Without mentioning that the Chinese word for "energy" is not qi, by pigeon-holing qi to mean "energy", reduces this multi-flavored, multi-purpose concept from the Chinese language to a term that pretty much bears no functional value in our western culture.
In its ambiguity, qi as "energy" is ripe to be interpretted to fit a wide variety of beliefs; qi as cosmic energy, qi as bio-chemical energy, qi as, well, whatever you like.
In the "internal" martial arts, the term "qi flowing" and "qi not flowing" has a very specific meaning. These phrases, according to my understanding, are a short-hand, abbreviated way of noting a particular kinesthetic feeling.
Just as many of the martial arts have both an external and internal component to training, and some of these internal components are considered qigong, does one switch from the very practical training of self-defense techniques to a mystical, woo-woo, feel the cosmic energy with the hope that this further improves one art? Sadly, this happens.
From my experience, instead of focusing on deepening a practical mind-body connectedness, the typical teaching of qigong ironically tends to do just the opposite! So what is a practical way to look at qigong?
Let's take a look at the December 2011 issue of Acupuncture Today (Vol. 12, Issue 12) which has a wonderful article by Joseph Davis titled, Demystifying Qi Gong.
What I like about this article is that A) it is written from a more clinical, holistic, perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and B) it explains that qigong practices are meant to be simple, functional, grounded, exercises to help "me" discover and connect with "my body" here and now.
Here are a few excerpts which resonate with me and with the perspective I promote in this blog.
So what is the essence of Qi Gong for TCM practitioners? It is a method of fostering basic awareness of body and breath, coordinated with simple movements, with the aim of cultivating smooth flow of qi to promote health.
Foremost, it is vital to explain that qi isn't some magical force that emerges once we've purified the body, silenced the mind, and harmonized the emotions. Qi Gong begins with connecting with how your body, breath, and mind feel, exactly in this moment.
For our purposes, we are just trying to connect with the quality of feeling awareness...
With just a little bit of attention, we begin to see that these sensations, feelings, and thoughts occur in a spectrum - from the very dense sensation of embodiment in gravity (down/earth/yin), to the rarified realm of ideas (up/sky/yang), and the subtler nuance of breath and emotions that happens between these two poles. And here's the real transmission - it is this whole collection of experiences that is actually our qi. This recognition is the portal to real Qi Gong, and it certainly does not require some Qi Gong "master" to point out. Yin, Yang, and qi are experiences that we all have, all day long.
Instead of introducing our patients and students to qi as something distant and mysterious, we start right where we are. As I noted above, I find the phrase feeling-awareness, or aliveness are often better to use than something from a different language. What we are looking to get our patients and students to recognize is this basic subjective sense of being alive, which is the most immediate and concrete thing in the universe. Without trying to define or capture it too tightly in thought, we can then begin working with it in the context of simple movements, coordinated with the breath.
What I learn from this article is that qi, as it is used in qigong exercises, is a kind of short-hand abbreviated term denoting a combination of feelings/sensations of embodiment, ideas, and emotions. Qi is a shorthand way of noting my overall "aliveness".
What I've learned from my Wujifa practice is that the feeling of "aliveness" while always available, is often blocked by my various physical and emotional holding patterns. Achieving deeper and more amplified feelings of "aliveness" can sometimes take some work. And sometimes feeling more "aliveness" and connection than I typically or normally experience, can be overwhelming both in terms of the sheer experience and in terms of the implications to living life from that more "alive" space.
Even though I had long thought that I was fully in my body (afterall, I've been practicing Tai-chi for many, many years), I was both disturbed and intrigued when I discovered that I had developed elaborate techniques to avoid being fully embodied!
And so while I've elaborated one of the key points of this article, go check out the rest of it - the author makes a few other points in which you may be interested.
Further reading from my blog:
Demystifying Qi Seminar Video (October 18, 2012)
Chinese Martial Arts Without The Qi (August 2011)
Internal Gong Fu Paradigms (November 2010)
Feel Your Chi Between Your Hands? (June 2010)
A couple books worth reading:
Qigong Fever: Body, Science and Utopia in China
Chinese Healing Exercises: The Tradition of Daoyin