Monday, 22 September 2014

Ki energy and intention

In this last few week's I've been thinking a lot about what people in the yoga and martial art world call energy, or prana, chi, qi, ki. In the first of these series of articles I was talking about my understanding of the ki energy phenomenon from a yoga and Zen practitioner's point-of-view, as well as my (ex)scientist's point-of-view. 

My main motivation was to understand the experiences I've been getting of waves or rushes, sometimes jolts, of pleasurable sensations in my body when doing certain yoga or meditation practices. I concluded that these sensations are the result of my body's bioelectromagnetic (hereafter bio-EM) field coming into coherence.

In the last article, I was thinking about how this makes sense when it comes to feeling and drawing on ki energy that originates from outside our system – like in plants and trees, and in the Earth. Since plants too have electrically charged cells, and also take in electromagnetic energy (in the form of sunlight) as part of their nutrition, I thought that the fact they could excite a response in your own bioEM field didn’t sound so far-fetched.

So why is it that not everyone feels these kinds of sensations? Or to put it another way, why haven't I always felt these kinds of sensations?

I think when I started my journey into the world of yoga and meditation, I was just too numb, desensitised, and tense to feel anything of this sort. In the words of a good friend of mind, I was a brute! An insensitive, lumbering vertebrate with his heads in the clouds and a body that, if on a map, would be labelled “here be dragons”!

If we’re too tense, out of alignment, or imbalanced then there are too many blockages, frozen areas, and too little sensitivity. In this state, I would think, there's no way our bioelectromagnetic fields can ever come into coherence! So one of the primary aims of yoga and meditation practice, particularly at the beginning, is to start unblocking and relaxing the body, and getting you to develop more sensitivity to your sensations.

Next question: now I can feel these pulses or shimmers of sensation, why don't I feel them all the time?

Thinking back to my experiences, I can see that just opening, aligning and balancing the body wasn't enough. It seems like a certain intention (i.e. directed mind energy or focus), often coupled with a physiological action, is also needed.

Let's take 'intention' to start with. What kind of intention? I think there can be many, starting with an intention just to feel something. Then there might be an intention to draw inwards, to follow the movement of the breath, to let go, to reach out. For any intention to be effective, it would make sense that we need to stay with it without getting distracted. Thus another central skill we learn in our yoga and meditation practice is concentration or focus. Most people are generally pretty bad at it... Our mind wanders like a drunk from memories to fantasies, from fleeting thoughts to emotions, and whenever we ask it to stay put on something it rebelliously does the opposite... Slowly, we can learn to regulate this concentration and sustain it for longer and longer periods.

So we've got an open and aligned body, and our intention is set. Sometimes this is enough. I've felt strong energetic pulses and jolts during sitting meditation when I've set my mind on letting go down into the floor. The physical reaction is then a response (muscle twitching, pelvic floor lifting, eyes crossing).

But sometimes, particularly in yoga, the intention is coupled with a physical action, and together this precipitates pulses or movements of ki energy. One example of a physiological action might be a muscular lift (contraction) of the pelvic floor muscles. If we're soft and sensitive enough in that area, this can have the effect of exciting a much softer inner "suck" that seems to be very effective at bringing the bioEM field into coherence. In yoga this is called engaging mulabandha (mula meaning "root", and bandha being translated variously as lock, or gateway; see my article here).
As I see it in all of this ki energy work, you have to want, or intend, for something to happen before it can happen. Far from being imagined or "all in the mind", the feeling and movement of ki energy seems to very much need this direction of the mind. I guess this is why my teachers have often said "energy follows intention" and "energy follows awareness".

Thursday, 11 September 2014

How I understand ki energy from outside myself

In my last article I was looking at my understanding of the phenomenon of energy (in the eastern chi/ki sense) and how I've come to see it as an (ex)scientist. I described my experiences of feeling waves or rushes, sometimes jolts, of pleasurable sensations travelling through my body during certain yoga or meditation practices, and concluded that these body-felt sensations are what I feel when the electromagnetic field in my body generated by the movement of electric current within my nerves and other cells comes into coherence. The reason why we don't all feel these is due to blockages and restrictions that have built up in our bodies over time (tight muscles, imbalances, etc), and a general lack of sensitivity.

I've been told for many years by various yoga and meditation teachers that it's not only possible to feel this ki energy moving within us, but it’s also possible to feel and even receive ki energy from sources outside yourself. As I said in the previous article, both in traditional Chinese medicine and modern physics, everything can be seen as a form of energy – but things being energy, and being able to receive that energy are two different things. So does this make sense?

