Qi — It’s Not What You Think

If you see a health care practitioner who is trained in Oriental Medicine, you may hear a lot about Qi. Qi is one of the Three Treasures (SanBao) of Oriental Medicine: Jing, Qi, and Shen. Its traditionally central location in this trio is significant, because, while all three are vital, Qi is the most immediate of necessities for life.

Although you may not have been told about the Three Treasures, you’ve undoubtedly been told that this vital substance called Qi is a mysterious ‘energy’ flowing through the ‘meridians’. It’s the most frequently repeated mantra of Western practitioners of Oriental Medicine. Everyone has been under this delusion for a very long time.

And it’s patently false.



So, if Qi is not this wondrous ‘energy’, then what is it?

I’ll try to explain.  Because it’s important.

Sat Gurus (true gurus) throughout the millennia have shared a parable with their chelas (students). They tell this story because all chelas are the same, sat gurus are all one, and although the spiritual journey involves different paths for each of us, the ‘steps’ we take are identical.

The story goes like this:

A Sat Guru of old was having difficulties with one of his beloved chelas.  The chela was very evolved, but his attention was continually diverted from the goals of self- and god-realization. The chela’s desire for worldly pleasures was still greater than his desire for the Shabda, the Sound Current, the Divine Melody.

One day the guru took the chela to a lake, and they waded in. Suddenly, the guru grabbed the chela by the hair and plunged him under the water. The chela flailed and floundered, but the guru was strong and held him under. Just when the chela was about to lose it, the guru pulled him up.  The chela’s eyes were wild; he was gasping and sputtering.

Immediately the guru shoved him under the water again and held him there until he was just about to go limp. He pulled the chela out of the water. The chela’s face was blue. After one more gasp of air, the guru pushed him down again. This time he held the chela under until he did go limp.

Finally, the guru pulled the chela up.  When the chela had revived enough to speak, the guru asked him, “What did you want more than anything else when you were down there?”

“AIR!” gasped the chela. “I wanted air!”

And the Master told him, “When you want the Shabda, when you want God, as much as you wanted air, you will have it.”

As potent as this metaphor is, we still spend a loooong time developing sufficient desire to complete the journey. A long time.

But the reason I’m sharing this story now is to illustrate its lower, outer message: air—or more precisely, oxygen—is the most immediately vital substance known to living beings. If you are completely deprived of it for more than a few seconds, you die. Period.

You can live without food for a very long time.  You can go without water for a while, as well. But, take away air, and you’re history—now.



Qi is oxygen. Oxygen is Qi. ‘Vital air’. It was recognized by the Chinese before the classics were written —  several centuries before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

It flows, along with the blood, through the vessels. Blood vessels, that is.  Not invisible “meridians”.

The mysterious energy flowing through meridians is a belief peculiar to Western practitioners of Oriental Medicine. These notions were the unique misconceptions of the Frenchman, Georges Soulié de Morant, who wrote a number of books on acupuncture in the early half of the 20th century.  Unfortunately, Soulié de Morant was neither a scholar of ancient Chinese language, nor was he a medical professional.  But he did witness traditional medicine being practiced in China. And he projected his own notions onto what he observed, as well as what he wrote in his books.

The amazing outcome is that his books influence the knowledge and understanding of most all Western practitioners to this day.  Not until 2002, when Oxford University Press published Dao of Chinese Medicine, by Donald E. Kendall, an American Doctor of Oriental Medicine, did Westerners become privy to this major debacle. Before publishing Kendall’s book, Oxford spent three years ascertaining, through peer review from all over the world, that indeed, nowhere in Chinese literature or dictionaries is “qi” defined as “energy”.  Nor are the vessels called—or conceived as—”meridians”.

In fact, the lines drawn between acupuncture nodes, holes, or points, which Westerners call meridians, are a relatively recent notion—also a misleading invention of de Morant.



But this is probably not important to you. What’s important is that you know that Qi is oxygen.

It’s important that you know that acupuncture and most Chinese herbal medicines move blood and oxygen, generate it, and effect their healing through this primary mechanism — the free flow of blood, and the oxygen it contains.

But did you know this is the mechanism behind one of our culture’s most popular and more intelligently designed drugs—Viagra?!

While the mechanisms of Oriental Medicine are not identical to Viagra (thank heaven), its objectives and its results are quite similar.  But acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine, in the hands of a skilled doctor, afford manipulation of the therapy and effects to any location desired, not just the human penis. Without side effects.

If oxygen is so imperatively vital to life, is it not likely that anything which deprives us of it will cause us ill health?

  • How about the ‘foods’—I use that term loosely—we eat daily which bind and inhibit adequate oxygen for metabolism and vitality?
  • Or spending all our time indoors?
  • Sitting at a desk all day, day in, day out?
  • The adiposity we acquire?

Let’s talk for a moment about the effect of adiposity on our body’s ability to access oxygen and blood.

