The Key to Qi -- A Book Review

Australian martial artist Gad Levy-Golan's self-help offering The Key To Qi is a lively interpretation of ancient Chinese techniques and wisdom, expressed by a practitioner who clearly enjoys sharing what he has learned with his local students and with a broader audience.

The eponymous "qi" is one of the most complex concepts in Chinese culture. Remember all those Inuit words for snow? Same idea here, but with a broader range of meaning. References to the concept can be found in traditional Chinese medicine, literature, calligraphy and art, in Chinese philosophy, and in the discourse of everyday life in China to this day. Qi can mean information, energy, vitality, or even the essence of an animate or inanimate thing.

As difficult as it is to define qi, it is even more difficult to transmit it through a book. Wisely, The Key To Qi doesn't attempt such a miracle of metaphysics, but rather offers ways of understanding the concept and recognizing the sensation and presence of vitality in one's life. The book's subtitle, Pathways to Profound Health, Energy and Anti-Aging with Tai Chi Gong, reveals that this is a book about exercise and lifestyle, with a bit of background philosophy thrown in for grounding. It also features the author's own synthesis of different traditional paths to these promises, as Tai Chi Gong is his own contraction of Tai Chi Ch'uan (a martial art) and Qigong (a broad term for breathing with movement and intention).

This book begs the core question whether it is better to transmit traditional information as precisely, accurately and impartially as possible, or use such wisdom as a jumping off point for personal interpretation. Many conservative martial artists and students of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) might favor the former, figuring that it takes many lifetimes to understand old philosophy, health and fighting systems completely. On the other hand, both qigong exercises and martial arts are plastic, dynamic, evolving and ever-changing systems that reflect human intuition, intelligence, and experience. Levy-Golan has opted to put ancient teachings into a sort of personal "blender" and produce a system he believes will help the reader to transform him or herself for the better.

The book is divided into four parts. Each part contains both ideas and movements in, but the balance between those, and the organization inside each part varies. The first is about discovering who you are and can be, the second presents the author's amalgam of tai chi ch'uan and qigong (and is rife with good quality black-and-white photos of the movements), the third approaches popular self-help themes such as intuition, leadership, effective communication, finding your inner light, and the relationship between intention and achievement, and even advances some TCM principles. The fourth part juxtaposes tai chi philosophy (Taoist) philosophy with Jewish Kabbalah (in particular, concepts of energy) and even a smattering of yoga notions and meditation.

If it sounds like a hodgepodge, well, that's because it is. But it's an ambitious, carefully constructed hodgepodge that tries to be a comprehensive recipe for changing your life. The discussion of TCM's Five Element Theory is especially coherent:

The Wood Element (spring) expresses the crushing force. It is associated with an arrow flying straight ahead and corresponds with the liver and gall bladder meridians...

The Fire Element (summer) expresses the pounding-force associated with a canon's explosive power. It corresponds with the heart and pericardium meridians, working the contractions and expansions of the upper body...

Also elegant is the brief discussion of the importance of gravity (Chapter 10):

As your 'Qi sinks down' you accumulate ground-energy, just like a tree's roots being nourished in the earth, while the tree's green leaves rise to the heavens. As you accumulate Qi from the ground, your spirit rises. When you take in each breath, your lungs, your lower abdomen, back, shoulders and spine expand, pushing the crown of your head up toward the heavens...

Levy-Golan has training in tai chi and qigong, but also in the esoteric but much-vaunted "internal" Chinese martial art of Shing-Yi Ch'uan. His teacher, Kenny Gong, was a highly regarded Chinese master who taught for years in New York, while also running a respected medical practice. Levy-Golan seems to have integrated some of Gong's lessons well, and the images of the old master moving are a welcome addition to the book.

If you are looking simply for some health exercises, this book is not for you; it is complex and multilayered, and while the writing is accessible, Levy-Golan has designed it to be used as a workbook and reference. If, on the other hand, you feel a draw to Chinese practices but are daunted by the language and culture and find other books to be filled with indecipherable mumbo jumbo, the author will happily take your hand and share his understanding of principles and practice in an enthusiastic way.

The Key To Qi, Gad Levy-Golan, Life in Motion Publishing, St. Ives, NSW Australia 2010