A Biological Interpretation of Ch’i

The following is an amplification of some of my ideas about ch’i that I wrote about in 1995 in my first book on T’ai Chi:1

Ch’i is the basis of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and acupuncture is one of TCM’s tools for stimulating ch’i. Whereas some research has been conducted on ch’i, scientists have not yet satisfactorily identified, measured, or explained it. Therefore, it is misleading to try to describe ch’i using words like energy or force. Such words are often used but have precise scientific meanings that may not apply. However, ch’i may have a biological basis.

Is Ch’i Related to the Dynamics of Living Cells?

When we look at dead cells under a microscope, they are motionless. Much of what we know about cellular changes is from seeing dead cells “frozen” at different stages of development. However, there is a dynamic attribute of living cells similar to that seen in living, single-celled organisms such as amoebas. Living plant and animal cells actually undergo internal movement within the cytoplasm. This activity is termed protoplasmic streaming.2 Streaming is thought to redistribute nutrients within cells and may help cells to absorb oxygen and nutrients and expel metabolic wastes. In tissues comprising many cells, there may be a corresponding activity involving masses of cells in unison—a sort of wave-like undulation. Such organized motion could transmit vital information from organs and glands to other organs and glands to regulate their activities and secretions. This hypothesis is consistent with the concept that ch’i, blood, and breath are related and that ch’i harmonizes essential bodily functions. It is also consistent with the fact that ch’i is often experienced as a tingling sensation, and its flow is experienced as a wave.

The idea that ch’i involves such vital cellular activities explains why it is associated with a healing effect. Arrested or reduced ch’i, which can result from fixations of habitual muscular tension, may stunt normal physiological processes dependent on these activities. Reinstated cellular activities then enable their associated physiological processes to resume. If this interpretation is correct, then exercises that cultivate the flow of ch’i can benefit cells individually and harmonize bodily functions through collective cellular activity.

Ch’i and Electricity

At present, some people who work with ch’i think that it involves electromagnetic energy. Electronic devices have been designed that are purported to locate acupuncture nodes. These devices are used by some acupuncturists. Moreover, acupuncture is thought to activate ch’i through electrical stimulation; that is, the metal of the acupuncture needle, when in contact with dissolved bodily salts, produces an electrical current as do the electrodes of a battery, which are immersed in an electrolyte. In fact, it is found that connecting an external, pulsing electrical source to acupuncture needles increases the beneficial effect. When the pulse rate equals the heart rate, the effect is maximized. Interestingly, the beating of the heart is another phenomenon triggered by electrical impulses. That ch’i seems to be associated with an electrical aspect suggests that it may involve the known electrical action of nerve impulses on bodily cells.

Neural Stimulation of Cells

It is known that all muscular action results from the electrical stimulation of muscle fibers by nerve impulses from the brain and spinal cord. A human body has on the order of a hundred billion nerve cells and an astronomical number of neural connections and interconnections.3 Even when we have no intention to do a physical action, nerve impulses to muscles continually occur but well below the level that would cause external muscular action. This constant background stimulation keeps muscles in tone, and were it absent, muscles would sag and not be ready to respond when required. For example, people who suffer from Bell’s Palsy, which is a disorder of the facial nerve that controls the facial muscles, can experience drooping of the lower eyelid and the corner of the mouth on the affected side. Alternatively, background stimulation that is too strong can cause tremors and tics.

It is not far-fetched to think that this background stimulation may play a part in initiating cellular streaming or other beneficial cellular activities that facilitate absorption of oxygen and nutrients and release of waste products.

Thought, Nerve Impulses, and Ch’i

Next, consider that it is known that when you simply watch someone do an action or even imagine that you are doing it, your brain sends nerve impulses to stimulate the fibers of exactly the muscles that would cause that action, with no external muscular action occurring. Athletes utilize this fact to practice movement mentally,4 without any exertion, even when physically exhausted.

Doing T’ai Chi or Ch’i Kung involves moving in a relaxed and precise manner, with an awareness of every part of the body and with all parts unified as a whole. Doing such movement can be expected to produce a high degree of neural activation of cells, resulting in an increase in the cellular absorption of oxygen and nutrients and the release of waste products. At the same time, such practice involves minimum muscular tension, which is consistent with the idea that any stiffness would hinder background cellular movement. Thus, the T’ai-Chi Classics say,

If there is ch’i, there is no li (external strength).5

In the words of Yang Cheng-fu,6

Use the mind and not force,


In practicing T’ai Chi Ch’uan the whole body relaxes.

It is conceivable that highly skilled T’ai-Chi and Ch’i-Kung practitioners, who are sensitive to ch’i and able to utilize it for healing, can intentionally regulate their background nerve impulses to be much more intense than those of ordinary people. The fact that some high-level Ch’i-Kung masters tremble when transmitting ch’i suggests that they may be elevating their background nerve impulses to be slightly above the threshold of external muscular action.

By incorporating the above idea that ch’i is neurologically stimulated, I added a new dimension to my teaching of Ch’i Kung. For example, some beginners have difficulty in recognizing ch’i even with the exercises that I teach. The remedy now includes my explaining my interpretation of ch’i and saying, “Imagine that you are tensing your hands without actually doing so.” These ideas have also improved my own practice of Ch’i Kung.

How is Ch’i Transmitted?

