The Qi in Tai Chi

Externally, Tai Chi is gentle, flowing movement.  Internally, Tai Chi fosters the development of mindfulness and the cultivation of a life force known as Qi.  What is Qi?  Qi is “bioenergy”, a subtle energy associated with biological organisms.  Qi is in the food we eat and the air we breathe, and it is produced by all the cells in our body.  In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Qi is the energy that moves through the acupuncture meridians or channels.  When Qi is strong and flowing smoothly throughout the whole body, we experience health.  Illness occurs when there are blockages (i.e., stagnation) or a deficiency of Qi.  To restore the proper levels and functioning of Qi in the body, Traditional Chinese Medicine recommends diet, herbs, acupuncture, qigong and Tai Chi.

Can we measure the Qi in Tai Chi?  Scientists have attempted to measure bioenergy or Qi, with varying success, using many different types of meters and instruments.  Most promising have been the studies using voltmeters and magnetometers to measure the electrical and magnetic fields surrounding energy healers and Qigong practitioners.  In Japan, Seto and colleagues (1992; 1996) recorded extremely large magnetic fields adjacent to the heads, bodies and hands of Qigong practitioners during breathing meditations and during external Qi emission.  Elmer Green and colleagues (1991) recorded surges in the electrostatic potential (“body-potential”) of healers during distant healing sessions at the Menninger Clinic in Kansas. In my laboratory in Terre Haute, Indiana, we have observed a distinct magnetic field waveform – a symmetrical chirp wave (0  ̶  40Hz) – which appears with high frequency during energy healing sessions.

In June, 2006, my student Danny LaPlante and I examined the Qi in Tai Chi by recording magnetic field activity in several Tai Chi classrooms during Dr. Paul Lam’s 1-week workshop in West Terre Haute, Indiana.   Most interestingly, we observed the ‘chirp wave’ (described above) in each of the classes we recorded, including the advanced Sun 73 form, the Sword form, and the Fan form (Figure 1).


Figure 1.  Example of a magnetic field ‘chirp’ wave observed during a Tai Chi workshop for advanced students (73 sun style).  The same wave is illustrated in upper and lower traces, with the upper trace recorded at fast speed and the lower trace, at slow speed.  In both traces, note the magnetic field oscillations slowing and then reversing, forming a characteristic ‘chirp’ wave.  Bar = 10 milliGauss.

What is the significance of the magnetic field ‘chirp’ waves which we observed in the Tai Chi classes?  During a break in the Sword class, a student sat down next to one of our magnetometers: she then proceeded to give a big yawn and a big stretch, and a magnetic field wave appeared on our screen, like it had rolled off her body.  At that moment, it seemed evident that these waves represent some sort of discharge.  Green and colleagues hypothesize that energy healing involves an increase of charge in the healer’s body, followed by an emission of charge.  In many respects, the human body functions as an electrical condenser – it accumulates charge generated by cell currents in the body.  To remain healthy, we must periodically discharge some of that accumulated charge, and exercise is one way to do this.  In the Tai Chi Fan class, Master Trainer Sheila Rae observed how the spiral movements of the Fan form facilitate, “the releasing of old stuff”.  Tai Chi, in general, may be particularly good at helping us to discharge and release, leading to energetic balance and increased health.

In the advanced Sun 73 and sword classes, we observed some evidence suggesting magnetic field coherence.  In other words, the magnetic field oscillated at one or a few frequencies very strongly, specifically, 13 and 78 Hz (Sun 73), and 39 and 49Hz (Sword).  Tai chi students can sense when the group is synchronized and moving as one.  This synchrony may be measurable with magnetic field recordings.

But are these waves “Qi”?  Seto and colleagues speculate that, “Qi is not magnetic field but “deep force” behind our observable dimension rather than existing physical quantity such as magnetic field.”  Like Seto, we suspect that there is more to the Qi in Tai Chi than a magnetic field wave.  In future experiments, we will broaden our search for Qi by measuring other frequencies, testing our hypothesis that Qi is a complex mixture of light, sound waves and/or electromagnetic fields.