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An Introduction To Chi Energy: Signs Of Imbalance + How To Get Back On Track

Tsao-Lin E. Moy, L.Ac., MSOM, LMT, C. SMA
Acupuncturist and Chinese Medicine Practitioner
By Tsao-Lin E. Moy, L.Ac., MSOM, LMT, C. SMA
Acupuncturist and Chinese Medicine Practitioner
Tsao-Lin, has over 18 years of experience as an expert in alternative and Chinese medicine.
Image by mbg creative X Julia Volk / Stocksy
May 26, 2022
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In Chinese culture, qi (or chi) is the energy of the universe. It flows through all living beings and connects us energetically, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Here is a primer on this powerful animating force and how to work with it to stay healthy.

What is chi?

The simple definition of chi is life force, or energy. Chi is not a substance but a power—like an electric current that lights a bulb.

The character for chi (氣) means "energy'' or "essence." It depicts air with a pot of rice within and represents transformational power. Think of it like a seed that can be dormant for years but still have life force within it, just waiting to be awakened by dirt, water, and sunlight.

Chi is best understood in relation to yin and yang. The principles of yin and yang theory are based on dynamic balance via the movement of chi energy. Chi is invisible, only seen through the influence it has on living beings and material forms.

Magnets are an example of chi in accordance with yin and yang: One side is north; the opposing side is south. They push and pull, but when spun together they are a generator of electricity.

In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), it is believed that all vital functions within the body are also governed by the changes and movements of different types of chi, including Yuan chi (primary chi), Zong chi (chest or lung), Ying chi (nutritive), and Wei chi (defensive chi).

Chi is thought to run through energy pathways in the body known as meridians. When the body is out of balance, TCM practitioners look at what symptoms are occurring and what chi pattern is presenting itself. 

The history of chi.

The character for chi is depicted on Oracle bones—a Chinese script that dates back to the second millennium B.C., indicating that chi was already a familiar concept back then.

Though the concept of chi originates from China, it is recognized throughout Asia and connected to spiritual observation such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism, and other practices of enlightenment.

It is nearly impossible to pinpoint "when" the concept of chi was fully integrated into a belief system, as there is no record of it not existing.

Why is chi energy important?

Simply put: Without the flow of chi, there would be no life. Here's what makes this principle so important:

  • For our health: It is thought that chi must be able to flow freely in order for health and wellness to occur. The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine1 (237 B.C.) states "Where there is free flow, no pain. Where there is pain, no free flow." Promoting the free flow of chi and blood is a guiding principle in Chinese medicine.
  • For our surroundings: The art and science of feng shui seeks to achieve a free flow of chi in the environment. Your environment can either nourish or deplete your life force, depending on its chi. 
  • For nature: Chi is in nature, and it is possible to harness chi using meditative mind-body exercises such as qigong. Being in balance with nature by sleeping at night and waking in the morning, living in rhythm with the seasons, and eating what's available locally are all ways to harness chi.

Living in accordance with these principles is known as the Dao or the Way of Life. This is what it means to live in yin and yang balance.

Signs your chi is out of balance.

According to Chinese medicine, we are born with a set amount of essence, called jing (prenatal chi), and that must last us a lifetime. Activities such as overworking, stressing, and "abusing" the body will burn this essence and shorten the life span.

When we get stressed, our nervous system goes into fight-or-flight mode, tapping into the adrenal glands. If the body does not quickly return to a rest-and-digest state, the flow of chi is disrupted. This can lead to chi stagnation, which leaves the whole body feeling swollen and stiff. Here are a few signs that your chi is out of balance:

  • You stay up late and do not sleep well during the night (yin and yang are reversed).
  • You work too much and do not allow enough time for your body to heal.
  • You indulge in nutrient-poor foods and alcohol.
  • You have emotional irritability and anger.
  • You feel burnout.
  • You have low energy and fatigue.
  • You gain weight easily.
  • You have irregular menstrual cycles.
  • You have body aches and pains.

How to balance your chi energy.

In the first chapter of The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine, the emperor tells his physician of the old days when people lived beyond 100 years old. How? They practiced breathing, stretching, and massage that promoted the flow of chi. They ate balanced meals at regular times and tried not to stress their minds and bodies.

Chinese medicine has eight branches that help cultivate health, preserve life, and promote the free flow of chi energy. These are the areas to focus your attention on:

  1. Acupuncture: Acupuncture is one ancient practice that can stimulate the easy flow of chi.
  2. Herbal medicine: Herbal medicines provide a holistic way to keep the mind and body in balance.
  3. Massage: Like movement, massage and other forms of bodywork open up the meridians, allowing chi and blood to flow freely.
  4. Food: Foods that are in season tend to have the most nutritive chi, so opt for these when possible.
  5. Exercise: T'ai chi and qigong connect us to chi energy so that we are healthy and strong.
  6. Meditation: Meditation and mindful breathing exercises strengthen the mind-body connection. They allow us to inhale more air (chi) to be absorbed in our bodies and bring life force to all the cells and organs. 
  7. Astrology/Divination: These allow us to clear the mind of worrying and regret. Remember: You cannot change the past, and trying to will only interfere with the flow of energy of moving forward. 
  8. Feng shui: Creating a home and work environment that supports the flow of energy will enhance creativity. This is an important topic as many people continue to work from home. Without proper physical and energetic space, chi goes out of balance and can cause more stress and stagnation.

People who lead a life with the principles of yin and yang and chi have an inner calm and focused presence. In Chinese medicine, we call this good shen, heart chi. These people have a vitality and life force within them that shows through their eyes.

They are composed, tranquil, and able to give their complete attention to the task at hand. Positive energy seems to radiate from them. They have strong energy fields and can quickly bounce back from stressful situations and people.

The takeaway.

When your chi is balanced, your mind, body, and spirit are in alignment. It feels good to be you, and your body feels well. You have a deep connection to oneself, to others, and to the world at large. Balancing your chi is not a destination. It is a guiding principle for living a long, healthy life.

Tsao-Lin E. Moy, L.Ac., MSOM, LMT, C. SMA author page.
Tsao-Lin E. Moy, L.Ac., MSOM, LMT, C. SMA
Acupuncturist and Chinese Medicine Practitioner

Tsao-Lin, has over 18 years of experience as an expert in alternative and Chinese medicine. She is the founder of Integrative Healing Arts which utilizes Chinese medicine, acupuncture, herbal medicine and energy healing to treat patients, and the author of Will I Ever Get Pregnant, The Smart Woman's Guide to Get Pregnant Naturally Over 40.

She received her Masters of Oriental Medicine at Tri-State College of Acupuncture, and currently serves as a senior clinical faculty member there. Tsao is a NCCAOM (National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine) Diplomat in Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine. She has completed post graduate studies in classical Japanese herbal medicine known as Kampo and doctoral level training and certification in Sports Medicine Acupuncture®.

An experienced and highly trained licensed acupuncturist and healer, she serves patients in the New York City area and continues to study the ancient healing arts and the art of classical Chinese medicine. Much of her work focuses on teachings of master practitioner Kiiko Matsumoto.