Thursday, 9 March 2017

What is qi / ki?

I've just finished reading this book: "The Spark In The Machine" by Dr Daniel Keown. Its a fantastic book about the connections between the science of Acupuncture and the mysteries of Western medicine. Totally recommended!

As you might imagine, in the book he talks a great deal about qi (chi, or in Japanese, ki), and I'd like to tell you something of what he says.

It seems to me the concept of qi has always been problematic in the Western world because qi actually represents a number of different concepts in Western understanding. It's been variously translated as "energy", "vitality", or "life force" as they are the closest words or phases we have to encapsulate all that qi is. I think "energy" is the closest word, so let's have a look at what kinds of energy can be included in the concept of qi.

Electrical energy

I've written about bioelectricity before. Firstly we have the nerves. All the cells in the body naturally generate a slight imbalance between negatively charged potassium ions on the inside and the positively charged sodium ions on the outside. Neurons have a much larger imbalance than others, and when the body needs to send a message from one place to another, it uses neurons to create a cascade of electrical signals to carry these electrical pulses of information. These signals are not like current in a wire because the information sent is in the form of a pulse of polarity changes called an action potential. So we have the electrical pulses of energy that travel down these pathways of connected neurons that we call nerves.

Fascia is connective tissue in the body – it's like the plastic wrapping around everything, defining the edges. Muscle fibres are encased in fascia, and the whole muscle itself is again wrapped in fascia – together they're called myofascia. At the end of the muscles, the muscle fibres peter out leaving just the fascia, which comes together to form the tendon. Ligaments are also strong cords of fascia. The organs are wrapped in a layer of fascia, and there is fascia connecting the skin and the flesh underneath. Arteries and veins are walled by fascia, it forms the lens of your eye, and bones could also be seen as crystallised fascia. Amazing!

The collagen triple helix structure
Fascia is made of collagen, which is formed of a triple helix of protein molecules. These helices spontaneously wrap around each other to form a "microfibril" and these microfibrils are laid down by the body along lines of physical (mechanical) stress. Per weight it is as strong as steel! The collagen proteins form a semi-crystalline structure, meaning it conducts electricity. Actually, it not only conducts electricity but it can generate electricity through the piezoelectric effect – the ability to generate electrical currents through deformation and pressure.

So that means that any time fascia (which, remember, is located everywhere in the body) is stretched or moved, it will generate tiny electrical charges. This is nothing to do with our nervous system, but to do with movement and mechanical stress. There is speculation that collagen will conduct electricity much better down its length than across it, meaning the microstructure may have far more order and importance than we realised (for more info read "Anatomy Trains" by Tom Myers). Woven into the fabric of our body is an electrically conducting and generating lattice - amazing!

The contact surfaces between different fascial planes (for example, the fascial wrapping around a muscle and the fascial wrapping around the organ it's next to) offer routes of "least resistance" for the transmission of these electrical currents. These routes are thought to form the basis for the Chinese energy channels.

In the book, Daniel Keown calls all this electrical information "ElecQicity" – the electrical component of qi.

Chemical energy

We take in oxygen through our breathing, and that gets attached to haemoglobin in the lungs and transported around the body in the blood. We also take in food which gets broken down in our gut into a number of chemicals including glucose. Cell respiration is a series of reactions in which glucose is oxidised to form carbon dioxide. The energy released in this reaction is used to make ATP (adenosine triphosphate) and when ATP is broken down in the cell, the energy released is used for processes such as DNA replication and muscle contraction.

The blood also carries hormones, which are body-wide chemical signallers. This information is also a form of qi energy.

In the Chinese system, the Kidneys are associated with the psycho-emotional state of fear. Attached to the kidneys are the adrenal glands which produce adrenaline and cortisol (amongst a few other things). When we sense danger, the adrenals kick in and the resulting hormonal release signals the heart rate and blood pressure to increase, the air passages of the lungs to expand, dilate the pupils, etc. The result is we feel scared or fearful.

