The Chinese word Qì basically means relationship. It describes how different parts of ourselves and our world relate to each other. Spring is the time when hibernation ends and living things reach out.
In the morning I was walking to the Pine Mountain Clubhouse for the Qì Gōng class. I was going there to move my Qì. As I approached the driveway I saw several patches of frozen water dropping in white cascades down the grass. There was also black ice on the flattened brown turf that was slippery when I tested it. Evidence of the cold night still lingered here. When I returned after class the hard ground was soft and aromatic. It was the smell of unfrozen spring mud. The ice coming down the hill was mushy and pocked with holes. In fact, I was less stiff and icebound after class too! On the mountain we know, like the Yellow Emperor, that the night is winter and the morning is the spring thaw. Melting fluids evaporate into the atmosphere. The sky gazers here hope the water will form into clouds and recycle as snow before spring gets any older.
One description of moving Qì is the cycle occurring between evaporating bodies of water and clouds. Qì is a familiar word to practitioners or patients of Chinese medicine and Qì Gōng. Sometimes you will see it written as Chì but it is always pronounced ‘chee’ with a falling tone. The Chinese character gives us clues to its meaning:
The outer part of the character symbolizes swirling clouds of gas:
The inner part is a picture of rice grains:
(Rice is easy to digest, hypoallergenic and a boon to gluten-free eaters such as myself.) Look at the character:
Do you see grains expanding as they cook? Do you see the steam rising from the rice pot? Qì also illustrates the digestive process. In Chinese medicine the stomach is seen as the saucepan. It must first heat foods that are cold or raw before their molecules are broken down. Nutrients are then released into the bloodstream from the small intestine. In other words Qì is the vital energy we derive from food. One of my patients had a very hot stomach pulse one summer. When I asked, she was not eating any of the usual hotheaded suspects: spicy food, chocolate or coffee. So I questioned her about cold foods. She was eating large frozen drinks daily. Her stomach was overheating from cooking them!
To me, the beauty of the Chinese language (and the frustration of translators) is that the characters contain many different meanings embedded since at least 1046 BCE. As a writer, the more information I have about a word’s meaning, the happier I am. The character for Qì also represents the gaseous state. The picture can be seen as a cloud rather than rice expanding in all eight directions:
Water rises as a gas and returns as liquid rain or frozen snow. Qì refers to the energy necessary for these changes in state to take place. Its activity is superficial because it diffuses like fumes filling a container or the atmosphere. It is associated with spring because everything starts to move and ascend after the hibernation of winter. Even our radial pulses start to float on the surface. These are the pulses of spring. A slow thaw in spring means you have done too much in the winter. It takes you longer to get moving even though all around you things are sprouting. Spring Qì is movement. Winter is inertia.
If a Chinese speaker says that you are full of Qì, you could be full of vigor or angry or just breathing. Qì inflates us no matter its source. Qì also references the weather or the atmosphere of a room. When Qì does not move in our bodies, it causes pain. Acupuncture moves Qì to restore a lack of flow in any tissue of the body: skin, muscles, blood vessels, joints, bones and the glands that produce hormones. Areas are targeted by the practitioner through her choice of channels, which are like waterways or roadways on a map. The pulse is my GPS. It guides me to the place in my patient’s body asking for help.
Acupuncture channels create access to the whole body because they form a continuum from its surface to its depths. The map demarcates points along the roadways that influence specific parts of the body. One of the most well known is the Tiger’s Mouth on the web between the thumb and index finger. It is used for headaches. It is not always useful to needle a painful area directly until a point further away has diminished its intensity. It is common to see merchants massaging this point who come to trade at Chinese markets. It is also called Union Valley to indicate its ability to help us avoid suffering by accepting a given situation. If the seller will not lower their price, you won’t be angry when you negotiate with the next one in line. Qì is all about change. Spring is the opportunity for new beginnings and a clean slate.