On things ‘Chi and Ki’.

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In this post I intend to take a cautious look at matters connected to the thorny subject of ‘Chi/Ki’ in the martial arts, with the intention of avoiding any landmines that normally seem to crop up when tiptoeing into this area.

Let me start by saying that I have always been sceptical about modalities and cure-all methodology, whether it is the Alexander technique, crystal healing, shiatsu or myofascial therapy. Most of them tend to look towards the science, and, whatever they are selling, they will bombard you with scientific proof through ‘evidence’ in books and on websites.

Personally, if a particular modality catches my attention I try to read up on both sides of the argument. A recent example being the trend towards all thing Fascia – the sheath-like material that sits just under your skin, and is seen in some quarters as almost an additional muscular system that has been anatomically ignored. Through reading up on the pro and anti arguments, I have a better understanding of what Fascia is, or crucially, what it isn’t.

But to return to my theme:

In recently re-reading a book which has been on my shelves for many years, I started thinking again about ‘Chi’ (Chinese) or ‘Ki’ (Japanese).

I am aware that this is sometimes seen as the touchstone for all kinds of charlatans and hucksters, and I have always approached it with a large dose of scepticism.

However, I have to admit that I have twice been under the needles of two separate acupuncturists, for two different conditions, and both times came out seemingly cured. But still, the sceptic in me continued to whisper in my ear; words like ‘placebo’ or, ‘the power of the mind’. I couldn’t keep silent; I asked one of the acupuncturists what he thought about ‘placebo’? He said, “They treat racehorses successfully with acupuncture, and a racehorse has no mental capacity for ‘placebo’”. What could I say? Good argument.

I am not going to try and explain Ki here; I’m not qualified, I can only give my personal take on it and what helps me to understand it as a phenomenon.

I could go into the area of how the word (character) is slotted into Japanese and Chinese language; it’s much more common than people realise, which in a way helps to demystify it, but again, I don’t have the qualifications; but it is a useful area of exploration.

I first came across it in the years I trained in Aikido. I was introduced to a practice called ‘the unbendable arm’; supposedly a utilisation and demonstration of the power of Ki that everyone could do. I even trained on a two-day course with Ki Society Aikido Sensei Wasyl Kolesnikov and found myself mesmerised with the set-piece demonstrations of the ‘power of Ki’.

Years later it was explained to me how some of this was achieved, and, at the time, I felt somewhat cheated. It seemed that most of it happened through well-disciplined and controlled organisation of the skeletal structure, muscles, tissue etc. In retrospect I think the reason I felt cheated was because it didn’t fit in with what I had constructed in my own mind – ‘the mysterious force of Ki’.

The realisation came to me that, although the explanation seemed disappointingly banal; the reality was that for this ‘organisation’ to happen it had to be firstly, highly trained and secondly, ‘energised’, a term which I found much more useful.

I think it is useful to recognise that the opposite of ‘energisation’ is ‘inertia’, being totally devoid of life, the antithesis of being.

The human body is fully energised and at so many levels. At a base level it is complicit with the phenomena of ‘homeostasis’, part of this means that our body fights hard to maintain its optimum temperature, so that it can function efficiently. A rise in ambient temperature will cause our inbuilt cooling system to kick in. A drop in the ambient temperature and our internal heating system comes into play. It’s all really clever stuff, all part of the autonomic nervous system, operating beneath our conscious control, like breathing, or heartbeat, or even blinking.

In death the body succumbs to the ambient temperature, which conspires in the body’s potential to surrender to its own very natural and inevitable return to the source. In the absence of life, the very things that kept it ticking turn against it, and so begins the very natural process of de-composition. The energy force has left the building!

At this point, let me expand on ‘energisation’, and for convenience and clarity abandon the words ‘Chi’ and ‘Ki’.

In traditional Chinese thought a newly born baby is thought of as a fully charged fizzing battery – totally topped up with what is referred to as ‘Pre-Natal energy’. It needs this raw power and strength because of what it has to go through in its initial growing years; physical development, cellular growth, development of the immune system, as well as the rough and tumble of just… living.

The theory is that over time the pre-natal energy dissipates; it gets put upon and is gradually used up to the point where it becomes a shadow of its former self. Hence, it needs topping up, given a boost. The energy which the body is able to draw upon to resolve this problem is referred to as ‘Post-Natal Energy’. What is interesting about these forms of energy (or, we might describe them as ‘nourishment’) is that pre-natal energy is an inheritance, almost a given, without a second thought; while with post-natal energy it is your responsibility to top it up, to nurture and culture it in a very deliberate way. Of course, you could leave this to chance and hope that however you decide to run your life you will just kind of fall into step and automatically do the right thing; this is really what most people actually do. But, it’s not a great plan, given how much is at stake.

So how do you top-up and develop your post-natal energy?

I really don’t have the answers; I have heard a number of variations and theories. Some of them just seem like common-sense measures, which are part natural impulses and part lifestyle choices.

To my mind it boils down to these contributing factors:

  • Establishing a balanced lifestyle through the correct measures of rest (recuperation) and healthy vigorous activity.
  • Nourishment (a balanced and healthy diet).
  • Disciplined, conscious and cultured breathing methods.
  • Psychological balance. Understanding yourself, your wants and needs and how you fit in with the world around you.

The reverse of this is to wantonly take an axe to your body’s inheritance and recklessly sabotage your own project. The common and most damaging elements tend to be:

  • Inertia, ill-discipline and laziness.
  • An intemperate lifestyle with chaotic and indulgent patterns of behaviour, including poor sleep patterns.
  • Thoughtless consumption of unhealthy foods (particularly refined foods and sugar).
  • Chaotic or damaging relationships which act as a drain on your energy and emotions and end up starving you of one of the most nourishing experiences of human existence; that is the joy of friendship, companionship and human intimacy.
  • Allowing an unhealthy level of stress into your life with no strategy for understanding, processing or managing it; or even converting it into an empowering growth experience (you always have choices).

What about the actual use, the direct application of this energising force?

I would say that specifically in relationship to the martial arts, the best visual analogy I have come across is of a kite on a string.

The hand that holds the string is the ‘Mind’ or ‘Intent’, the impetus, the brain behind the action, the motivating force. The kite itself is the manifestation, the resulting action; but the string is the animating conduit, that is ‘energy’, that is Ki in operation. And that, in my opinion, is how your technique operates.

Tim Shaw