Chi is the key to our sense of inner and outer health
Coursing through our bodies are numerous energy channels that carry our life-force – chi. Chi (pronounced “chee” and sometimes written qi) is our vital energy, which flows through us, including the organs of the body. Many of the meridians, the main channels, are named after the organs that they influence. Throughout the whole body, there is a very complex network.
When chi is abundant and balanced, then health is good. The body is strong and we feel well. However, when there are blockages in the network, we get an imbalance. If we think of this system as a sort of bio-electrical circuit, we can perhaps imagine that if there is not enough chi flowing, there will be coldness and lack of energy. In other areas, there may be congestion and overheating due to overload.
The mind and chi
As practitioners of chi kung (sometimes written qigong) and the internal martial arts know very well, chi can be influenced or led by the mind. In other words, we can affect the flow of chi by our thinking or by shifting our awareness. For example, if we breathe with our awareness focused slightly below the navel, it is possible with a little practice to feel the energy building up there.
Chi can be led by the mind because there are subtle energies in the emotional and mental layers of our being, as well as in our body. The relationship between these is very close. When we have a thought, there is a movement of subtle energy in the mental layer or mental body, as it is sometimes called. If that movement is strong or maintained, it can significantly affect the flow of chi. In general terms, if the flow of energy is good and positive, the blood circulation will normally also be healthy. We may feel some warmth or light tingling sensations, particularly in the hands.
If we think of the connection between the subtle energies of the mind (sometimes delightfully called the mental winds) with our chi, it becomes easier to understand how any upset in mind or body can create upset in the other. If the mind is disturbed, the energy in the body will be agitated. Similarly, if the body is upset or stimulated, it is likely that the mind will be unsettled too. So when we talk about becoming tranquil, it is not just calming the mind. Both body and mind are interdependent.
Breath, body, mind
The breath is far more than physiological respiration. It is the magic bridge between body and mind. Awareness of the breath is a major tool in bringing about tranquillity and, as a result of that, clarity of mind.
When we feel agitated or upset, our breathing changes. It becomes shallower and more rapid. We then tend to breathe mainly into the top of the lungs. As we inhale, the diaphragm pulls up rather than pushes down. The pulse runs faster, the blood pressure rises and the body behaves as if the most important thing is to maintain a rapid intake of oxygen. It does this because adrenalin secreted into the bloodstream brings the body to a state of readiness for action – the “fight or flight” response. On the other hand, when we are calm the breath tends to be deeper and slower.
More than air
As well as drawing in oxygen, the breath takes in chi from the air. How we breathe also affects the flow of energy in the body. When our breath is shallow and rapid, it tends to bring more chi to the surface of the body, taking it away from the centre where its presence helps to stabilise us. In effect, the chi is dissipated and our calmness and stability disappear. Conversely, when the breathing is slower and deeper, the chi tends to build up in the centre of the body. In particular, this is at an energy centre known as the dan tian, in the lower abdomen just below the level of the navel.
If the chi is settled and stable, the subtle energies it affects – in particular the “mental winds” – will also be more settled. As a result our thinking becomes clearer and our emotions steadier. The advice that is sometimes given to someone who is upset to “take some deep breaths” has its basis not just in physiology but also in the subtle energy system.
Why breathing exercises can be bad for you
There are many systems of breathing exercise but we have to be very careful with them. If the breath were simply about oxygenating the blood and carrying away the carbon dioxide, there probably wouldn’t be any need for caution, other than ensuring that we avoid hyperventilation or perhaps even hypoventilation.
If we concentrate too much or overemphasise a certain aspect, we can create tension and unwittingly cause chi to accumulate and stagnate in a particular area. A person who once attended one of our tai chi classes attempted to do deep breathing whilst practising the tai chi moves. She made herself quite unwell for several hours because she created tension in the body and upset the chi.
So it is important that we are careful. To that end I don’t advocate anyone doing breathing exercises without personal guidance. However, we can still utilise the breath as a vehicle that harnesses the body, mind and subtle energies, enhancing our calmness, clarity and well-being. Next time, we’ll look at a simple but effective method of doing this.
From the chapter Serenity in The Great Little Book of Happiness
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