Taoism and Chi

In Taoism, chi is the force that animates the universe.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Chi is a primal substance that animates the universe in Taoism, a mysterious force introduced to us by ancient Chinese myths and legends that have also told us about the Tai Chi and about Tao. Chi is the force that sets the world and everything in it into motion. Chi is also the force that sustains all things once they are created.

The Idea of Chi

The Taoist concept of chi is not easily accepted by Westerners. It is not a concept that appears in Western mainstream religions or philosophies. Similarly, Western medical and scientific traditions often don't acknowledge chi or have any place for it in their theories.


In China and beyond, however, the Taoist concept of chi is very familiar, even commonplace. Everyone, from politicians to school children, understands it. The notion of chi and its applications are as much a part of Chinese life and outlook as are the ideas of muscle tone and physical fitness in Western life.

Easterners believe chi to be the life energy contained within matter. In experiments conducted in the 1960s, nuclear physicists in China came to accept the notion that chi is actually a low-frequency, highly concentrated form of infrared radiation.

In recent decades, experiments in China have been conducted on this special type of energy. Some researchers have come to believe, just as the legends tell us, that certain people may be able to learn to emit this form of energy from their bodies. Known as chi kung masters, these highly trained individuals often devote their lives to developing this subtle energy.

As the Taoist concept of chi crossed over into the West in recent years, a Western word was coined to describe it. Since chi has a number of properties that seem similar to those of electrical energy, it is sometimes called bio-energy.

This describes the living energy that is native to life rather than to the inanimate forces of nature such as water power or lightning. Knowledge related to bio-energy is called bio-information.

Learn more about chi as the life force and its appearance in Western ideas on the links that follow.

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Chi: The Life Force

However one conceives the Taoist concept of chi, there is general agreement about what it does: Chi animates matter, infusing it with life. As a result, it is often described as the "life force." It not only permeates the empty spaces between material objects in Taoism, it is part of their composition.

In people and animals, for example, chi is responsible for the functioning of the organs, including the cardio-­respiratory system. This life force circulates throughout the body with the blood so that it can provide its own particular form of nutrition to the myriad cells.


Every living organism has some way to assimilate chi. Human beings, animals, and plants alike ingest chi along with the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the food they eat.

Once inside, chi moves to various locations and begins to perform its many functions. The most common of these functions are generally related to the proper functioning and continued operation of the body or plant.

There are hints here and there in our culture that we in the Western world once did recognize the mysterious life force of Taoism called chi. Have you ever wondered, for example, why a mother kisses her child's wound to try and make it better? It's remarkable that after her kiss, the pain does often vanish.

Psychologists may tell you this phenomenon has nothing to do with the kiss itself. Its effectiveness, they say, is a result of the suggestion placed in the child's mind: The pain disappears as a result of a type of hypnosis induced by the mother.

But anyone who understands the Taoist concept of chi will say that the mother passed some of her life force into the child's damaged tissue. The life force not only repairs the wound, it also serves as an anesthetic.

Another example can be found in many of the devotional paintings created by our finest artists. In these works, you can often find a halo surrounding the heads of Christ, the Madonna, the disciples, visiting angels, cherubs, and many other members of the heavenly host.

Some believe this aura to be simply a fanciful symbol created by the artist for effect. Others, however, believe they can actually see these emanations radiating from holy people and others who have cultivated the chi to a high degree.

Some gifted artists, who were especially sensitive to color and light, may have taken their inspiration for the idea of halos directly from a particularly radiant person.

Experiencing Chi: An Experiment

Most people are understandably skeptical about this energy called chi until they actually experience it for themselves. After all, in the West we have been well trained to deny even the possibility of such phenomena. While some people will never be able to sense the chi, many others do -- some on their first encounter with it.

Try this experiment with a partner, such as your child, spouse, or friend, to see if you are able to feel the chi. Both of you should either sit or stand approximately two arms-length away from each other.

Ask your partner to close his eyes and take a deep breath. Relax your shoulders and back muscles as completely as possible. Try to imagine an energy rising from the ground into your body.

When you think you can almost sense this imaginary force, ask your partner to extend an arm toward you until it is level with the floor. The palm of the hand should be facing downward.

Slowly raise your own arms and extend your fingers until they are within a few inches of your partner's outstretched hand. Using your mind, direct the imaginary energy -- what we call the chi. Move it further up through your body until it passes along your arms and out from your fingertips.

It's helpful to imagine a current of energy passing from your body into your partner's. Whether you think this is an imaginary force or not, some people feel the chi right away, even with their eyes closed.