The question naturally arises: How can ch’i be transmitted from one person to another? I have pondered this question for decades. Is this transmission electrical? That is, can minute electrical fields emanated by one person be strong enough to affect another? Actually, I have done some informal experiments by using an extremely sensitive electroscope (Figs. 1 and 2),7 which can detect infinitesimal electric fields. My ch’i is rather strong, and I am able to transmit it at will over a distance of several feet to others who feel it and its effects. I tried transmitting ch’i while holding my hand very close to the electroscope. No matter how hard or how many times I tried, the results were the same; the electroscope gave not the slightest indication. I also tried to use my ch’i to affect a candle flame (Fig. 3), and this experiment was equally unsuccessful. The failure of these informal experiments certainly does not rule out an electrical component to the transmission of ch’i, but the null results prompted me to think along the following lines:

A Very Sensitive Electroscope

Fig. 1. The circuit for a very sensitive electroscope, which can indicate the presence of minute electrostatic fields.

Photo of electroscope

Fig. 2. Photo of the above electroscope.

An unsuccessful attempt to affect a candle flame with ch’i

Fig. 3. An unsuccessful attempt to affect a candle flame with ch’i.

Intention and the Transmission of Ch’i

As mentioned earlier, when you watch someone doing an action, your nervous system reacts sympathetically by sending the same nerve impulses for accomplishing just that action but on a lower level. What if humans are so developed that they can succeed in mirroring the nerve impulses of another person even when that person’s impulses are below the threshold of any external action? At present, there is no scientific acceptance of the idea that the intention of one person can be transmitted to and sensed by another, let alone any understanding of the mechanism by which such a transmission might occur. Nevertheless, I know from my study of Ninjutsu that it is possible to perceive and respond to another’s intention to do harm. The Ninja call this intention sakki (the force of the killer).8 An important part of Ninja training is to develop the ability to perceive and respond to sakki to the point of being protected against another’s attack—even when the attacker is not seen! The following seemingly paradoxical quote from the T’ai-Chi Classics may refer to the ability of a skilled practitioner to sense the intention of an opponent to attack:

It is said “If others don’t move, I don’t move. If others move slightly, I move first.”9

The most basic element of experiencing and responding to sakki can be practiced by several people as follows: All but one person (the “attacker”) stand in a circle about fifteen to twenty feet wide, with their backs to the center. The attacker holds a model knife or sword and stands in the center. He then quietly and slowly approaches one person from behind and imagines attacking with his knife. In order for the imagined attack to be realistic, the attacker must have the intention to do harm even though no harm will ensue. When the person being threatened feels the urgency to move away from the attack, he/she turns around. If the victim does not feel the attack after a reasonable amount of time, the attacker “cuts” the victim. That way the victim can then review what he/she experienced during the stages of being threatened and learn to recognize those feelings when they occur again.

Often, beginners who do the above exercise fail to consciously recognize the feeling of being in danger, but their bodies “know” and react by moving visibly. It does not take long, however, for even beginners to recognize the urgent feeling of sakki.

The other day, I noticed a starling on my neighbor’s lawn, intently pecking for food. I focused on the bird, and it immediately stopped and looked up. Without moving, I relaxed my focus and went into my own thoughts. The bird then went back to its pecking. Again, I focused on the bird. It again looked up and then pointed one eye in my direction. Again, I relaxed my focus, and the bird then went back to its pecking. There is no question in my mind that the bird sensed my focus on it even though I had no intention of harming it.

Of course, wild animals have a much greater ability than that of humans to perceive danger or respond to a connection initiated by another being. If they did not, they would not stay alive very long. Nevertheless, in my experience, humans, too, possess this ability and can vastly increase it. My experience over the years confirms that just as we can sense anger and its associated danger, we can sense intention in other areas.

Thus, it may be that when one person has the intention to send healing ch’i to another, that intention may have an effect on the nervous system of the recipient, thus intensifying the recipient’s ch’i flow.

How is Intention Transmitted?

So far, science has not explained how a person can sense the intention of another in the absence of evident cues. The underlying phenomenon may involve the interaction of physical quantities10 that are known but which scientists have been unable to measure.11 Or, it may involve physical quantities that are not yet known. Perhaps the mode of transmission is not even physical, in which case, science in its present form may not have the tools with which to uncover the process involved.

1Robert Chuckrow, T’ai Chi Ch’uan: Embracing the Pearl, Rising Mist Publications, Briarcliff Manor, NY, 1995, pp. 17–19, republished as The Tai Chi Book, YMAA Publication Center, Boston, MA, 1998, pp. 20–22.

2See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0y8wjri0HgM/ and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n70rlWvFovo&NR=1/ for short videos of protoplasmic streaming.

3See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neural/.

4See, for example, http://www.sports-training-adviser.com/mentalpractice.html/.

5The Essence of T’ai Chi Ch’uan: The Literary Tradition, Translated and Edited by Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo, Martin Inn, Robert Amacker, and Susan Foe, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA, 1985, p. 49.

6The Essence of T’ai Chi Ch’uan: The Literary Tradition, p. 87.

7The circuit and instructions for building and using this device are available on http://www.amasci.com/emotor/chargdet.html/. All parts for building this circuit are available from Radio Shack.

8Stephen K. Hayes, The Ninja and Their Secret Fighting Art, Charles E. Tuttle Company, Boston, Rutland, VT, 1981, pp. 144–148.

9The Essence of T’ai Chi Ch’uan: The Literary Tradition, p. 57.

10“A physical quantity is property of a phenomenon, body, or substance, that can be quantified by measurement.” (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physical_quantity/.) Some examples are length, mass, time, and speed.

11The following is an example of a phenomenon that involves the interaction of known physical quantities but which scientists are unable to measure: Theoretically, when a loaded elevator descends, the earth moves a corresponding amount in the opposite direction. Because the ratio of the mass of the earth to that of the elevator is so great, the movement of the earth is far too small to be measured.

©Copyright 2011 by Robert Chuckrow

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