Over the years I’ve encountered the situation where there appear to be two different things that are being defined as “qi”. The qi of martial-arts is often a more practical implication having to do with strength, forces, and things that contribute to forces; the qi of TCM seems to be something that is an energetic artifact. I thought it might be a good discussion to have, so I wrote the following, hoping for both discussion and critique. Let me note that this view and usage of the muscle-tendon channels (aka sinew channels), dantian, etc., as a roadmap of the strength flows and forces of the body is in current and common usage in the internal martial-arts among native Chinese. Their view of qi is going to be somewhat as detailed below:
Origin of the Sinew Channels: Six Harmonies Movement
A Practical Development of Acupuncture from an Ancient Idealized Form of Movement?
As Peter Deadman et al noted in “A Manual of Acupuncture”, the discoveries within the Mawandui Tombs fairly much settle the discussion about which came first, the Sinew Channels or the Acupuncture Meridians: the Sinew Channels came first. The early drawings show channels, not points. So the question about the origin of the channels is the next logical question. In “A Manual of Acupuncture” is the following speculation:
“… propagated sensation during the course of massage and more especially the exploration of the internal landscape of the body through meditation and Qigong practice, led to the discovery of the channel pathways, with the knowledge of specific points coming later.”
Other speculations about the origin of the Sinew Channels are available, but there is a coincidence that is too palpable to miss: the “Sinew Channels”, also known as the “Muscle-Tendon Channels” mark the exact pathways of propagated forces along the body, with the forces going in the same directions as the “qi flow” in the Sinew Channels, as was and is used in the very ancient type of movement that was called Six Harmonies (Liu He) movement. In Six Harmonies movement, the main control-center of movement is the dantian area at the middle of the body; various of the Sinew Channels come into play, singularly or in combination, as needed.
Six Harmonies Movement and Theory
In the old days of China, many Chinese martial-arts were based around the Six Harmonies type of movement and many vestigial traditional arts still retain the phrase “Liu He” in their official name, even though the arts have often gradually devolved over time.
The Six Harmonies theory revolves around the Three External Harmonies (Wai San He) and the Three Internal Harmonies (Nei San He).
The essential idea of the Three External Harmonies is that the body moves as one connected unit such that the ankle’s movement is tied to the wrist’s movement; the knee’s movement is connected to the elbow’s movement; the hip’s movement is connected to the shoulder’s movement (all of these through the torso, of course).
The essential idea of the Three Internal Harmonies is that strength anywhere in the body is a function of the mind willing the strength to that place. The actual wording of the Three Internal Harmonies is sparse: Xin-Yi, Yi-Qi, Qi-Li. What this means functionally is that the desire (the heart was considered to be the seat of desire) to do something triggers the mind; the mind sends the qi; the qi precedes that actual strength. This is a functional occurrence that is fairly easy to demonstrate, but the point to bear in mind is that the Six Harmonies mode of movement includes not only the idea of body mechanics, but also several contributing factors to total body strength ability that exceed just the consideration of basic mechanics. More on this later.
The Sinew Channels (Muscle-Tendon Channels)
The mechanical aspects of the Sinew Channels (muscle-tendon channels) are generally obvious as force and connection mechanisms to even a casual observer. The odd-looking attachments/muscles coming down the Yang arm channels from the head may seem confusing, but if you’re using the whole-body to lift the arms, expand them, etc., you need attachment points if you’re going to use the whole-body’s connection as part of your strength’s resources. So, if you look at a few of the Yang arm channels and lean your head back while stretching out the arm, you should find that these channels are mechanically obvious, as well.
The mode of movement in Six Harmonies and the pairing and coordination of muscles and tendon combinations is not fully compatible with the understanding of western kinesiology, so a person not versed in Six Harmonies type of movement would not recognize the mostly longitudinal channels as part of the broader system that they encompass. A Chinese person involved in the use of Six Harmonies movement sees a representation of the channels or meridians of TCM as obvious and correct in terms of the movement style he considers optimal.
The Sinew Channels generally show that the forces of expansion, pushing, and lifting coming from the ground up the Yang muscle-tendon pathways of the back and along the lateral and posterior channels of the limbs. There is a Yang channel on the front, also, but most of this Opening is done on the back.
The forces of closing generally work on the front of the body and along the anterior and medial channels of the limbs. If you think about a cheetah running at speed, its spine bends as the front of the body and frontal-spinal muscles contract, or Close (Yin); as the cheetah springs forward the muscles of the back and backside of the limbs engage to Open (Yang). Were we to analyze the various muscle-tendon channels on a running cheetah, thinking of this contracting and opening, we’d arrive at a drawing very similar to the Sinew Channels illustrations that are used in acupuncture/TCM books. I.e., there is a very practical logic to these analyses and the interesting thing is in wondering how long ago the analysis took place.
