The Breath of Life

How ch'i works

Excerpted from "The Book of Ch'i: Harnessing the Healing Force of Energy" with permission of Tuttle Publishing.

Ch'i is 'breath,' it is the air that we breathe and at the same moment the energy and vitality that sustain us. Everything we see, or touch, or experience is composed of ch'i and is merely an arrangement of this energy into recognizable form. It is a concept comparable to the explanation of quantum physics for the structure of atoms and molecules as accumulations of energy organized into distinct patterns. Our whole existence is determined by this energy. All facets of human life, our physical health, mental alertness, and emotional stability are conditioned by the levels and the relative flow of ch'i in and around our bodies. Summoning, conserving, and using ch'i therefore is vital to maintaining a happy and healthy life. This is the premise upon which the work of energy, the ch'i kung of inner alchemy, rests.

Ancient Chinese philosophers of all major traditions accepted the centrality of working with ch'i as an element of their practice and constructed an elaborate schema to explain how it actually functions within the body. Ch'i operates through the bipolar dynamic of yin and yang, in a constant process of transmutation. When we breathe in it is yin and when we breathe out it is yang. This bipolarity is the constant of the inner alchemy schema and is present in each aspect of the functions and movement of ch'i.


Central to all Oriental health practices is the theory of yin and yang, first set down in the Book of Changes, or I Ching, during the second millennium B.C.E. Yang, represented by a strong continuous line, is balanced by the yielding, broken line, yin. These forces, grouped in eight combinations of three, [form] the eight trigrams of the pa kua, [and] represent all the possible permutations of elements and natural forces at work in creation. Our health and vitality, our moods, needs, and desires, are all expressions of the exchange of these forces, one into the other.

Heaven, the strongest combination of three yang lines, is understood to be the active, creative male force and is associated with warmth, light, the sun, and the passage of time, while the most yin trigram, the three broken yin lines, symbolizes earth. This feminine force nurtures and provides food, shelter, and rest and is seen as still, dark, and cold. These forces are constantly in flux, for yin can only be yin relative to yang, and as one force expands the other will contract. Within each force is the character of the other. As yin contains an element of yang, so yang surrounds a complementary element of yin.

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Paul Wildish
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