What is ‘Chi’ and how is it used in martial arts?

In my last article I discussed the differences between internal and external methods of training. Put in its most simple form; internal methods build Chi (energy), external methods build Li (muscular strength). At this point it would be beneficial to discuss what exactly Chi is in greater detail and how Chi is used in the martial arts.

The subject of Chi can inspire both confusion and misunderstanding, especially when placed into the context of the martial arts, and this can lead to accounts of Chi which take on superstitious and mystical connotations. Chi is not an ungraspable concept reserved only to those who have attained a higher spiritual awareness but can be easily understood and harnessed through approaching the subject scientifically and methodically. The aim of this article is to dispel any myths about the concept of Chi and provide an understandable guide for how Chi can be comprehended and used in the martial arts.

Chi is the Chinese word for energy and should be understood as such. There are many forms of energy in the universe – energy from gas exchanges, solar energy, atmospheric energy, thermal energy, electrical pulses, biological production processes, etc, and without the presence of energy there would be no universe at all, just nothingness. Energy then is responsible for creating all forms; from simple gasses, to complex planets and life. Every form within the universe is there because the presence of energy sustains it. Scientists have already proven that the building blocks of all things – atoms and molecules – are not just simply bound together into inanimate forms. They in fact vibrate subtly and constantly from energy contained within their structures. This composition manifests into particular architectures – shape, density, hardness, elasticity, texture, colour, etc. The energy contained in all structures – whether this be rock, metal, wood, liquid or gas – determines the character of the structure itself. For instance, there is a different energy contained within water, which is insubstantial and fills its confines than there is within metal which is solid, dense and hard. There are forms which are hard and brittle (rock), others which are soft and flexible (wood) and some which are insubstantial and expanding (gas). Different forms all have different types of energy which contribute to their individual nature but all forms do contain energy.

Living things are more complex than lifeless structures and have their own particular forms of energy which brings them into creation and sustains their life until the point of death. This energy is Chi. Chi is present in all living things; from simple bacteria, to plants, animals and human beings. Every living thing relies on Chi to sustain its life.


Prenatal Chi

Prenatal Chi is the energy that we are born with and resides within us from the moment of birth up until death. Prenatal Chi begins as energy contained within the sperm and ovaries of our parents before conception. After conception the baby combines these two forms of prenatal Chi from its parents during its development in the womb. Prenatal Chi is genetic and defines the person based on their parent’s characteristics. This is the reason why second generations take on similar attributes to their parents such as looks, body type, and arguably, character and aptitude. Prenatal Chi stays with us after birth and can be regarded as our natural battery. As in all batteries, prenatal Chi has a lifespan and once there is no more prenatal Chi left inside of the body the body dies. Prenatal Chi is stored in the sperm and kidneys in males, and the ovaries and kidneys in females. Prenatal Chi is referred to as Jing, the Chinese word for ‘essence’.


Postnatal Chi

We cannot survive on prenatal Chi alone. We also need postnatal Chi after we are born and throughout our entire lives in order to live. Postnatal Chi is the Chi that we consume from the external world. Postnatal Chi is essentially energy as most of us know it; air, water, food and sunshine. Air is the most important form of postnatal Chi and we consume this form of energy constantly throughout our entire lives. Humans can go for years without sunshine, weeks or even months without food and days without water, but we cannot survive for more than a few minutes without air. Air is such an important form of energy that Chi is often referred to by the Chinese as ‘breath’. Along with air the body fuels itself with water and food. It is common to see unhealthy people that drink lots of alcohol, coffee and soft drinks, and consume processed food on a regular basis. When we eat and drink unhealthily the body actually uses energy to break down the toxins that we ingest which depletes energy reserves in the body. On the contrary, when we eat and drink healthy produce we constantly build levels of Chi in the body and this is why it is important to focus time on a healthy diet. Lastly, all humans need a certain level of natural sunlight to thrive. Sunlight contains vitamin D which humans need for healthy bone development and a strong immune system. We gain most of our vitamin D from the sunlight and a lack of natural light leads to disease; brittle bones, rickets and a low immune system. When we top up our prenatal Chi with strong postnatal Chi our health is improved and our lives lengthened.


