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A Biological Interpretation of Chi

The following is an amplification of some of my ideas about chi that I wrote

about in 1995 in my first book on Tai Chi:1

Chi is the basis of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and acupuncture is one
of TCMs tools for stimulating chi. Whereas some research has been conducted
on chi, scientists have not yet satisfactorily identified, measured, or explained it.
Therefore, it is misleading to try to describe chi using words
like energy or force. Such words are often used but have precise scientific
meanings that may not apply. However, chi may have a biological basis.

Is Chi Related to the Dynamics of Living Cells?

When we look at dead cells under a microscope, they are motionless. Much of
what we know about cellular changes is from seeing dead cells frozen at
different stages of development. However, there is a dynamic attribute of living
cells similar to that seen in living, single-celled organisms such as amoebas.
Living plant and animal cells actually undergo internal movement within the
cytoplasm. This activity is termed protoplasmic streaming.2 Streaming is thought
to redistribute nutrients within cells and may help cells to absorb oxygen and
nutrients and expel metabolic wastes. In tissues comprising many cells, there
may be a corresponding activity involving masses of cells in unisona sort of
wave-like undulation. Such organized motion could transmit vital information
from organs and glands to other organs and glands to regulate their activities and
secretions. This hypothesis is consistent with the concept that chi, blood, and
breath are related and that chi harmonizes essential bodily functions. It is also
consistent with the fact that chi is often experienced as a tingling sensation, and
its flow is experienced as a wave.

The idea that chi involves such vital cellular activities explains why it is
associated with a healing effect. Arrested or reduced chi, which can result from
fixations of habitual muscular tension, may stunt normal physiological processes
dependent on these activities. Reinstated cellular activities then enable their
associated physiological processes to resume. If this interpretation is correct, then
exercises that cultivate the flow of chi can benefit cells individually and
harmonize bodily functions through collective cellular activity.

Chi and Electricity

At present, some people who work with chi think that it involves
electromagnetic energy. Electronic devices have been designed that are purported
to locate acupuncture nodes. These devices are used by some acupuncturists.
Moreover, acupuncture is thought to activate chi through electrical stimulation;
that is, the metal of the acupuncture needle, when in contact with dissolved
bodily salts, produces an electrical current as do the electrodes of a battery,
which are immersed in an electrolyte. In fact, it is found that connecting an
external, pulsing electrical source to acupuncture needles increases the beneficial
effect. When the pulse rate equals the heart rate, the effect is maximized.
Interestingly, the beating of the heart is another phenomenon triggered by
electrical impulses. That chi seems to be associated with an electrical aspect
suggests that it may involve the known electrical action of nerve impulses on
bodily cells.

Neural Stimulation of Cells

It is known that all muscular action results from the electrical stimulation of
muscle fibers by nerve impulses from the brain and spinal cord. A human body
has on the order of a hundred billion nerve cells and an astronomical number of
neural connections and interconnections.3 Even when we have no intention to do
a physical action, nerve impulses to muscles continually occur but well below the
level that would cause external muscular action. This constant background
stimulation keeps muscles in tone, and were it absent, muscles would sag and not
be ready to respond when required. For example, people who suffer from Bells
Palsy, which is a disorder of the facial nerve that controls the facial muscles, can
experience drooping of the lower eyelid and the corner of the mouth on the
affected side. Alternatively, background stimulation that is too strong can cause
tremors and tics.

It is not far-fetched to think that this background stimulation may play a part in
initiating cellular streaming or other beneficial cellular activities that facilitate
absorption of oxygen and nutrients and release of waste products.

Thought, Nerve Impulses, and Chi

Next, consider that it is known that when you simply watch someone do an
action or even imagine that you are doing it, your brain sends nerve impulses to
stimulate the fibers of exactly the muscles that would cause that action, with no
external muscular action occurring. Athletes utilize this fact to practice
movement mentally,4 without any exertion, even when physically exhausted.

Doing Tai Chi or Chi Kung involves moving in a relaxed and precise manner,
with an awareness of every part of the body and with all parts unified as a whole.
Doing such movement can be expected to produce a high degree of neural
activation of cells, resulting in an increase in the cellular absorption of oxygen
and nutrients and the release of waste products. At the same time, such practice
involves minimum muscular tension, which is consistent with the idea that any
stiffness would hinder background cellular movement. Thus, the Tai-Chi
Classics say,

If there is chi, there is no li (external strength).5

In the words of Yang Cheng-fu,6

Use the mind and not force,


In practicing Tai Chi Chuan the whole body relaxes.

It is conceivable that highly skilled Tai-Chi and Chi-Kung practitioners, who

are sensitive to chi and able to utilize it for healing, can intentionally regulate
their background nerve impulses to be much more intense than those of ordinary
people. The fact that some high-level Chi-Kung masters tremble when
transmitting chi suggests that they may be elevating their background nerve
impulses to be slightly above the threshold of external muscular action.

By incorporating the above idea that chi is neurologically stimulated, I added a

new dimension to my teaching of Chi Kung. For example, some beginners have
difficulty in recognizing chi even with the exercises that I teach. The remedy
now includes my explaining my interpretation of chi and saying, Imagine that
you are tensing your hands without actually doing so. These ideas have also
improved my own practice of Chi Kung.

How is Chi Transmitted?

