I recently heard a self-defense instructor mocking the traditional Asian schools for their insistence that students cultivate Chi (subtle or internal energy, similar to Kundalini) which, the self-defense instructor claimed, did not exist.
Within the traditional Chinese and Japanese martial and healing arts (such as acupressure and Chi-Gong), Chi is generally regarded as connected to the breath, and as being stored up in certain specific points in the body, especially the Tan Tien, which is located close to the navel. But this subtle energy is also linked to food, air, and even to the earth and the directions.
Chi is probably less a part of the martial arts than it was, traditionally, however. Even many Asian schools of martial arts, it should be said, no longer place much emphasis on meditation or Chi-Gong exercises, perhaps especially in the West. This is largely due, of course, to the fact that most people who take up Karate, Kung-fu, or Judo, etc., do so because, primarily, they want to learn to defend themselves or because they want to learn a “contact sport,” as these are sometimes described.
Conversely, “internal” styles — as practiced by some Tai Chi or Baguazhang schools — emphasize the spiritual and meditational side of the martial arts, along with the movements and forms, and may not practice any type of self-defense exercises or sparring. I have heard more than one internal style instructor saying that there was no point in learning self-defense since we are statistically less likely to be killed than in centuries past.
We must acknowledge that not everyone is interested in fighting or self-defense, and that not everyone is interested in spirituality, meditation, or in cultivating Chi or Kundlaini. That’s entirely up to them.
However, I believe we need to cultivate the body and the spirit. We (and I include women here) need to be able to defend ourselves against attack, and to understand violence, which remains a part of our world. (According to the FBI’s latest statistics, there were over 90,000 rapes and over 15,000 murders in the USA in 2015.) Whether we want to be or not, we are responsible for our safety. Criminals won’t strike if police are around or if they believe that their attack will fail, but will strike when someone is distracted or unaware of what is about to happen, or vulnerable for some other reason. But, we also want to cultivate ourselves internally — our mind, our spirit, and our internal energy.
But, we also want to cultivate ourselves internally — our mind, our spirit, and our internal energy.
Here, I want to briefly look at the benefits of both physical strength and the cultivation of Chi.
We must acknowledge that — just as we find some people who fill up on junk food mocking those with strict, healthy diets, as somehow “missing out” — some physically weak people will condemn the physically strong as “meatheads,” or some such thing. I would suggest that, instead, they try to cultivate their bodies instead, or, if they really don’t want to, to at least respect that the process of getting stronger takes a lot of dedication and, in fact, a lot of mental strength — as well as knowledge of diet and nutrition (bodybuilding is especially complex in this regard).
Similarly, those who think meditation and cultivating Chi a waste of time, I would suggest they try it for a few months, and see the changes in themselves before judging. (Although the opposite is the usual case, I’ve seen people go through tough physical workouts with no problem and then nearly pass out during meditation, Chi-Gong, or deep breathing exercises.)
The mind and body are very much divided in the Western world today, with some exalting the mind and denigrating the body (at least of those that they regard as a potential threat, especially to their status) and vice versa.
We tend to think of visualization as a spiritual practice. And, of course, it is. But physical training often requires this practice, to go beyond one’s limits. Weightlifters use visualizations, as do martial artists. It’s also an integral part of the training of Navy SEALs.
There is the concept of “mind over matter.” This expression is used to describe things that people regard as impossible.
Certainly, I have done things in my own physical and martial arts training that, five years ago, I would have thought impossible for me. And, yes, in such cases, visualization and correct breathing were essential factors. But it was really mind with matter. I don’t think that can be emphasized enough. The visualization and breathing worked in conjunction with the body and with my physical training. (And it should be said that all of these were improved because I took the advice, comments, encouragement, and criticism of my instructors seriously — even when I didn’t like what I heard.)
In regard to subtle energy, I first experienced Kundalini when I was around 17 or 18 years of age. I remember my early experiences quite vividly. I felt an intense stirring — a kind of fluttering or fizziness rising up and pushing its way through my body (which is quite normal in Kundalini). I would also sometimes briefly black out, and I occasionally experienced headaches after. (Like martial arts, Chi and Kundalini should, in my view, be cultivated only with the help of a knowledgeable guide.)
When I first joined a martial arts class some years later, in my early twenties, being physically not that strong at all, I decided to focus on my breath, imagining breathing into the stomach (the Tan Tien) as I did crunches. After a few minutes, I felt Chi seeping from my fingers, and up into my arms. A minute or so later, and my arms felt entirely engulfed by Chi.
As can be discerned from the above, Chi is cultivated by deep breathing, visualization, and focusing on specific points (the Tan Tien, or, in regard to Kundalini, the Chakras). The effects described above aren’t necessarily what you want, and aren’t in all cases desirable, but my description will give you some idea the type of sensation, and possible experience, that you get with cultivating subtle energy, which can feel as physical as anything else.
My own experiences tell me that cultivating Chi for its own sake is probably useless and quite possibly dangerous. We might compare it to eating food. Even if it is nutritious, we need to eat the amount that is proportional to the needs of our body. If we are doing hard, physical training then we may need more food than when we are not doing any or doing little. If we continue to eat as if we’re running, lifting weights, and so on, but are not, then the now excessive amount of food may begin to give us some health issues.
Similarly, if we cultivate physical strength, but neglect breathing, visualization, and internal energy, we are missing out on a wealth of inner strength that can take us to the next level, and, eventually, to an entirely different height.
Chi and muscle are the Yin-Yang of physical development, and, in my experience, they enhance each other, and are best cultivated together. Let me leave you with some very basic suggestions:
For those who are focused on the spiritual:
- Do some research and develop a routine of physical exercise (including some push-ups, crunches, and perhaps some basic weights). Start slow, and make sure your posture is correct with each exercise. You can do less than you’re capable of for a few days. The point is to get a routine started, and then to build on it. (Or, better still, join a martial arts or self-defense school, or get a physical trainer to help you train and develop strength and muscle.)
- You may find that meditation practice has trained you to move the stomach in and out as you breathe, but not the chest. If so, your “deep breathing” isn’t as deep as you think. Practice breathing into your chest (expanding it as you inhale), and once it feels full, continue into the stomach (do not strain yourself).
- When you meditate, visualize yourself as getting stronger and more muscular. Imagine the Chi giving life to the muscles. Visualize yourself as stronger and more dynamic.
For those who are focused on the physical:
- Do some research into meditation, and start a meditation practice, either in the morning or night (or both). You don’t need to worry about getting into a Lotus position. The simplest meditation is just to sit, relax, and concentrate on your breathing, and whether you are breathing in, or breathing out. You want to stay focused on that, and not let the mind wander. Keep your posture upright but relaxed. Meditate for a few minutes at a time. (And, look our for a meditation class or instructor.)
- You probably breathe into the chest. After each inhalation into the chest, imagine the air continuing into the stomach, either expand the stomach out, or suck it slowly in as you continue to breathe. You will probably notice that you can inhale a lot more air than previous.
- Visualize that you are breathing in light, and that that light is being dispersed, from the navel, throughout the body with each exhalation. Relax, become calm, and become aware of your body and the sensations within it. Do this for a few minutes (but stop if you feel light-headed — start slowly; the point is to develop a routine).