Cultivating Chi

It is possible to live a long and healthy life just through cultivating good levels of postnatal Chi and most are satisfied with these results. However, it is also possible to cultivate large quantities of Chi and control this energy in order to produce power. The way to achieve this is through Nei Gung (Energy Work) exercises, Zhan Jong (Standing Meditation) being perhaps the most important of all.


Storing Chi

We store large quantities of Chi when practicing Zhan Jong. Chi is stored in the Lower Dan Tien (more commonly referred to simply as the Dan Tien). When training Zhan Jong we use what is referred to as belly breathing, where we expand our belly on the in-breath and contract on the out-breath. What this expanding and contracting achieves is to draw air into the bottom two-thirds of our lungs as opposed to only the top third which is used when breathing normally. This develops breathing which is efficient. More oxygen is allowed to enter the body and because of this the breathing and heart rate can slow down, leading to prolonged life. Belly breathing is also used to mentally guide energy from the air into our Dan Tien where it can be stored. This is not a physical process, in that we are directly breathing air into our Dan Tien. This is physically impossible. Instead, it is a mental process where concentration on the belly expanding and contracting focusses our attention upon the Dan Tien and the energy we gain through breathing can then travel to this point – through the blood stream – where it is stored. The Dan Tien is not an organ in the body but can be regarded as an area where energy naturally accumulates within a specific region of the body.

The body also holds emotional energy and spiritual energy. Emotional energy is stored in the Middle Dan Tien and spiritual energy in the Upper Dan Tien (Figure 1). If either Dan Tien contains too little or too much energy, the overall health deteriorates. For instance, if there is a lack of emotional energy in the Middle Dan Tien depression usually results and too much can lead to aggression. The same is true for spiritual energy. Too little spiritual energy will lead to apprehension and low self-esteem, and too much will lead to over confidence and impulsive behaviours. When storing energy in Zhan Jong it is important to keep track of our emotional and spiritual levels when cultivating Chi to ensure that no imbalances occur.



Moving Chi

Chi does not just get stored, it also flows throughout the entire body to reach every extremity. Chi travels through the body in two ways; through the blood circulatory system and the Microcosmic Orbit.

Blood vessels are responsible for transporting postnatal energy from air, water, food and sunshine to every part of the body. Energy from these postnatal sources enters the blood cells and travel to the organs, muscles and skin through the blood vessels.

The Microcosmic Orbit is an energy circuit that connects all the major energy gates of the body in one complete cycle (Figure 2). Again, this is not a specific physical circuit in the body but can be regarded as path in which energy naturally travels through. There are two vessels which make up the microcosmic orbit; the Conception Vessel and the Governing Vessel. These two vessels are joined together to form a complete circuit by pressing the tongue up against the roof of the mouth. The conception vessel shares a connection with the heart and the governing vessel with the kidneys. The element attached to the heart is fire and the element attached to the kidneys is water. Fire’s nature is to rise whilst water’s nature is to fall. If we allow fire to rise in the body; stress, anger, heart disease and blood circulation problems can arise. If we allow water to fall in the body; lethargy, depression, kidney disease and urinary problems can arise. Instead, if we allow Chi to fall down the conception vessel and rise up the governing vessel; balance, harmony and equilibrium can be achieved, which strengthens the body and mind, and leads to good health.


We can guide the flow of Chi with the mind in various ways. Relaxation is the most natural method of directing Chi flow. When we relax the energy gates open and Chi is able to freely move throughout the microcosmic orbit. Stress causes tension in the muscles which in turn restricts blood flow through these areas and throughout the entire body. When the blood flow is restricted the energy contained within the blood cannot move freely and this creates sections of the body with energy disparities. When the entire body is relaxed the energy can flow freely and be balanced throughout the body. There are no mental images required through this method, just pure relaxation. There are, however, times when the mind may be required to direct the flow of Chi:


  • Focussing on belly breathing helps direct energy into the Dan Tien.