The question naturally arises: How can chi be transmitted from one person to
another? I have pondered this question for decades. Is this transmission
electrical? That is, can minute electrical fields emanated by one person be strong
enough to affect another? Actually, I have done some informal experiments by
using an extremely sensitive electroscope (Figs. 1 and 2),7 which can detect
infinitesimal electric fields. My chi is rather strong, and I am able to transmit it
at will over a distance of several feet to others who feel it and its effects. I tried
transmitting chi while holding my hand very close to the electroscope. No
matter how hard or how many times I tried, the results were the same; the
electroscope gave not the slightest indication. I also tried to use my chi to affect
a candle flame (Fig. 3), and this experiment was equally unsuccessful. The
failure of these informal experiments certainly does not rule out an electrical
component to the transmission of chi, but the null results prompted me to think
along the following lines:

Fig. 1. The circuit for a very sensitive electroscope, which can indicate the
presence of minute electrostatic fields.

Fig. 2. Photo of the above electroscope.

Fig. 3. An unsuccessful attempt to affect a candle flame with chi.

Intention and the Transmission of Chi

As mentioned earlier, when you watch someone doing an action, your nervous
system reacts sympathetically by sending the same nerve impulses for
accomplishing just that action but on a lower level. What if humans are so
developed that they can succeed in mirroring the nerve impulses of another
person even when that persons impulses are below the threshold of any external
action? At present, there is no scientific acceptance of the idea that the intention
of one person can be transmitted to and sensed by another, let alone any
understanding of the mechanism by which such a transmission might occur.
Nevertheless, I know from my study of Ninjutsu that it is possible to perceive
and respond to anothers intention to do harm. The Ninja call this
intention sakki (the force of the killer).8 An important part of Ninja training is to
develop the ability to perceive and respond to sakki to the point of being
protected against anothers attackeven when the attacker is not seen! The
following seemingly paradoxical quote from the Tai-Chi Classics may refer to
the ability of a skilled practitioner to sense the intention of an opponent to attack:

It is said If others dont move, I dont move. If others move slightly, I move
The most basic element of experiencing and responding to sakki can be practiced
by several people as follows: All but one person (the attacker) stand in a circle
about fifteen to twenty feet wide, with their backs to the center. The attacker
holds a model knife or sword and stands in the center. He then quietly and slowly
approaches one person from behind and imagines attacking with his knife. In
order for the imagined attack to be realistic, the attacker must have the intention
to do harm even though no harm will ensue. When the person being threatened
feels the urgency to move away from the attack, he/she turns around. If the
victim does not feel the attack after a reasonable amount of time, the attacker
cuts the victim. That way the victim can then review what he/she experienced
during the stages of being threatened and learn to recognize those feelings when
they occur again.

Often, beginners who do the above exercise fail to consciously recognize the
feeling of being in danger, but their bodies know and react by moving visibly.
It does not take long, however, for even beginners to recognize the urgent feeling
of sakki.

The other day, I noticed a starling on my neighbors lawn, intently pecking for
food. I focused on the bird, and it immediately stopped and looked up. Without
moving, I relaxed my focus and went into my own thoughts. The bird then went
back to its pecking. Again, I focused on the bird. It again looked up and then
pointed one eye in my direction. Again, I relaxed my focus, and the bird then
went back to its pecking. There is no question in my mind that the bird sensed
my focus on it even though I had no intention of harming it.

Of course, wild animals have a much greater ability than that of humans to
perceive danger or respond to a connection initiated by another being. If they did
not, they would not stay alive very long. Nevertheless, in my experience,
humans, too, possess this ability and can vastly increase it. My experience over
the years confirms that just as we can sense anger and its associated danger, we
can sense intention in other areas.

Thus, it may be that when one person has the intention to send healing chi to
another, that intention may have an effect on the nervous system of the recipient,
thus intensifying the recipients chi flow.

How is Intention Transmitted?

So far, science has not explained how a person can sense the intention of another
in the absence of evident cues. The underlying phenomenon may involve the
interaction of physical quantities10 that are known but which scientists have been
unable to measure.11 Or, it may involve physical quantities that are not yet
known. Perhaps the mode of transmission is not even physical, in which case,
science in its present form may not have the tools with which to uncover the
process involved.

Robert Chuckrow, Tai Chi Chuan: Embracing the Pearl, Rising Mist Publications, Briarcliff Manor, NY,
1995, pp. 1719, republished as The Tai Chi Book, YMAA Publication Center, Boston, MA, 1998, pp. 2022.

See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0y8wjri0HgM/ and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n70rlWvFovo
&NR=1/ for short videos of protoplasmic streaming.

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neural/.

See, for example, http://www.sports-training-adviser.com/mentalpractice.html/.

The Essence of Tai Chi Chuan: The Literary Tradition, Translated and Edited by Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo,

Martin Inn, Robert Amacker, and Susan Foe, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA, 1985, p. 49.

The Essence of Tai Chi Chuan: The Literary Tradition, p. 87.

The circuit and instructions for building and using this device are available
onhttp://www.amasci.com/emotor/chargdet.html/. All parts for building this circuit are available from Radio

Stephen K. Hayes, The Ninja and Their Secret Fighting Art, Charles E. Tuttle Company, Boston, Rutland,
VT, 1981, pp. 144148.

The Essence of Tai Chi Chuan: The Literary Tradition, p. 57.

A physical quantity is property of a phenomenon, body, or substance, that can be quantified by


measurement. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physical_quantity/.) Some examples are length, mass, time,

and speed.

The following is an example of a phenomenon that involves the interaction of known physical quantities but
which scientists are unable to measure: Theoretically, when a loaded elevator descends, the earth moves a
corresponding amount in the opposite direction. Because the ratio of the mass of the earth to that of the
elevator is so great, the movement of the earth is far too small to be measured.

Copyright 2011 by Robert Chuckrow