Forces push up the back and pull (from the dantian area) down the front. This basic cycle of most movement is ultimately refined to a torso-head cycle of “qi”, the focus or essence of strength/forces that is called the microcosmic orbit.
The various channels are connected as need be by extraordinary channels, outside of the realm of this thumbnail sketch, but a knowledgeable TCM practitioner should be able to extrapolate the general theory. Also, when needed, the dantian area is the locus of change to bring various channels into play.
The Yang channels of the arms are anchored to the head in order to assist in lifting, expanding, etc. The Yin channels of the arms (for pulling and closing, etc.) come into the thorax as an aid to the Closing movements (see below illustrations from Deadman et al “A Manual of Acupuncture”).
Paramount in the Six Harmonies mode of movement is the consideration of various nexuses, or “dantians” of movement along the central axis of the body. Since we are evolved from cylindrical worms, early on, our main nexus of movement is near the center of the body. This main nexus has a frontal aspect at the Qihai point and a posterior aspect at the Mingmen point. Think of the Qihai and the Mingmen as simply being the front and back of the main nexus of movement in the body. A person with a strongly developed (muscularly) dantian and sinew channels is admired in Chinese martial-arts.
Since the flow of strength/forces branches out from the various dantians, the dantians are considered to be storage junctions of qi.
There is a nexus, or dantian, for the juncture of the legs and leg-forces, which is just inside the perineum area of the pelvic floor at the HuiYin point. In many Chinese martial-arts, a practitioner is considered to be on his way when he begins to feel this “Lower Dantian” develop physically. Incidentally, it should be noted that the nomenclature for these various dantians can vary slightly within some arts. For instance, “Lower Dantian” is used by some arts to mean the main dantian, not the pelvic-floor dantian. The lower/pelvic dantian is slaved to the main dantian.
On the chest at the sternum between the pectoral muscles at about nipple height, is the chest dantian; there is a corresponding point on the back along the Gv meridian. The chest dantian is the control nexus that feeds out to the arms; it is also slaved to the main dantian (i.e., its motions are initiated by motion at the main dantian).
There is a dantian at the throat, obviously, and there is one at the Yintang point between the eyebrows. The topmost end of the vertical axis is the Baihui.
“Open”/Yang/Expansion Channels Extreme and Close Channels Extreme
(Pictures from Mantak Chia’s book: “Iron Shirt Chi Kung I”)
Mantak Chia, an anatomical illustrator and also a practitioner of traditional Chinese Qigongs, drew the above illustrations showing how various muscle-tendon/Sinew channels combine/coordinate in the extremes of Open (little fingers connect to little toes) and Close (thumbs connect to big toes). Going from one extreme to another is the essence of movement in Six Harmonies and it is the initiating concept of Yin-Yang, which the Taiji diagram illustrates. “Taiji” is about going from one extreme to the other: that’s what the black and white commas in the Yin-Yang diagram are illustrating.
Intent, Jin, Breath, Qi of Earth, Qi of Heaven
Other Contributors to the Whole-Body Mechanics
The Six Harmonies mode of movement employs several tangential, but intrinsic considerations that add to or affect the forces that the body employs. First of all, the qi of the human body is supplemented or augmented by the qi from the Earth and the qi from “Heaven”. The qi from the earth is essentially gravity: gravity supplies the solidity of the ground for pushing/opening forces through the body; gravity also supplies the downward force/pull which allows the body to contract and pull downward. This qi from gravity is said to enter the body at the Bubbling Well (yongquan) point on the bottom of the feet … and so the qi of the human body during a push, for a simple example, is a combination of the mobilized qi of the body (including the elastic potential of the “back-bow” of the spine) and the qi from the Earth.
The qi from “heaven” is mainly the force-assistant complements from the air: oxygen and deliberate cultivation of air-pressure in the body. Breathing techniques and conditioning of the human body allow for (in Six Harmonies arts) air pressure in the area of the kidneys and dantien to be converted to a type of force which is partially hydraulic in nature. Regardless of any analysis of what the exact force is, the idea is that force generation starts at the “kidneys” … probably a more accurate description would be “in the area of the kidneys” … with a combination of forces from the air-pressure hydraulic forces and the mechanical potential of the back-bow and dantian musculature.
