Chi is a large and multifaceted concept that is deeply rooted in the Chinese culture. It applies both to the tangible, such as the body, and to the intangible aspects such as feelings. Even inanimate objects can be said to contain different qualities of chi in that they evoke certain responses in the people viewing them. The understanding of chi is usually an intuitive process that lacks the scientific, mechanical explanation. And so to give it a straight forward scientific definition is a difficult task.
Although a clear definition escapes, it is still a powerful and useful concept. In Chinese medicine chi is used to explain how the different parts relate to each other. In Chi Gong it is used for healing purposes. In martial arts such as Tai Chi Chuan it is used as a tool to connect the bodily energies.
Here we shall focus on how it can be used in Tai Chi Gong, the authentic practice of Tai Chi Chuan. Tai Chi refers to the supreme balance that emphasizes the unification of body/mind/energies. Gong indicates a deep skill. Chuan refers to something that is practiced for the purpose of self-defence.
Within martial arts chi has a quality similar to air and can be seen as carrying energy. It is that which mediates the expression of energy. One of chi's important aspects is that it is moved, or lead, by mind and intention. Most of us can experience this by giving attention to a particular body part, such as the hand. By focusing attentively with the clear intention of warming it up, it is not too difficult to raise the temperature of that hand. With some practice most are able to succeed. Having the feedback of a sensitive thermometer can be quite satisfying in this case.
In Tai Chi Gong chi is used more extensively. It is something that can be felt, enhanced and used to guide our bodily movements, strengthen our body, and used for self-defence purpose. To understand how it is done it is helpful to learn about the concept of Jin. Jin is seen as a force, something that can be felt physically and the effects of which can be seen. Jin is mediated and led by chi. And so, as chi and our ability to manipulate it increase, the force jin grows in strength and flexibility.
This leads us to one of the core teachings and practices of Tai Chi Gong. This is the teaching of the three internal unifications that make the practice possible. The way to see it is that the spirit/attention moves the mind/intention, the mind/intention moves the chi, and the chi moves the jin. Thus in learning to manipulate chi we need to integrate spirit - mind - force.
In Tai Chi Chuan one is trained to learn new patterns of reaction. For instance, when faced with outside force, the normal reaction of an untrained person is to resist. In true Tai Chi Chuan one learns different techniques focused on the spirit/attention, mind/intention and chi. We may then choose to re-direct the incoming force. But the force that is then exerted on the other person does not come from our physical resistance and muscular strength. Often it comes from the opponent's chi and has been carefully controlled and re-directed, leading to a physically felt jin force. This is what is meant by using the mind instead of the body.
Thus in Tai Chi Gongone learns how to strengthen and control chi, often for self-defence purposes. However, its core and most important practice, the one that makes it all possible involves the three internal unifications, where spirit, mind, and force are integrated in a supreme balance.
Zang Yun, "Qi in Taijiquan Applications", p 14 in "T'ai Chi - The International Magzine of T'ai Chi Ch'uan", Vol. 31, No. 4
Mattias Lindkvist has been practicing Tai Chi for over two decades. He is passionate about Tai Chi Gong, the true art of Tai Chi Chuan and has started a website where he shares his findings on authentic Tai Chi Chuan.