S p i r i t ua l i t y S t u d i e s 7 - 2 Fa l l 2 0 2 1 1 7 Mark Westmoquette 3 The Subjective Perception of Qi Many people dismiss the concept of Qi since no correspon- dence with any one anatomic system has been found. But if we see Qi as a collective term, just as we use the word energy in English as a collective term for all these different forms of energy, then the concept of Qi makes total sense. In different contexts, Qi will mean different things. Sometimes it means the body’s electromagnetic field, sometimes mechanical force, and sometimes the information energy encoded into hormones. I’d now like to examine the subjective perception of Qi in the body. This is where things get subtler and stretch the edges of our scientific understanding. The idea of perceiving or sensing energy was one of the things that I found most off-putting and confusing about my early encounters with yoga. I had no idea what to do in order to “feel my root chakra opening” or “sense the flow of energy through my kidney meridian”. A big part of the problem was that the language and terminology were unfamiliar to me, and the teachers didn’t properly explain what they meant (or perhaps didn’t fully understand themselves). I see now that the idea of feeling energy in the body needn’t be so esoteric. Even in Western culture, different forms of energy are felt subjectively in the body and discussed in ev- eryday language. On an overall body-level, we all know when we feel low in energy (feeling tired, heavy, or exhausted), and when we’re high in energy (feeling wide awake, excited, or wired). Sometimes seeing these energy states is easier in others than yourself. If I asked you to rate your overall level of energy right now, you’d probably have a good idea. Changes in energy in specific parts of the body can also of - ten be very noticeable. For example, when you step into the shower and notice your toes going from feeling cold to com- fortably warm. Another example is feeling “butterflies in the stomach” when we get anxious or nervous about something. Those butterfly tingles are, in fact, the subjective feeling of blood being redirected away from digestive system as part of the fight or flight stress reaction. As our body awareness and sensitivity deepens, we might notice more subtle feelings, shifts and changes, like tingling in other parts of the body or the build-up of heat or coolness. Tingles or “pins-and-nee- dles” in any part of the body are often to do with changes in blood flow and pressure caused by vasoconstriction or dila - tion. We could call it the movement or build-up of Qi, or we could say, “ I’m feeling tingling in my skin due to changes in my blood vessels that are part of a complex response to my external environment .” 3.1 Energy in the Palms Other feelings we might notice include the magnetic or heat feeling in the palms mentioned above. The palms are typi- cally very sensitive, so these types of feelings are easiest to detect here. With practice it becomes possible to sense those kinds of feelings when palm-to-palm with another, or in oth- er parts of the body. Yoga students and energy healers often talk about sensing hot-spots and cool-spots as the palms pass across the body of yourself or another . It’s possible that what we feel in the palms is actual heat radiating from the skin, but it’s also possible that these mag - netic or heat sensations are our subjective interpretation of sensing the electromagnetic field around the body. We know the body produces a detectable electromagnetic field that can be measured several feet away in the lab using sensitive detectors. We also know that the skin varies in its electrical sensitivity (known as its electrical conductance, galvanic skin response or electrodermal activity) depending on skin mois- ture levels. These moisture levels are controlled by activation of the sweat glands by the autonomic nervous system, which responds to our general mood and level of emotional or psy- chological arousal (Van der Valk and Groen, 1950, 303; Korr et al . 1958, 77; Farnsworth 2018). Thus, the skin’s sensitivity to electrical currents changes with our level of arousal and emotions. Normally the autonomic nervous system cannot be con- trolled consciously. However, research done on the Taoist yoga master, Mantak Chia, shows that with training, it’s pos - sible to gain a level of conscious control over this, otherwise, autonomic response. This allows him to vary his skin electri- cal conductivity at will making his skin sensitive to detecting external electromagnetic fields (Chia 1997). Our ability to detect the electromagnetic field of another through, for instance, our palms may result from an interplay between our own skin electrical sensitivity and our ability to increase this sensitivity with training and learning to become aware of and interpret the subtle, subjective feelings that arise from interacting with that electromagnetic field.