activate switches to make adjustments, and we can see the results of having the current open or closed.
This system of pathways also acts like the pathways of water on Earth. There are major rivers, minor rivers, streams, creeks, ponds and pools. There are also lakes and seas, artesian wells and subterranean water tables that store excess water.
In the energy system, meridians are like major rivers because they flow continuously and take care of crucial day-to-day activities, reaching all aspects of the body-mind. Though referred to as 12 separate pathways, each is really part of one great loop, just as blood vessels, such as the brachial or femoral arteries, are part of the unending loop of the vascular system that carries blood away from the heart to all tissues and then brings it back again.
Along the surface route of the meridians, the qi collects at certain points. These points along the flow of the “rivers,” or meridians, are like pools or hollows. The Japanese word for point is tsubo, which means hollow, cup or pool. We can think of acupoints as gathering places of qi, where stagnation or “dams” may occur, and also as places where the movement of qi can be influenced.
The practitioner refers to charts, recorded over many thousands of years of exploration and discovery, which provide locations for pathways and points in relation to specific landmarks on the body. Then, whether using fingers or needles, the practitioner must zero in on the points by contacting the qi and noticing the response.
As qi flows through different structures related to different functions, its quality and behavior change. We can return to the analogy of electricity. Electrical current does not change its nature, but it does depend on the structures it flows through. If the current passes into a lamp, the result is light. If it passes through a stove, the result is heat; through a motor, movement; through a refrigerator, cold.
So, when we speak of qi in the 12 different subdivisions or meridians as having different character, we are really describing what the qi is energizing. The qi not only moves through the structures, giving them the energy to perform their functions (yang aspect), but also provides nourishment for their physical form (yin aspect).
Qi builds, as in a wave, in different meridians at different times of the day, year (seasons) or lifetime, responding to the different needs of the organism at these times.
Although there is always qi moving through each meridian, the flow has tides, very much like bodies of water have tides. During each-hour period, a high tide moves through each of the 12 meridians for about two hours each day. Specific times are associated with each high tide; the low tide is the opposite time of day.
Because this is a medicine based in nature and natural rhythms, the times are based on sun time, not daylight savings time or clocks. The high tide of the lung system is 3 a.m. to 5 a.m., for example; low tide is 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. By knowing the lung is in charge of physical energy, you can see how afternoon naps make sense. Appropriate alternating cycles of activity and rest are important for an extended and happy life.
The tides move in this particular pattern to strengthen and support the organ systems harmoniously in a person’s daily life, circulating through the lung, large intestine, stomach, spleen and pancreas, heart, small intestine, bladder, kidney, pericardium, triple warmer, gall bladder, liver and back to the lung, in that order, every day. (One of the 12 main meridians, triple warmer is the translation from the Chinese name of the meridian sanjiao. Other translations are: three heater, triple heater and triple burner. In sanjiao theory, all the internal organs are classified into ‘burners, the upper, middle and lower. Each burner has distinct functions: Upper relates to respiration and circulation; middle to digestion and assimilation of nutrients from food; and lower to waste removal and energy storage. The triple warmer is one of the organ system functions described in ancient Chinese medicine that corresponds to the functions of the endocrine system, particularly the hypothalamus and pituitary functions. It is often used in clinical practice to balance fluid levels in the body.)
If we were living our lives harmoniously with the cycles of the sun and moon, these tides would correspond with the natural activities of each time of day.
For example, following lung at 3 a.m. is large intestine at 5 a.m., encouraging us to get up, get rid of yesterday’s waste and get ready for today. Stomach rises next at 7 a.m., and we’re ready for a big breakfast. Spleen and pancreas follow to help with digestion (transforming food into qi). Heart’s time is at the peak of the day, when the sun is highest and heat stimulates the circulatory system. Following the heart is small intestine, which sorts pure from impure and assimilates nutrients into the faster-moving blood. Then come bladder and kidney, which have stored any extra energy from that big breakfast to distribute now as reserve energy, if needed. They also like to rest and keep lower activity levels. Pericardium and triple warmer come next, allowing for a bit more social or intimate evening activity, and then it’s off to sleep by 11 p.m., so gall bladder and liver can do their work of processing and integrating our experiences, making decisions and coming up with plans—thus the saying, “Let me sleep on it.” Then we’re back to lung, taking deep breaths, receiving inspiration and getting good REM sleep from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m.
The meridians next to each other in this cycle directly affect each other. For example, a blockage in one meridian might back up the energy into the preceding meridian, or prevent a meridian that follows it from receiving sufficient energy. Or a weak organ that can’t draw the energy from a meridian that nourishes it in the internal flows—its mother—may also cause the mother to be flooded, and so on.
The ultimate goal
Keeping qi flowing smoothly is a key to health. Qi imbalances can lead to discomfort, emotional instability, pain and eventually, disease.
The classics say the natural person back in the good old days (they were writing 3,000 years ago!) was so much in touch with the seasons and with the harmonious flow of energy between heaven and Earth that the energy flowed where and when it was needed. This person was never sick and lived to be centuries old.
If we consider the meridians and channels to be like the pathways and gathering places of water on and in the Earth, we can see how important it is to identify dams, or blocks in the energy flow, and how disruption of the flow to organs and tissues produces physical symptoms.
A Chinese proverb says, “Where there is pain, there is no flow of energy. With energy flow, there is no pain.” Exercises to assist qi flow, such as qi gong, were developed thousands of years ago.
When we use Asian medicine to facilitate the smooth flow of qi, we also assist in self-healing through open communication between the self and the environment. There are several ways to affect change in qi flow, including diet, exercise and bodywork. ABT sessions facilitate the smooth flow of qi through the meridians and tissues, leading to improved overall health and increased body-mind awareness. The ultimate goal is balance.
Visit www.massagemag.com/aobta to read about the credentials offered by the Association of Bodywork Therapies of Asia and National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.
Yolanda Asher, AOBTA-CI, Dipl. ABT (NCCAOM), has practiced shiatsu for more than 20 years and has served on the AOBTA national board of directors as the legislative director since 1997. She has authored numerous articles on shiatsu and is co-editor of AOBTA’s newsletter, Pulse. She is the NCCAOM diplomate media spokesperson for Atlanta, Georgia, where she practices and teaches.
Debra C. Howard, L.M.T., AOBTA-CI (AOBTA-Certified Instructor), Dipl. ABT (NCCAOM), has studied and practiced Asian Bodywork Therapy (ABT) since 1992. She began volunteering for AOBTA in 1993 and as a Louisiana State Chapter founder, served as its president. Howard served on the AOBTA national board from 1998 to 2007, with two terms as president. She also completed two terms as convention coordinator. Howard has written about ABT for two major massage textbooks, published articles and contributed to a book about teaching. Howard maintains a practice, writes and teaches from southeast Louisiana.
Deborah Valentine Smith, L.M.T., AOBTA-CI, Dipl. ABT (NCCAOM), a registered practitioner of Jin Shin Do Bodymind Acupressure for 30 years, teaches the full curriculum for Jin Shin Do practitioners as well as courses she developed, including A&P for ABT and Where Energy Meets Fascia. She is currently on the adjunctive faculty of the Cayce/Reilly School of Massotherapy, The Massage Arts Center of Philadelphia and the Acupressure Therapy Institute. She wrote three chapters in A Complete Guide to Acupressure, by Iona Teeguarden, is the editor-in-chief of AOBTA’s Pulse newsletter and is the eastern regional director of the AOBTA. She maintains practices in Pennsylvania and New York City.