Everything is in the blood, right? Oxygen, nutrients, hormones, enzymes, neurotransmitters.  If a part of our body—or our entire body, for that matter—is lacking in blood flow, our cells can’t get what they need to thrive and perform their functions. Pain, disease, and dysfunction are the inevitable result. Dysfunction in the brain, dysfunction of the heart.  Dysfunction of your reproductive system.  The gut, the liver. All organs and glands, all systems suffer.

Then would it interest you to know that for every ten pounds of excess weight we carry, our blood flow is reduced by 50%?  Let me repeat that: every 10 lbs of adiposity reduces blood flow by 50%.  Pretty frightening, eh?  Imagine being 30 lbs overweight.  What would that do to all the systems of the body — not to mention an individual’s weakest system?

But I’m getting into a subject best left for another blog.


All the modalities of Oriental Medicine used at Future Medicine Now, both ancient and modern, accomplish the primary goal of increasing the flow of blood and oxygen in the body—keeping all the organs, glands, muscles, joints, and tendons in vibrant health.  They can be used to direct Qi very specifically (as in acupuncture or trigger point injections), or they can infuse the entire organism in an all-encompassing fashion (as in IV high dose Vitamin C or acupuncture).  And that is how they bring health to the body.

  • Acupuncture
  • Chinese Herbal Medicine
  • IV administration of high dose vitamin C or glutathione or many other micronutrients
  • Trigger point injections
  • Prolotherapy

All of them move Qi.  Most of them ‘tonify’ or increase Qi.


So now you know what Qi is.  It is not a mysterious energy flowing in invisible meridians.  It is the most vital physiological reality of your existence.

And you know, too, that a five thousand year old paradigm of medicine recognizes, understands, and is most adept at artfully manipulating it to the benefit of your health.





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4 thoughts on “Qi — It’s Not What You Think

  1. Just found your website and blog. Excellent stuff you have here! It’s refreshing to read that other’s are challenging the popular yet misguided assumptions about qi.

    I am curious to know your thoughts on a couple things. First of all, in your article on acupuncture and elsewhere you mention how closely qi is related to attitude and world-view. The association between qi and mind/emotions is obvious in the classics as well as in the modern usage of the word, both in Chinese and Japanese. I was surprised to find that in this entry, written specifically on qi, you confined the definition of the word to being purely analogous to oxygen. Seems a bit reductionist to me.. doesn’t really gel with your thrust toward getting outside of the western worldview. I’ve read Dr. Kendall’s book and have the same criticism of his work. While I fully support his rejection of qi being some kind of mysterious energy, at the same time his focus on (western) anatomical and physiological ideas, while accurate, are not in my opinion complete and do not encompass the whole person. For example, the effect that an uplifting (therapeutic) interaction with another person has (say between an intimate partner, a mother and child, a guru and sisya) on a person’s qi is sometimes profound. This effect on their qi obviously involves much more than oxygen and the CNS. Any comment?

    Also, in both the acupuncture article, where you say, “because the unqualified practitioner has no idea what the energetic implications of his/her treatment will be,” and elsewhere, in the Dietary Energetics section for example, you make full use of the word ‘energy’ to communicate something about qi. Clearly we have a limited number of words in our language to get ideas across, and I find myself using the word energy from time to time for many valid reasons, but I was wondering if you could elaborate briefly on what you mean by ‘energy’ as in when you say, “energetic implications” above.

    I’m looking forward to reading more of your articles and blog entries, particularly those on your definition of health. Thanks for making your ideas available to everyone!

    Paul Janson, MSAOM

  2. Paul—

    Thank you so much for your keen observations. I appreciate your pursuit of truth and wisdom!

    It’s true, there are inconsistencies regarding my concept of qi in both my web pages and in my words. There are at least a couple of reasons for this.

    One is that much of the website was written years ago. As you can see, it’s a fairly extensive work in progress. So, when exposed to Kendall’s work, I made adjustments in part of the website, but haven’t tracked down all the discussions of qi at Future Medicine Now.

    And that leads to a second reason: overextension of my time. As you can see, I’ve gotten rather swept away with expression on the internet. The whole thing is still an experiment for me, and it does spread me a little thin — something I don’t much care for. But, in life and in medicine, I have consistently offered my self as an experiment, and this truly is one — in communication, in influence, in value and karma.

    A third reason is a little more difficult to defend. Living, as I do in New Mexico, I am surrounded by ‘acupuncturists’. Don’t know if you’ve spent much time here, but it is a different place. And plenty of folks are here for the sake of being different. Without digging myself any deeper than I already have, let’s just say that waving Deke Kendall’s ‘blasphemy’ in my colleagues’ faces is one way I have chosen to jar them out of ‘Chinese — or even Japanese — medicine in a box’.

    On the one hand New Mexico has some of the most progressive DOMs, maximizing the broadest scope of practice in the country. On the other, we have quite a few folks who would like to take us back to Qibo, because that’s where they live. Just an intensified reflection of what’s going on throughout the world right now, but we who wish to advance the medicine where it shows us it would like to go, find ourselves devoting much more time to the survival of our vision than simply creating it.