In the Chinese system the Liver is associated with anger (i.e. feeling "livid"). The liver is primary organ for breaking down histamine, and histamine is the hormone of irritation. Of its many functions, one is to make the body irritable to infections, and we all know its effects when we have an allergic reaction. If the liver isn't working properly, we get a build up of histamine, and since frustration is the precursor to anger, we can see how the liver and anger are connected.

The Chinese system sees the Spleen as being associated with worry and with dwelling on things and ruminating. One of the hormones that is widely seen as being responsible for maintaining mood balance is serotonin (the so-called "feel good" hormone), and there's a link between a lack of serotonin and depression. And of course, dwelling or ruminating on thoughts is part of how depression works. In the body, 90% of the serotonin floating around is found in the gut (with the rest of it being in the brain). Of the serotonin found in the blood, 99% of it is in the platelets (involved in making blood clots), and one of the main functions of the spleen is to store (and destroy old) platelets. So if the spleen isn't functioning well then our serotonin levels are adversely affected and we may end up ruminating on things and feeling worried or anxious.

"The spleen and pancreas are so closely linked that they could be considered one organ" so Daniel Keown says (p188). There's strong evidence that these two organs share a common evolutionary origin, blood supply, and fascial connections. He goes so far as to suggest we rename the two together the Spancreas! The pancreas has two functions – one to provide enzymes for digestion, and the other to produce the hormone insulin to regulate the metabolism of carbohydrates (sugars), fats and proteins. One of the most important hormones for regulating the release of insulin is... seratonin!

Mental energy Intention/will

What is intention and action if not a coordinated direction of energy towards achieving a particular result? I would hazard a guess that human intention has at some level shaped everything you can see around you now – it's a very powerful form of qi.

Interestingly, the kidneys are also associated with will-power in the Chinese system. Most dopamine in the body is made (and found) in the adrenal glands, and we know that dopamine is very associated with risk-taking, reward, will and drive.

When we set our mind to it, we can coordinate all our various resources and direct them to great effect. Researcher Dan Siegel defines the mind as: "an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information." But we have to remember the mind isn't the brain. In the Chinese system the brain plays a minor role in the whole system, being described in some sources as a "special form of bone marrow"! Actually, the point where the brain ends and the body begins is not easily definable. The brain, spinal cord and peripheral nerves are like one, but these peripheral nerves also blend with the organs. And whilst the nerves tell the organs what to do, the organs produce hormones that equally affect the nerves.
The mind is truly "an embodied and relational process" – it's in the body and it's all about relationships and connections. 

Organisational energy

The last form of qi I wanted to discuss I'm going to call organisational qi. It's the energy arising from evolution – how the body organises itself to form and grow as an embryo to baby; and how the body later organises repairs and fights of diseases.

Keown talks about this at length in the "Spark In The Machine" book. Some parts of the body are more complex than others, so you could say concentrations of organisational qi exist in different places. For example in the face there are many contours, sensitive muscles, and the eyes. The fingers and toes too represent transition points. It's no coincidence that all these areas are connected with the beginning or ends of the energy channels. When we injure ourselves, then a concentration of qi forms around the injury in the form of white blood cells and other repair cells.

One of Keown's definitions of qi is "intelligent metabolism" – an organised and directed movement of many forms of energy throughout the body.

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

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  1. The fourth point reminds me of Rupert Sheldrake's Theory Of Formative Causation. Are you aware of it? What is your opinion of it if so?


    1. Good point Steve. I read "the science delusion" years ago, but I've just been reading around Sheldrake's website and listening to some of his talks. I'm not sure I have too much of an opinion right now, but the idea of morphogenic fields certainly fits.

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  3. It is time you finally got an actual fascia definition. Fascia is the new buzzword that you hear people constantly talking about but you never have any idea what in the world is actually being talked about.

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