Elusive and intangible, our life force is an enduring part of our human existence. It is the thing that separates the living from the dead. The mysterious essence of who we are. But what is it? And how can it help us understand ourselves more?
Across cultures and centuries, humans have long talked about the energy of every living thing. An essential life force that makes up who and what you are. Our unique and powerful life energy.
You might know it as the Chinese word ‘chi’, while in Ayurvedic practice it is called ‘prana’, in yoga ‘chakra’ and in Japanese ‘ki’. The Polynesians talk of ‘mana’, the Greeks called it ‘pneuma’, the Hebrews ‘ruach’, and it is known as ‘baraka’ in Islam. Christianity refers to the ‘light of God’ or the ‘holy spirit’, while, more practically, Russian researchers named it ‘bio-plasmic energy’, and some healers have taken to calling it simply ‘animal magnetism’.
Whether ancient or modern terms, spanning considerable religious and cultural spectrums, life force energy continues to be thought of as the very essence of life and is key to many of the aling techniques used in ancient Chinese and Indian practices.
Qi is held in our bodies, moving along the spine and through the brain and all the organs. All animals, birds, fish, insects and plants have it, and surprisingly so do things such as rocks, crystals, minerals and water. While seemingly inanimate, the energy from these things can still move, change and impact on the world around them, even if we can’t see it. According to ancient Chinese, even the earth has its own Qi – the wind.
Our qi has a natural ebb and flow, but it can be influenced and changed by numerous external things that we do or consume. Sleeping well and deep breathing can impact our energy, as can » and drink, and, if you believe in auras (an energy field that surrounds each of us), we can also absorb it through these. Sunlight also affects our qi, which is why being outside in nature during sunlight hours is so important; and we can also absorb life energy through our feet when we connect with the earth, which is why grounding has become a key practice for wellbeing.
Where our life force becomes so important is because, when it is in balance, or flow, it can have an impact on our health, mental wellbeing and inherent ability to heal ourselves.
Flowing around our bodies, qi nourishes the organs and systems of the body, contributing to the healthy growth and renewal of cells. We feel healthy, strong, fit and full of energy, and also confident, positive and resilient. When the qi is out of balance, or if there are blockages, however, we become weaker and more susceptible to illness and mental instability. We feel depressed, unmotivated, listless and lethargic.
The balance of Qi
The Chinese idea of ‘qi’ is one of the oldest. Interestingly, the Chinese Character for qi pictures two things – rice and air. The rice represents the physical aspect of qi, while the air represents the non-physical aspect.
Often translated as ‘life energy’, a more detailed understanding is of qi is ‘vital air,’ which is why a key aspect of traditional Chinese medicine is linked to deep, slow breathing which allows more oxygen to circulate throughout the whole body. Supporting your qi also involves eating more ‘real’ food which contains qi, rather than junk food, which not only has no qi (so is considered ‘dead’ food) but also uses vital qi to break it down. Qi is also impacted by a positive mental attitude, rather than negative thinking patterns.
This understanding of qi shows up in numerous Chinese practices and concepts of wellbeing. The practice of cultivating and balancing qi is called qigong, which involves coordinated breathing, movement and awareness.
Aspects of qigong can be found in meditation, healing and even feng shui – which involves arranging items in a home or office to slow, redirect or accelerate qi; and martial arts – such as t’ai chi, kung fu and jujitsu – where the internal force of qi is used to transmit power and strength.
The application of qi in healing is most traditionally seen in acupuncture though, where needles are used across the meridians of the body (energy pathways or channels which flow throughout the entire body) to clear blockages and supply qi and blood to vital organs. Five Element Acupuncture takes this idea even further, identifying five elements of nature – fire, earth, metal, water and wood – which are thought to represent our controlling and creative energies. Ideally, all five of these elements should be in balance.
The concept of the Chinese clock – the natural cycle of energy that circulates around the body over a 24-hour period – also brings in the law of qi. It explains how our energy changes throughout the day, and night, and suggests that each functioning organ has a most effective and least effective time during the day.
Perhaps the most symbolic understanding of life energy, and the need for balance can be seen in the Chinese concept of yin and yang. Based on the concepts of balance – in nature, the seasons, animals and the human body – this theory suggests a constant, continual flow through which everything is expressed and then recharged. From night to day, inward to outward, passive to active, East to West.
The vibrations of Prana
In the Indian tradition, the concept of life energy is known as ‘prana’, and is heavily linked to the transmission of energy from, and between, beings.
The word ‘prana’ is Sanskrit, and broken down it becomes ‘pra’ (meaning’ to exist before’) and ‘ana’ meaning ‘an atom’.) Essentially, prana is the very essence of life that existed before anything else in the universe.
And, while it translates more generally into ‘life force energy’, it is often understood in Hindu culture as being the vibrations between atoms, or people, buildings, places or even food.
These vibrations can be high (positivity, passion, unity) or low (anger, depression, fear), and you can sense these from the people around you. It might be that someone makes you feel a certain way, or a group situation feels charged in some way – this is down to the high and low vibrations your subconscious picks up on. For instance, a group of people deep in meditation is full of high prana, but a room of people fighting or shouting would have low prana.
The same thing can happen with physical places – houses, offices, natural spaces, temples and so on. When you’re house hunting, for instance, and you get a ‘feel’ for a certain house – that’s prana, high vibrations, lifting you up, making you feel safe.
The flow of the Chakras
While prana correlates quite clearly with qi, the concept of chakras goes a little further, bringing in seven distinct energy centres in the body that develop as we age, and offering something different and important at each stage.
Chakra translates as ‘wheel’ in Sanskrit, seven swirling centres of free-flowing positive energy – crown, third eye, throat, heart, solar plexus, sacral and root.
The root chakra, at the base of our spine, is our foundation and develops in our first seven years. This is what grounds us and connects us to the earth. In yoga, lots of exercises are designed to open this chakra and give us confidence and stability. When it is blocked, we can feel shaky and uncertain.
Moving up the body, the sacral chakra is just below our naval and develops in our early teenage years. It is linked to emotion and creativity and when blocked can leave us feeling out of control. Our solar plexus, the third chakra which develops between the ages of 15 and 21, brings confident energy and a sense of control. When blocked, this chakra, which is situated in our upper abdomen, brings feelings of shame and self-doubt.
Bridging our lower chakras with our upper chakras, the heart chakra is linked to love and openness. Blockages here lead to unfulfilled relationships, but, if it is open, we are better able to both give and receive love. It is interesting that this chakra develops between 20 and 30, when many of us are establishing lasting relationships.
Linked to the heart, the throat chakra is the heart’s true voice, helping us to share our feelings and communicate our power. When it is open
and flowing, we can make ourselves easily understood and speak with confidence, but a blocked throat chakra can cause you to clam up
or be misunderstood.
The powerful third-eye chakra – known as ‘ajna’ – is linked to intuition and situated on the forehead between the eyes. It is interesting that this develops most fully between the ages of 36-42, when many of us enter early middle age and begin to feel more confident in our sense of self and our ability to see the big picture and understand our place in the world.
The final chakra is the crown, atop our heads, and is linked to spirituality. It is a powerful chakra and considered to offer access to a higher consciousness when fully opened.
When we consider our life force – whether we call it qi or prana or chakra, or something else entirely – it’s important to know that, unbalanced or blocked it can lead to illness, disease and depression or anxiety. However, when free flowing, plentiful and balanced, this life energy can a true force for good in every aspect of our lives.
Discover some of the energy healing and energy medicine used to treat low or blocked energy.