One of the most common questions I am asked by patients is “how does acupuncture work?” While there are a few different ways to answer this question, I usually explain acupuncture by discussing the concept of qi. The Chinese character for qi shows steam rising from a warm grain of rice. The substantial, yin nature of rice is heated by the warming energies of yang and together they create steam. So, qi is the result of yin and yang coming together to produce a sort of energy. In fact, qi is often translated as meaning “energy.” This, however, is only a partial explanation.

My favorite way of thinking of qi is that it is matter on the verge of energy, and energy on the verge of matter. This idea accentuates the paradoxical nature of qi. Like the elements or compounds in chemistry, things can exist in a continuum of three different states: solid, liquid or gas. For instance, water can be ice, liquid or steam. All three forms are water in different states. If you didn’t know this, you could easily believe that they are three very different things. Like ice, condensed energy is solid. Like steam, expanded energy is diffuse. The space that exists between solid and gas can be considered qi. In the tai chi symbol, more commonly referred to as the yin/yang symbol, this space is the line between yin and yang, it is where the two meet. 

Acupuncture works at this place. If something in the physical body becomes too yin, it can harden or freeze and become stuck. If something becomes too yang, it can become diffuse and scattered. Acupuncture seeks to return things to a place of relative balance between these two opposing states. In the world of quantum physics, this is achieved by bringing awareness to an area in the body, known in Chinese medicine as a meridian or acupuncture point. We do this by stimulating the place with pressure, or with the insertion of a needle. In bringing this attention to a place and situation that is out of balance, it allows the qi to stabilize. It achieves and maintains this fine line between yin and yang. This stability is what we think of as good health. For thousands of years Chinese medicine has recognized that it is this place between the extremes where balance rests. When we are not stuck in an extreme set of habits, views or conditions the wisdom of the body knows how to self regulate. Our job as humans is simply to allow the body the room and conditions to settle in this place that exists between yin and yang.

It is said in Taoism that humans exist between heaven and earth. Heaven is yang energy, earth is the substantial yin, and humans are the qi that skate the line between the two bringing together the best of both worlds.

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