You may have heard the term “qi” (confusingly also spelled “chi”, from the older Wade-Giles standardization of Chinese spelling with English letters) used in the context of acupuncture or martial arts. The word is pronounced “CHEE”. It is a complex term that’s hard to translate into English, which is probably why most people just stick with the Chinese word when talking about this concept. This article is meant to demystify the word.

Ironically, for all the mystery and confusion around the term “qi”, it is a concept we all already know, understand and believe in. It is something we universally discover about the world as children. Qi is invisible, but it doesn’t require any leap of faith to believe in. It’s obvious to us all.

You may have heard people describe qi as a “mystical invisible life force”. That definition sounds controversial and mysterious, but honestly, it’s not all that bad. Let’s try a less flowery definition on for size. One of my teachers sometimes likes to describe qi this way:

Qi is the difference between you and a fresh corpse.

It’s a somewhat macabre image, but look closer. The corpse is composed of the same things as you. You have blood, so does the corpse. Nerves, check. Carbohydrates for energy, check. On and on. You have all of the same parts. You are identical down to the chemical level. Still, it is obvious to everyone that there’s a difference between a corpse and a living person. We call that difference “qi”.

Qi is energy. Qi is function. Qi is life. The word literally translated means breath. It is the same concept that is called “prana” in India, “ki” in Japan, and many other words in different cultures.

Qi is the domain and medium of acupuncture. With the needles we can guide, direct and foster changes in the qi and therefore the body. When a headache goes away, when constipation is relieved, when peaceful sleep is created it is clear that a change in the body has occurred – no belief required.

To the “Qi Doubters”, I leave with one final thought. Wind is invisible. When the leaves blow outside, what has you believe that it is caused by wind? Do you rely on faith, or is it just obvious to you?