More powerful demonstrations of the application the Taoist concept of chi can be found in Chinese medical centers, where acupuncture techniques are used on patients ready to undergo surgery. The acupuncture is used to stimulate the chi, which then induces anesthesia. Using these techniques, patients regularly undergo major operations without drugs.

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The Influence of Chi

The Taoist concept of chi is a special substance with certain properties. As it has traditionally been understood in Taoism, it refers to a vital force, the animating force behind life itself, and has always been associated with both breath and air.

A more contemporary view sees chi as a substance much like light, with properties of both matter and energy. Some, such as chi kung masters, claim to be able to project chi from their bodies into others and to be able to see it.


In fact, the chi may be the healing substance responsible for the phenomenon known as the "laying on of hands." This is a healing tradition known in the West in which one or more people will place their hands on someone who is not well. Sometimes these people recover completely for reasons unknown to modern medicine.

Understanding the Taoist concept of chi requires us to recognize the extent of its influence both inside our bodies and in the world around us. The concept of chi, then, can be discussed in terms of how it appears in the universe and what it does.

In Taoism, both chi and Tao in their original forms are invisible and beyond the realm of normal human senses. Nevertheless, chi is found at the root of all movement, all change, and all things whether or not they are living.

The myth of Pan Ku shows how the One, in the form of an egg, gave birth to the two -- the forces of yin and yang -- and how Pan Ku was the third of the forces created.

Lao Tsu, in Verse 42 of the Tao Te Ching, tells us that the Tao was responsible not only for these initial three creations, but also for everything created subsequently:

Tao produced the One.

The One produced the two.

The two produced the three.

And the three produced the ten thousand things.

The ten thousand things carry the yin and embrace the yang, and through the blending of the material force (ch'i) they achieve harmony.

The verse tells us that the permutations of the yin and the yang and their interactions with the material force known as the chi produced the rest of creation, known figuratively in Chinese myth, folklore, and philosophy as the ten thousand things.

The chi referred to in this verse is found throughout the universe, on the most remote stars, in the tiniest speck of dust, and on the deepest ocean floors, in fact, in each of the ten thousand things.

When this chi is identified in material bodies, it is given distinct names. In the human body alone, Chinese traditional physicians and chi kung practitioners have identified many forms of it, including prenatal chi, primary chi, pectoral chi, nutritional chi, and defensive chi.

In nature, too, there are terms for different types of chi. These help us to distinguish among its many forms. But ultimately, all derive from their common source, known as universal chi.

In this sense, then, chi, a material force, acts as the agent of Tao, an immaterial force. We know that Tao was formless because in Verse 25 Lao Tsu, the acknowledged authority in these matters, tells us:

There was something undifferentiated and yet complete,

Which existed before heaven and earth.

Soundless and formless, it depends on nothing and does not change.

It operates everywhere and is free from danger.

It may be considered the mother of the universe.

I do not know its name; I call it Tao.

Learn about the four types of personal chi that exist in the human body on the next page.

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Personal Chi

In Taoism, certain types of chi are naturally found within the human body. This natural chi is known as "personal," or "normal," chi. Personal chi is a general, umbrella term for the four primary forms of human chi.

There are many different names for these four types, but they are commonly known as prenatal chi, nutritional chi, defensive chi, and pectoral chi. The name of each personal chi reflects its function within the body. Each of the four person chi is described below.


Prenatal Chi: A Gift from our Parents

Prenatal chi, sometimes called primary chi, is transmitted directly to the child by the parents at the time of conception. This personal chi initially locates in and around the kidneys. As the organs of the body begin to function autonomously, the prenatal chi moves into the rest of the body.

The quality of prenatal chi in Taoism determines, in part, our general constitution -- whether we are strong and healthy or weak and sickly. As we progress through life, we draw upon this personal chi, first to develop and grow, and then just to survive. Since there is a finite amount, we gradually exhaust the supply, and our bodies begin to deteriorate.

After birth, prenatal chi must be nourished by the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. Since chi is a primordial substance of the body even more basic than blood in Taoism, we must nourish it in order to nourish our bodies.

The quality of the food and water we consume and the air we breathe has a direct effect on the quality of our prenatal chi. Once inside our system, food, water, and air are immediately transformed into unique types of chi. Each of these have special functions.

Our health, then, is directly related not only to the caliber of the chi transmitted to us at the time of our birth, but also to the quality of our food and air supplies. This means that the strength of our prenatal chi does not entirely dictate our destiny. Even if our prenatal chi is weak, we can still improve our chances of living a long and healthy life.

Nutritional Chi

There are several types of "acquired chi," which enter the body after birth. One of these is known as nutritional chi, and as mentioned above, it is created from the food we ingest. Produced by the spleen and stomach, this personal chi circulates in the blood vessels. Nutritional chi is responsible for producing the blood itself and also for providing the body with nourishment.

