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"Is T'ai Chi magic?" she asked.

"That depends on your definition of magic," was my answer.

As Eastern energy work becomes more prominent in the West, the frequency of this question increases. Not only is T'ai Chi questioned, the curiosity extends to, among other things, Feng Shui, Reiki, Qi Gong and martial arts. The linking theme in these systems is Chi, in Korean Qi, in Japanese, as it shall remain for the rest of this article, Ki.

The concept of ki originated in ancient China. It was expounded upon by thinkers such as Lao Tzu, who saw it as the source of creativity expressed in the form of yin, feminine, and yang, masculine, and Kuan Tzu, who considered ki to be the divine force that penetrates all things.1 Every person has ki, as does the universe as a whole. As each person is composed of atoms and molecules, as is the universe, so our personal ki finds resonance and likeness in the Universal ki. In pagan terms, as above, so below. Or, in more modern terms, "..The force is omnipresent. It envelops you as it radiates from you. ... It is a nothingness that can accomplish miracles,"2 as Obi-wan told Luke in Star Wars. Eastern energy works influence the flow of ki within the individual, the individual's environment, and, by extension, the universe. This is done in many different ways.

T'ai Chi is a martial art whose emphasis has changed from external defense against attackers to internal defense against stress and illness. In T'ai Chi, of Chinese origin, or Tao Ki, the Japanese version, a system of slow, rhythmic movements channels ki through the body, removing blockages that cause physical illness and releasing the physical stress accumulated through the mental and emotional stress of daily life. The beginner is taught to move ki by means of controlled breathing and conscious attention to the energy flow within the body. With practice, this becomes natural and any blockages can be felt and removed. The slow, repetitive movement is a form of meditation in motion, with, as has any exercise, measurable health benefits.

Feng shui is a form of environmental energy manipulation which originated in China. Used there for centuries, it is gaining popularity in the West, generating volumes of literature and many accessories. The basis for this art is the redirection of ki through the home or office for beneficial results. Homes and businesses in China are analyzed before construction for optimum placement on the building site, and, if such is not possible, tools including bagua mirrors and crystal balls on red strings are used to remedy the situation. Each area of the structure is held to have its own identity, and the ki flowing there cannot be allowed to diminish by, for example, washing away in flowing water, as in the bath, or having its flow broken by such things as exposed ceiling beams perpendicular to the stream. Disruption of the optimal flow can have results ranging from bad, such as minor business problems, to catastrophic. It is rumored that Bruce Lee, martial artist and actor, died because he failed to replace a broken bagua mirror on the front of his house.

Reiki is most commonly translated from its original Japanese to mean "Universal Life Force". It is a method of energy healing that uses a specific part of the ki that flows around and through all beings. Reiki can be transmitted locally by a technique that resembles "laying on of hands" or it can be sent over infinite distances to heal a patient far away. The student does not learn this art, but is "attuned" to it by a teacher known as a Reiki Master. The title "Master" does not connote superiority in anything but training and experience. The Reiki practitioner's power does not come from within, but from without, from the life force energy present throughout existence, the Universal Ki. In Usui System Reiki, named after Dr. Mikao Usui, who rediscovered Reiki near the turn of the century, there are three levels of training. In the English-speaking world these are, simply enough, Reiki 1, Reiki 2 and Reiki 3, the third being the Master level. As the degree progresses, the student is awakened to more of the inherent Reiki potential within and taught more control techniques. Only at Master level is one taught to teach and empowered to give attunements. There is no particularly arcane ritual involved in any of the healing or attunements and "secrets" are kept from respect for the art, not as a means of excluding those willing to learn.

Qi Gong is a discipline similar to T'ai Chi in theory. It originated as a form of ki manipulation for health purposes, where as T'ai Chi began as a form of external self-defense. Though many of the outward results are the same, it is the goal of the original design that differs. It is known by several names in the U. S., dependant upon the path it took to this country. The most common are the Chinese Chi Kung and the Korean Qi Gong.

There are many other martial arts which make extensive use of ki energy. Ki work was taught in the Shaolin temples of China, from which most modern Eastern martial arts were developed. It is present in the oldest, true Shaolin Kung Fu, and one of the newest, Ed Parker's American Kenpo Karate, developed in the United States in the Fifties. Dramatic video footage exists of its use by Aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba. Attacked by several military policemen in a training exercise, Ueshiba O-Sensei appears on tape to disappear and re-appear outside the converging attack. Few practitioners attain to this level of ki control, but all can learn some.

Like the Jedi training of Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars series, ki training involves becoming aware of and in contact with the power that infuses all existence and learning to work with that power. George Lucas, creator of Skywalker's cosmos, was a student of mythologist Joseph Campbell. His young adventurer follows the traditional mythic hero's path, as do all seekers, to a greater or lesser degree.

If we follow the path that is tradition in the West, we attain to oneness with the Holy Spirit, which is held to suffuse all creation, and, through the Spirit, to God. If we go to older, or non-Western traditions, we attain to oneness with the male and female creative powers of the universe, or to oneness with the Universal Ki. If we hold ourselves to be strictly scientific, with no belief in that which isn't quantifiable, we realize our oneness with all matter, as it is all composed of subatomic particles, vibrating at varying rates, one particle readily influenced by its neighbors.

It is commonly held that any technology, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic. Two hundred years ago the ability to send pictures and sound around the world almost instantly was physically impossible using the machines current then. Today it's television. Striking little squares of plastic on a box connected by a cord to another box to communicate with someone across town or to write a book or perform calculations was tantamount to witchcraft. Today it's a computer, and an old one at that. Who knows what the technology of tomorrow will bring.

Quantum physics states that all matter is composed of microscopic particles interacting with other particles. Electrons bump protons and produce smaller particles and energy rays. Some reactions are so delicate that watching them changes the outcome. All energy acts on particles in some way. All movement creates energy. All thought creates energy, or moves it. Perhaps one day it will be possible to quantify the energy interactions caused by living beings on a smaller level than our body heat output and the kinetic energy of our movements.

If, by "magic", one means the ability to influence the body and psyche in measurable ways but without outwardly visible, scientifically measurable means, then yes, T'ai Chi is magic. If one takes the anthropological point of view, that magic is an attempt to control outside phenomena by personal actions, the answer is again yes, as ki is used to heal and to provide a positive work and living environment. Traditional pagans may not agree with this, but, until we can measure ki with our scientific instruments, it is, like the energy they influence with their rituals, indistinguishable from magic.


  1. The Spirit of Akido, Ueshiba, Kisshomaru, Kodansha International, 1984
  2. Star Wars, Lucas, George. Ballantine Books, 1976

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