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The Great Chi Debate - Is It Real?
Copyright Pete Kautz 2015

One of those endless discussions that goes around the table in the martial arts regards the existence or lack thereof of Chi or Ki.  Having recently read through about 30 years of old martial arts magazines that a friend gave me, and seeing the many weird uses of the word Chi there, I thought this would make an excellent subject for a Training Tip.

In the martial arts world, I find Chi is typically a poorly defined "magic word" that gets used to describe a number of different things that may or may not be related to the correct use of the word Chi in a medical sense.

In martial arts there are demonstration "magic tricks" passed of as Chi.  These include stunts like laying on a bed of nails or breaking a cement block on a man's chest with a sledge hammer.  I expose some of these specific tricks in an old article on the Alliance Martial Arts web site.  They have to do with physics and not Chi.

Other times Chi gets used to refer to mental focus or a flow state.  "I focused my Chi on winning the tournament" actually means that they focused their mind on the task at hand and then did it.  "I was in my Chi" means they were in a flow state or "the zone" as we'd say in sports.

At it's worst, Chi gets used to mean "spoooooooky powers" like being able to knock out people ten feet way by just waving your hands like you'll see on YouTube.  This is just carnival trick stuff and not even worthy of further discussion.  The real "empty force" guys out there will honestly tell you that their style is not directly for martial arts use in the way it gets portrayed by those demonstrations.

Now, let me ask you - can a person who has bad energy, weird juju, funky vibes or whatever cause a change in a room when they walk in?  You bet they can!  There's always the person where it's like "Agh, why did they show up", right?  I'm sure everyone could name someone in their past who was like that.  But they didn't make anyone fall over or pass out - it just sucked to have them around.  And in the same way, I'm sure you know someone with "good energy" who lights up a room when they walk in.  But this still is not Chi.

Very seldom does the word Chi ever get used to refer to Chi in a correct medical sense!

Now, before we go further, it is important that we talk about the meridians, Chi flow, and acupuncture for just a minute.  Not to make you an expert on the topic, but just to point out one vital fact!

Most martial arts practitioners have *no idea* what the meridians of the body do, how Chi flows, or how to manipulate it for good or ill.  Even those schooled in point-hitting arts usually only have a vague idea of the medical usage of the meridians because they were not trained in it, just in how to hit people.  Some Sensei even advertise that they teach point-hitting arts where "no knowledge of the meridians is required".

Acupuncture is based on Chi and the meridian pathways, and today acupuncture is recognized as a professional means of health care.  It is covered by insurance in many places and practiced at major hospitals.  It is not some witch-doctor cure or a sugar-pill; it is a recognized modality in modern healthcare!

Think about this, insurance companies don't pay out money for people examining animal entrails or casting spells - just for documented results from approved medical treatments.  So, as far as "the Man" is concerned, acupuncture which is based on Chi and meridian lines is not only real, it is billable.

You do not need to believe in acupuncture for it to work.  It even works on animals who don't know it's supposed to help them.  Back in the 80's I saw a video clip of a dog getting surgery with only acupuncture for the anesthetic and I've never forgotten that.  The dog never heard of the placebo effect.

But that's just anecdotal evidence, right?  OK, well what about the fact that there are inexpensive hand-held electronic devices that can locate the acupuncture points.  If you look through a catalog of supplies for those in the healthcare field who practice TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) or other forms of acupuncture (Japanese methods, etc.) you will find these gadgets.  I have never been to an acupuncturist who needed to use one, but the devices exist.

So, like many things - the truth is out there!  Just because the word Chi has been misused for so many years in martial arts circles doesn't mean that it is not real.  It just means something different than what most people use it for.  Kind of like the line in the film Princess Bride "I don't think that word means what you think it means!"

The meridian system is just another of the human body's functioning systems.  Like the skeletal system, the circulatory system, etc.  There is no magic to it other than the magic that is human life.  No one ascribes special mystical powers to the digestive system even though it magically turns food into poop, but talk about the meridian system and people get all starry-eyed on you.

My one Kung Fu teacher who was also a Doctor of TCM always maintained Chi was like electricity; something invisible you could harness and control to certain ends through TCM, but absolutely not anything magical or supernatural.  He mocked us if we talked about Chi as some super power and would call us "hippies".  In exasperation after too many Chi questions he would throw up his hands and say "Halleluiah" to infer that we were taking a natural thing and making too much of it.

So, I think it's important to look outside of the martial arts if we are to have any hope of understanding what real Chi is!  If you find this kind of research interesting, look up Donna Eden and her book Energy Medicine.  It has nothing to do with fighting but everything to do with applied Chi in modern life.

You might also look at EFT and related therapies which have proven helpful with traumatic stress and other serious emotional discomfort, for here again it is the meridian and Chi systems that are being affected by the tapping protocols used.  These procedures are used in psychological counseling that again is insurance billable like acupuncture - hence pretty "real" in the results.

Also in the therapeutic vein, Shiatsu or Japanese massage is not only accepted by NY State but it is *mandated* that every massage therapist must know it whether they ever plan to practice Shiatsu or not.  The Empire State feels that every single massage school graduate must know not only Western anatomy and physiology but also about Ki, the meridians, the 5 Element theory, and applied usage in order to become licensed!  How real is that?

While I believe it is very healthy to be skeptical of things unseen like Chi, I hope this pretty clearly shows the general level of acceptance of the concept more than any university or hospital study I could ever point to could ever do.  It is something that must be kept in perspective and not used as a catch-all word for super-powers in the martial arts.

In the correct context, Chi is quite understandable and real.  Or it's at least insurance billable!

All my very best to you,

Pete Kautz

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