  • Mentally guiding energy to fall down the conception vessel into the Dan Tien on the in-breath, and rise up the governing vessel on the out-breath helps energy flow in the correct direction around the microcosmic orbit.


  • The mind can help clear energy blockages created by chronic disorders, injury or emotional problems. Ways to achieve this include relaxing tense areas with the mind to allow energy to flow through uninterrupted. Mental images are useful to clear blockages, a common one being to imagine the blockage as a block of ice which the mind melts.


  • Positive and negative energy within the body can be controlled through metal imagery. A common method is to absorb positive energy and expel negative energy by imagining positive energy as golden light entering and filling the body on the in-breath, and negative energy as black smoke exiting the body on the out-breath.


  • Energy can be directed into the ground for increased grounding. A common mental image for this is to imagine all of the blood in the body falling and settling into the lower legs.


  • The mind is able to control the expulsion of Chi out of the weapons for combat purposes (used in combat standing postures). On the in-breath the mind focuses on building chi into the Dan Tien. On the out-breath this energy is directed simultaneously into the ground and out of the weapons. This is common imagery used to increase intent and power during combat postures (San Ti Shi and Da Cheng Aware postures).


  • Chi can be expanded within the body to develop explosive power. A common method for expanding chi incorporates reverse breathing. On the in breath energy is condensed into the Dan Tien. On the out-breath this condensed energy expands into the whole body as if the body was being filled with air like a balloon. This practice directs Chi outwards in all directions to increase the amount of power that can be produced.


The mind plays an incredibly important role in the cultivation and control of Chi. There are numerous mental images which can be used to direct Chi in, around and outside of the body. It must be remembered, however, that the foundation for all Chi cultivation and control lies in relaxation.


The Three Treasures and Energy Transformation


The Three Treasures are:

Jing     –   Life Essence

Chi      –   Energy

Shen   –   Spirit

The Three Treasures are the three principle forms of energy which we are able to cultivate. This cultivation requires control and transformation in order to attain oneness with the Tao. Jing is transformed into Chi through healthy living and Nei Gung/ Chi Gung exercises. Once good levels of Chi are stored this energy can be controlled and directed to heighten spirit – thus Chi transforms into Shen. To become one with the Tao a high degree of spirit must be cultivated first. The Tao is emptiness and is our pure original state of being. By becoming one with the Tao we are returning to our original pure state of being with ourselves and the world around us. Once we are born our external environment begins to mould us in complex and often negative ways, and as we travel through life we drift further and further away from the Tao. Through Nei Gung/ Chi Gung practice we can unravel all of our complex and negative traits to return to purity once again by becoming one with the Tao.

For martial arts purposes, increasing Chi leads to greater energy and the ability to produce power. However, if there are energy blockages power is also blocked. Muscular tension, injury and mental stress are all forms of energy blockages which reduce the ability to project power through the body and out into the opponent. Power starts from the Dan Tien (in terms of energy flow and movement). The energy stored in the Dan Tien must be allowed to flow unimpeded to the weapons in order to produce powerful strikes/ techniques. All movement is initiated from the Dan Tien which martial artists refer to as centre. Whenever you move the whole body as one connected force (a necessary foundation for power generation) you always move from centre first. If you are unable to generate movement from centre you will lose the ability to produce your maximum levels of power. The mind acts similarly. If there is fear, apprehension or doubt in the mind your power will be suppressed. However, if you project power with all of your confidence and intent you will be able to reach your maximum levels of power.


To conclude, Chi is not an illusive or mystical force but a tangible and understandable facet of all of our lives. Once the concepts of Chi are understood the cultivation of Chi can start to occur; to improve health and increase our energy levels. Zhan Jong is the fundamental training method for energy cultivation and also trains the ability to balance and direct the energy flow in the body. Chi is directly linked to power but our ability to reach our maximum levels of power is greatly reduced unless our energy can be controlled and harnessed first. This is why energy cultivation methods are so important in the martial arts. Not only do they develop and strong and healthy body and mind but also leads to increased power.





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