Let's consider the chairs we're sitting on right now (assuming you are sitting on one!). The chair is made of solid matter (wood, metal, etc), which, as Einstein showed us, is just a form of energy (remember E=mc^2). Can I feel that energy? Sure I can – just by the mere fact that I'm still sitting on the chair and haven't passed straight through it means that my body is experiencing the physical energetic forces that make the chair solid. But does the fact my chair is really just energy mean there can be an exchange of that energy with me, or that I can feel that energy at a distance?

Well, I don’t have an answer about chairs yet, but as I've been tuning in to these shimmering, pulsing sensations in my body, my teachers have been encouraging me to see whether I can feel ki energy from other things – particularly organic things like people and plants, but also places.

And as crazy as it sounds, I can actually feel something! Trees have been a big source of these sensations.
London Plane tree

At first I would be in the park here in London and I'd try feeling a tree... Being acutely aware of how weird I might appear(!), I would would try approaching a tree surreptitiously when no one was looking and lightly touch the bark. Sure enough, whooff, waves of tingling, pulsing sensations would often (not always) ripple through my body. Some trees do it more than others (generally big old ones are best!). Now, when I really tune in, I can feel these familiar tingling sensations when I just come near a tree, or even stand under its branches – just being in its presence. I can't feel it every time, just when I'm trying to tune in, and I'm feeling particularly open. It happened pretty powerfully a week or two ago when I was standing between four very fine beech trees, and for the first time the other day with just a house plant!

Taoist masters throughout the centuries have observed that trees are tremendously powerful plants. Taoist master Mantak Chia explains how, in the Taoist view, trees are seen to be constantly in meditation and are natural processors of ki energy. The best trees for healing, they say, are big trees, especially pines and those growing near running water. But again, all this is ideas and beliefs. How do you explain it?

It turns out that, like animals, plants too have electrically charged cells (so-called cell action potentials) and use them to rapidly send signals through the plant. This came as a surprise to me. So plants generate their own electromagnetic field as well… (Apparently by attaching electrodes to the leaf and root they be made to sing.) When you think about it, we all know that plants depend on light, which is just electromagnetic energy, for their nourishment. We learn that at school. They photosynthesise the carbon monoxide in the air together with water that they draw up from the earth and the energy from sunlight into sugars and proteins – and oxygen which they expel.

So sensing the bioelectromagnetic field (or ki energy) of a plant doesn’t sound so weird, even when it’s at a distance. And the fact that plants can excite a response in your own bioelectromagnetic field also doesn’t sound so strange. I think of it like a form of induction, like how your electric toothbrush charges or how an induction hob works. Changes in the field of one object influences the field of the other.

My teachers also say that one can feel and receive ki energy from the Earth. In fact one of the first times I felt these strong energy pulses I've mentioned was when doing what my yoga teacher Jonathan Monks calls the root meditation. As he describes it, this is about opening your root (the energetic centre in your pelvic floor) so that you can connect with and receive the energy of the Earth. The sensation was clear enough, but energy in the Earth...?

It's known that the Earth's magnetic field is generated by electric currents moving through the highly conductive layer of molten iron alloys in the planet’s outer core. The currents are formed as the molten iron moves around due to convection. But how this relates to potential ki energy at the surface of our planet is much harder to understand. Some people talk about ley lines being paths of energy in the ground, some people about feng shui and the harmonisation of ki in the wind, water, stars, and earth.

Personally I haven’t found a way of understanding Earth energy yet. I feel it in my root (pelvic floor), in the soles of my feet on the ground, and in my hands when they’re on the ground, but that’s all I can say.

As always, your comments are very welcome - here on the blog, on FB or by e-mail. More on this in the weeks to come...!

Thursday, 4 September 2014

As a scientist, this is how I've come to understand energy (chi)

Over the last few years I’ve had many experiences of sensations that people would call "energy" (or chi/qi in Chinese, ki in Japanese). The sensations are absolutely undeniable. Often they take the form of pleasurable waves or pulses travelling through the body, sometimes more like jolts.

As a scientist, many people have asked me how I’ve come to explain these and how I understand this "energy". It's taken me a while to come up with a decent answer...

Energy in Physics

According to the dictionary, “energy” simply means a capacity to do “work”. It's surprisingly vague isn’t it! In physics, “work” is defined as the energy expended in applying a force to an object to move it over a certain distance. One joule is the energy needed to apply one newton of force through a distance of one metre.