When it is found in the human body, chi and blood have always been understood to have a close association. An old Chinese expression says that chi is the commander of blood, but blood is the mother of chi. This means that wherever chi is to be found, the blood will follow.

On the other hand, it is the blood that nourishes the chi. This is one of the core ideas in traditional Chinese medicine. By increasing the amount of chi in deficient areas, the blood, because of its natural affinity to chi, will follow.

This brings additional nutrients, moisture, and a fresh supply of oxygen to the damaged tissue. At the same time, the blood will nourish the existing chi. From this example, you can clearly see the give-and-take relationship, the yin and the yang at play, between the two substances.

Defensive Chi

Defensive chi also originates with the food we eat. Rather than flowing through the interior of the body as does the nutritional chi, its native habitat is close to the surface of the body, where it protects us against disease. This personal chi also is responsible for the operation of the pores, providing moisture to skin tissue and hair, and when necessary, helping to regulate body temperature.

Pectoral Chi

In Taoism, the air that we breathe is transformed into another type of chi known as natural air chi, or pectoral chi, after its location in the body. It enables the lungs to control respiratory functions and enables the heart to circulate the blood. This personal chi is also associated with the ability to move the limbs and trunk of the body and to circulate the chi in the body. People without stamina, and those who are unable to speak clearly or whose voices lack force, are said to be deficient in natural air chi.

On the next page, learn how chi can be experienced through special demonstrations.

To learn more about chi and Taoism, see:


Experiencing Chi

Demonstration of the weight underside feat, a classic example of the power of chi.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

If seeing is believing, this one simple but very convincing Taoist "weight underside" feat demonstrates the power and presence of chi. This demonstration of chi does not rely on physical strength, so even those who are relatively small in stature but familiar with the technique can give a very convincing performance.

In the weight underside feat, two strong men stand on either side of the practitioner, each holding one arm, which is bent at the elbow and parallel to the floor. The bend in the arm makes a convenient supporting frame so the men have excellent leverage.


Try as they might, after the initial preparation, the men will not be able to move the master, no matter how much force they use. It quickly becomes a comical sight -- two burly fellows looking desperate and shifting positions in a hopeless effort to move one average-size person from the standing position.

Such a feat of Taoism cannot be accomplished without special knowledge of the chi. The secret is using the mind to direct the chi, which is used to "move" body weight to an imaginary location somewhere beneath the surface of the floor.

As a result, the practitioner becomes virtually immovable. Once the central concepts are learned, masters say the weight underside feat is quite easy to accomplish with regular practice. Using the mind to direct the chi is one of the central ideas in many of the martial arts, and it is particularly important to tai chi chuan. By training the mind in this way, Taoist practitioners can perform many astounding feats.

Weight underside is only one of many applications for chi. Other convincing demonstrations of chi and its powers are related not only to combat but also to the healing arts.

Chi is commonly used in Taoism to relieve pain and stiffness of limbs and joints, to induce sleep, and to promote the healing of damaged organs or other body tissues. Advanced practitioners believe that when the chi circulates freely through the body, it can awaken latent psychic abilities.

Some are able to absorb chi from the world around them and later emit it as a powerful radiation. Demonstrations of chi and its powers are often given at various gatherings in Chinese communities.

Read about the relationship between chi and breathing next, and discover similarities between Taoism and Hinduism.

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Chi and Breathing

The relation between chi and breathing is not unique to Taoism. In fact, knowledge of chi is not today, and never has been, exclusive to China. The idea that chi is an "intelligent" energy that protects the body and coordinates its functions has appeared in many cultures.

This "living energy" is called prana in India, and in fact it very likely has been studied in that country for a longer period of time than in China itself. In his book The Hindu-Yogi Science of Breath, Yogi Ramacharaka succinctly describes prana:


"Prana is the name by which we designate a universal principle, which is the essence of all motion force or energy, whether manifested in gravitation, electricity, the revolution of the planets, and all forms of life, from the highest to the lowest. This great principle is in all forms of matter, and yet it is not matter. It is in the air, but it is not air nor one of its chemical constituents. Animal and plant life breathe it in with the air, and yet if they contained it not they would die even though they might be filled with air."

The notion that chi and breathing are related was a favorite theme of the Indian sages of the Vedic Period. (Veda means wisdom in Sanskrit, the holy language of ancient India.) During this historical period, which began nearly four thousand years ago, the ancient sages began to record their ideas in written form. Many texts from the Vedic Period have been preserved to this day.

Studying this literature, we realize that the idea of relating chi and breath is as old as time itself. In Sanskrit, prana means "ultimate energy," and when used in context with living organisms, it is recognized as the "vital animating force" in living things.