Another type of force additive is “Jin”, which is a trained force skill in which the mind (the “intent” or “yi”) manipulates the innate force-directing (micro-movements) abilities of the body so that forces from the ground (or the downward gravity force) are aimed as needed, preferably into or with the forces generated by an opponent. Most of the almost magical-appearing displays of force mechanics in Asian martial-arts are demonstrations of the force-direction manipulation that is Jin.
Another intrinsic part of the Six Harmonies body analysis is the action of breathing in coordination with body movement. There are two types of breathing: natural breathing and reverse breathing. Think of natural breathing as the way everyone breathes naturally. Reverse-breathing is intrinsic to the Six Harmonies mode of movement because it is used to create pressure in the dantian and kidney areas. Perhaps the main source of power in the Six Harmonies mode of movement is the pressure that is stored in the kidney area. Of course this pressure would not exist if it were not for the lungs, so the lungs would be the major operator in developing and manipulating the qi and the dantian would be second in importance.
Ultimately, the pressure from the kidney area is driven to the ground as a force and the force pushes up the Yang muscle-tendon channels for use in expanding, pushing, and lifting. This is a primary focus of the Six Harmonies mode of movement.
Another of the main functions of reverse-breathing is to pull the fascia inward to develop the intrinsic elastic power of the connective tissue and tendons. Pulling the fascia in with the breath (breathing in the qi) can be felt first and most easily at the fingers/hands, but gradually develops along various pathways and the major axes of the body. The muscle-tendon channels conform admirably and naturally with this utilization of the elastic potentials and strengths in the human body.
The Qi of Magnetic Feelings and so on
It would be simpler if we could maintain a discussion purely about mechanics, but there is a troublesome contributor to the overall idea of what qi is. Much of what controls and connects the body is the fascia. Much of various Qigongs is aimed at conditioning the fascia and, in order to focus on the fascia, muscular tension is avoided (if you tense, you’re just working on the muscles, not the fascia). A slight stretching of the fascia is seen in most conditioning postures, but muscular tension is abjured.
There is an electromagnetic field in the human body and the fascia is involved in the strength of the magnetic field. The stronger and better-conditioned the fascia is, the stronger the magnetic field can be. James L. Oschman wrote a fairly focused book on this odd relationship of fascia and the body’s electromagnetic field: “Energy Medicine: The Scientific Basis”. The book is not clinically rigorous, but it’s informative and well-sourced. There are some relationships between acupuncture needling and the body’s electromagnetic field, but that’s a topic that is tangential to this discussion about the origins of the channels. The main point is that the fascia-tendon contributions to the Sinew Channels and the body whole are somewhat involved with the electromagnetic field of the body.
Conclusion and Discussion
Many more details could be examined, but the main point has been illuminated: The Muscle-Tendon Channels or “Sinew Channels” almost certainly had their genesis as an analysis of how the strength-flows work within a movement system called Six Harmonies. This idealized system of movement was considered the most desired and productive way of cultivating the body across all of China and undoubtedly India, also (the correlations between the Qi-paradigm and the Prana-paradigm are too many to ignore).
Another major point to note is that while this view of the probable origin of the muscle-tendon diagrams may be novel in the West, there are many traditional Qigong and martial-arts practitioners who take this relationship as a matter of course, even today, after thousands of years.
The inference is that Qi is related to strength, not “life essence”. If anything, qi seems to have been a postulated “essence of strength/forces”, with the idea being that anything that contributed to the strength/forces of the human body must contain some of the essence, qi. So therefore, food, blood, air, gravity, muscle, bone, connective-tissue, genetic predispositions, sun, and so on, all must have qi, too. At least that must have been the theory. As time progressed, the applications of the theory increased to cover all contingencies, but the growth of explication is the essence of meta-theories; prediction and reproducibility are the requirements of the Scientific Method, though, so there are some conflicts.
What does this examination of the origin and meaning of the qi paradigm mean for the needling of acupuncture? Nothing, really. If needling points A and B results in a given effect, it doesn’t matter what the definition of qi is or how the concept originated.
Ultimately, however, understanding that qi represents a flow of strength of forces within the body should assist in the overall understanding of a lot of older texts. For instance, qi flows are shown going up the channels on the insides of the legs and going downward on the outsides/backs of the legs. That simply means that the insides of the legs are involved in bending and pulling inward; the outsides of the legs are involved in straightening and pushing, etc. If there is supposed to be qi going from one organ to another in the body cavity, it means that there should be some tensile (connective tissue) connection between the two organs that can be demonstrated by pulling one organ to move the other one. And so on.
Hopefully these thoughts and observations will be productive in initiating further thoughts and discussions.