    As mentioned in parts of the website, all things begin in consciousness, on the higher planes before manifestation in the physical, and there are far more powerful influences on our lives and our health than needles, IVs, and herbs. But I draw a pretty bold line at interfering with others’ karma by attempted manipulation of these influences. The karmic baggage of doing so is a little heavier than I care to take on. You can find more discussion of this at Spirit in Medicine.

    I’ve rambled a bit, but I hope you find a satisfactory response to your questions here. Yes, I, like you, am aware of the limitations of Kendall’s perspective. Yet I currently find it more invigorating to espouse than ‘TCM in a box’. Truth, of course, is what the opposites have in common, and I’m very appreciative you’ve given me the opportunity to move closer to it. I imagine you can perceive that I believe everything I say on the website, regardless of apparent contradiction.

    Thanks for the conversation, and thanks for reading!


  3. Blatant over simplification of a concept by a rational westerner. Qi or Prana is a concept which cannot be limited to oxygen only. Friendly reminder that air contains carbon and nitrogen as well. Prana is acquired and even generated through food, water and even the thoughts that you think. Please revisit your research and review things from an energetic perspective!

    1. I appreciate you taking the time to share your observations, Mangesh.

      This post was written in 2011. It’s now 2017, and I hadn’t read it in a long time. So, when I received your comment, I assumed from things you said that I hadn’t sufficiently addressed the objections you express. Having reread the post now, I find that’s not quite the case. But I’ll try again.

      Perspective is indeed, everything. Attention and attitude are the most precious faculties available to human beings, and together, they dictate our perspective.

      Having its origins, and therefore its ceiling, in the astral plane, Prana does all the things you say, and more. It’s a motor current that circulates in the body. Qi, too, is a motor current. Like all else in the creation, Prana, has its value, but to equate it with Qi would represent a misunderstanding needing clarification.

      Central to originally writing this post were two objectives:

      1. to increase understanding of the profundity of Chinese medicine’s infant beginnings;
      2. and to send a jolting wakeup call to Westerners, who, like Soulié de Morant, seek some level of spirituality at a personal level, and have eagerly embraced his personal and erroneous projection of Hinduism and a presumed level of esotericism onto the principles and wisdom of Chinese medicine.

      Again, this is a disservice to the medicine’s efficacy, as well as a serious deterrent to acceptance in the West. A disservice so pervasive, that, fifteen years after the publication of Kendall’s bombshell, The Dao of Chinese Medicine, there’s no evidence anyone from the public or the profession has noticed the cat’s out of the bag.

      The consensus definition of Qi, accepted by scholars (Chinese and otherwise) of ancient Chinese, is “vital air”. Of course, air contains nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and dozens of other components! That’s the raison d’être of that small, yet immense, qualifier, “vital”, in Qi’s definition. Simply “air” wasn’t sufficient for early Chinese adepts to describe their meaning in defining Qi’s primacy. Just as “Toxic” makes the critical distinction between “Toxic Heat” and “Heat”—that is, between viral infection and bacterial infection—so, too, vital air distinguishes oxygen from air. The Chinese didn’t require a chemistry lab to make these distinctions. They simply made them through astute perception and left the chemistry for Europeans 2000 years later.

      Maybe that’s not it at all. Maybe they were just winging it and thought Qi was a mysterious energy. But everything in my experience of this remarkable medicine in nearly twenty-five years suggests their level of consciousness was far more evolved than this. Kendall’s very thorough examination of the history is quite an eye opener to one whose eye is open. It’s chock full of insights into clinical practice, as well.

      In relation to modern practice, an enlightening consideration might be that medical ozone is made from pure oxygen. Heaven forbid we administer ozonated nitrogen by using air as our source! And ozone exhibits all the clinical qualities of ”super“ Qi.

      Are there energetic attributes of Qi? Of course there are. Are you suggesting there are not energetic attributes of oxygen? Of nitrogen? Ozone?

      You mention ‘rational’ with a hint of disdain, Mangesh. I understand your meaning. But, do you? As all genuine masters, throughout the world, throughout time, have declared, rational thought is a prerequisite to the ascension of consciousness. Not a razzle-dazzle, out of the body one, no, but a basic prerequisite, perhaps more important than the notch-on-our-belt ‘spiritual’ one. If, for no other reason, than the fact that emotional attachment far outweighs logic or rational thinking in the human mind. Given that 85% of our karma is due simply to unclear thinking, we might put clarity on a higher pedestal.

      Rational thinking always has been, and still is required for consciousness to ascend into realities far beyond Prana or Qi—levels of existence where reason, thought, doctrine, research, or attachment are eventually replaced by direct perception. There’s much, much more, of course, but rational thought is an indispensable step, and as long as we’re living in this dual world, it will be required for normal function.

      Ask our new president.

      For your information, this conversation is now published as a post. Thanks again, for commenting.

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