Ever since that time, practitioners have believed that it was necessary to breathe to acquire this force, so the intimate relationship between the act of breathing and staying alive and well was established in this way. Consequently, innumerable breathing techniques from many different sects were developed specifically to increase the amount of available chi and to use it for special purposes.

Exactly who these ancient sages might have been, no one knows. The only traces of them are found in the Vedic literature and perhaps in some of the yogic practices.

Their legacy, however, offers a wealth of information on topics related to the vital force in human life and how it may be purified. They observed in their incomparably poetic way, for example, that the basic emotions, such as fear, passion, rage, and anxiety, would cause corresponding physiological responses, all negative.

The yogis, who later followed these secret teachings, noticed that these physical states were invariably related to, among other things, heart rate, muscular tension, and respiratory rate, and that undesirable mental states, such as confusion and disorientation, accompanied these changes.

The Benefits of Breathing Control

Breathing control, as it turned out, was central to the yogis' success in regulating these physiological responses. By controlling such variables as the volume of air, the rate at which it is inhaled and exhaled, the timing between the inhale and exhale, and the location in the lungs in which the air is placed, they could affect both mental and physical states of being.

Using carefully prescribed breathing techniques, the masters learned to induce special states, such as deep meditation or heightened awareness, for use in specific situations. As a result of their painstaking research over the course of centuries, the masters made exciting discoveries related to health, strength, longevity, and even happiness.

These ideas were systematized and became a basic part of the many different systems of psycho-physical exercises such as yoga. It was during this period of research that the relationship between chi and breathing was firmly established.

It seems there is considerable truth to the hypothesis that special breathing techniques can indeed enhance certain functions of the body. It is well known, for example, that children with weak respiratory systems may be able to overcome their deficiencies if given a wind instrument to practice at a young age.

The idea is that the act of exercising the lungs consistently over long periods of time will strengthen the muscle groups responsible for respiratory functions and increase the supply of oxygen to the entire body. According to traditional Chinese medical theory, by strengthening their breathing, children will increase the quantity of available pectoral chi, which is not only responsible for respiratory functions but also for the proper operation of the heart.

On the next page, learn how chi can be cultivated through the practice of chi kung.

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Cultivating Chi

Cultivating chi is an important principle of Taoism. Even though we can name and describe the various types of chi and what they do, chi can never be fully understood simply by thinking about it. Chi only becomes a tangible force when you begin to cultivate it.

Cultivate is a particularly appropriate word because, like living things, chi must be nourished and encouraged to develop. And by cultivating chi, we not only come to understand it, we also improve our health.


The Chinese have developed techniques of cultivating chi through exercises called chi kung, which means the practice or art of cultivating chi. But other cultures have also devised systems of exercises to nurture chi.

The first of these systems appeared in the Western world in the form of yoga from India. Certain martial arts arrived at this time, too, including judo and karate, kung fu, and tai chi chuan. Among the last arrivals were the techniques related specifically to chi kung.

In the last decade, chi kung practices have become so popular that they have moved out of the traditional confines of the martial arts studios and traditional Chinese medicine and become more mainstream. Today North Americans and Europeans from all walks of life join fellow chi kung practitioners in Asia in regular daily practice and have learned to appreciate its health benefits.

Chi Kung for Health and Longevity

Although chi kung exercises are often used in connection with the martial arts, traditional healing methods, and some religious practices, they are a Taoist discipline unto themselves. In terms of personal health, by learning to cultivate chi, we can prevent disease and even prolong our lives.

It is said that chi kung practitioners, who specialize in the art of cultivating personal chi, have lived to the exceedingly old age of one hundred, one hundred-fifty, and even two hundred years or more. In fact, there is a saying that if a Taoist priest, often a chi kung practitioner, dies before the age of one hundred twenty, it is an early death.

Traditional Chinese theory maintains that aging is a process that consumes ever more of the diminishing resources of our bodies, particularly chi. Once the supply is depleted, weakness, illness, and death follow.

Fortunately for us, Chinese mystics, philosophers, herbalists, and medical practitioners have discovered a number of ways to supplement our personal store of chi. Their research has yielded a great deal of information and an endless supply of stories.

One such tale recounts the unusual case of Li Ching-Yuen. This famous herbalist and chi kung practitioner was born in 1678, in Chyi Jiang Hsien, in the province of Szechuan. Living most of his life as a recluse in the mountains, he was married 14 times, outliving each of his wives in turn.

In 1927, General Yang Sen photographed this man, reputed to be two hundred fifty years of age. Following Li Ching-Yuen's account of his own history, the general later traced the available facts of the case. All indications were that this man had indeed lived for two and a half centuries.

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