Energy can, however, take many other forms such as kinetic (moving), chemical, electric, nuclear, potential, etc, and has the ability to be converted from one form to another. For example, a ball held out over your balcony has gravitational potential energy, and when you let go, this energy transforms into kinetic energy as it falls. A burning candle is converting chemical potential energy into heat (kinetic energy at the molecular level) and light (electromagnetic energy).

In his theory of special relativity, Einstein derived his famous equation E=mc^2; meaning energy is equivalent to mass, or put another way, mass is simply a manifestation of energy. This blows my mind every time I think of it! According to this, every thing is just a manifestation of energy. This is what the Chinese have been saying for centuries! In traditional Chinese medicine, they say when a child is conceived and develops, chi condenses to form a material being. In one sense this is obvious – the energy that formed the egg in the woman and animates the sperm in the man, when brought together causes the formation of a foetus, and the energy within the woman’s body goes into growing that foetus into a baby.

But how does this go anywhere to explain the waves of sensation that I've been experiencing?


Cascade of electrical signals through nerves
It has long been known that the activities of cells and tissues within the body generate electrical fields that can be detected on the skin surface. All the cells in your body naturally generate a slight imbalance between negatively charged potassium ions on the inside and the positively charged sodium ions on the outside. "Excitable cells", like neurons, have a much larger imbalance than others. When the body needs to send a message from one place to another, it uses these excitable cells to create a cascade of electrical signals. It opens a “gate” on the first cell's wall and the negative potassium ions rush outside attracted towards the positive charge, and the positive sodium ions equally rush inside. This switch of charge triggers the gate on the next cell to open, creating another electrical impulse, and so on. Nerves are simply long strings of excitable neuron cells that carry these electrical pulses of information.

These currents of electricity generate a corresponding magnetic field in the surrounding space; electricity and magnetism are really just two faces of the same coin. However, because the electric pulses in the body are so weak, the magnetic fields associated with them have been very difficult to detect. In recent years, scientists have started to detect and measure the tiny magnetic fields associated with physiological activities in the bodies of animals and humans. This has been possible with the invention of what is known as a SQUID or "superconducting quantum interference device” in the 1960s.

However clever we think we are with our modern SQUIDs though, there are a few animals that got there way before us! Some migratory birds have been shown to be sensitive to the magnetic field of the Earth via particular magnetically sensitive chemicals or photosensitive proteins in their retinas. This is how they're thought to navigate over such long distances. Also, some types of sharks, rays, and sturgeon have an array of special sensing organs called electroreceptors on their undersides that help the fish sense electric fields generated by other creatures in the water and hence locate prey. Cool huh!

Since our nervous system is based entirely on electrical impulses generated and triggered by our cells, it’s not a huge leap to think that the body could produce large-scale coherent alignments or patterns of electromagnetic energy that could be felt as tactile sensations.

This is the way I have come to see the pleasurable rushes of energy I often experience in yoga and meditation. They are coherent pulses of bioelectromagnetic energy moving through the body. I'll talk more about these coherent pulses next week.

The inevitable conclusion is that we must be fully capable of cultivating and controlling the bioelectricity we generate in our own bodies.

Other aspects to energy

Teachers and texts claim that this energy travels along distinct pathways in the body called meridians (Sanskrit "nadi", Japanese "myaku"), and concentrates in certain energy centres (called "chakras" in the yoga tradition or in Chinese "dan tien", Japanese "tanden").

The meridian system of the body
In these last few years I have begun to experience what it means for the energy to build-up in my hara (belly) area. I feel sensations of solidity, tingling, glowing. When you first start doing Zen meditation it's one of the main energetic practices – make your hara the focal point for your attention and draw your energy there. "Tanden" translates as something like "field of elexir", where elixir is another way of saying energy. In Chinese and Japanese Martial Arts, the tanden is seen as the main reservoir of ki energy – akin to your body's battery pack.

I can't say, though, I've really been able to discern energy flowing in in my body through any particular pathways that you might call meridians. With the strong pulses/waves I mention above, they often have a general up or down the body quality to them. With certain yoga sequences and practices, I can feel sensations moving up or down the front and back of my body (what might be called the "microcosmic orbit").

So I think it's all about slowly tuning in more and more. As your sensitivity to the body and sensations increases, then your aerial becomes finer and finer tuned and these very subtle phenomena start to become noticeable.

Next I'll discuss energy from sources outside ourselves, and it's relation to intention.