The word “energy” is so vague that it can be meaningless. Or rather, “energy” has so many variations, definitions, and interpretations that it can be challenging to convey the intended meaning.
Everything is energy, from stars and sunlight to your brainwaves and metabolism. Energy is defined as “the ability to do work”. When we look at the human metabolism from outside, we see material components of ATP molecules, electrolytes, and gases like nitric oxide delivering useful energy through the blood.
Our understanding of human energy can be as mundane as your metabolism or resting until you feel a “second wind”, or it can account for the mystical experiences described in spiritual traditions. This vast spectrum of energetic experience is determined by your mindfulness, and your interest and ability to turn your attention inward to observe the spark of life in the body.
Whether in English or another language, the meaning of human energy is the same, with all its ambiguity and complexity. Energy is called Prāṇa in ancient Indian texts that predate the Buddha.
“Prāna (प्राणो, vital breath / energy) is the hub of all that defines a man, and not his body.”
Chandogya Upanishad (छान्दोग्योपनिषद्) 1000 - 3000 BCE
The human life force is known worldwide, in Chinese “qì”, Islamic and Sufic “ruh”, Hebrew “ruah”, Latin anima ("vital force"), Greek “pneuma”, Polynesian “mana”, Amerindian “orenda”, German “od”. Energy is discussed in Buddhist sutras and tantric lineages as vāyus (winds / airs).
After decades of effort by mind/body advocates and researchers, the Western medical community has begun to accept and understand these Eastern concepts. A comprehensive National Institute of Health study performed by nurses published recently:
“The HEF (Human Energy Field) is defined as a luminous field of energy that comprises a person, extends beyond the physical body, and is in a continuous mutual process with the environmental energy field. It is a vital energy that is a continuous whole and is recognized by its unique pattern; it is dynamic, creative, nonlinear, unpredictable, and flows in lower and higher frequencies. The balanced HEF is characterized by flow, rhythm, symmetry, and gentle vibration.”
You Are a Bioelectromagnetic Field
The modern discipline of electrophysiology studies the various electrical components in our bodies. For instance, electrolytes or ions are atoms and molecules that have gained or lost one or more of its valence electrons, giving it a net positive or negative electrical charge. The topic of bioelectricity was discovered as far back as 1791 and researched continuously in the fields of electrophysiology and bioelectromagnetics. Luigi Galvani (as in “galvanometer”) and Alessandro Volta (as in “volts”, inventor of the electric battery) did groundbreaking research demonstrating “animal electricity”, with Galvani describing it as “God’s breath of life.”
In the nineteenth century, researcher Emil du Bois-Reymond invented and refined instruments that were capable of measuring the very small electrical potentials and currents generated by living tissue. One of du Bois-Reymond's students, a German scientist named Julius Bernstein, is generally credited with the hypothesis that nerve and muscle fibers are normally polarized, with positive ions on the outside and negative ions on the inside, and that the energetic current results from the reversal of this polarization. Thanks to these pioneers laying a firm scientific foundation, the cellular exchange of energy has been continually researched ever since in the material sciences.
Unfortunately, incomplete, and inaccurate communication in these materialistic years leading into the 20th century resulted in the topic of “vitalism” being discarded in its entirely by the mainstream. This was made worse by electro-quacks who touted electrical treatments for all problems, zapping the public with claims of healing everything from gout to fertility. Only those continuing to study in medical fields of electrophysiology and neurobiology and the metaphysical traditions of meditation, yoga, and qìgōng continued to gain insight into human energy during the 1900s.
It is now understood that all our feelings and movements are due to an action potential, or nerve impulse, being passed between neurons by electrically charged particles called ions within our salty intercellular fluid. Sodium and potassium ions then cascade through all other cells via pores called ion channels at shocking speed: 10,000 to 100,000 ions per millisecond. There are two forms of energy stored across the cell membrane—a chemical force (the differences in ion concentration) and an electrical force. This bioelectric potential across the cell membrane is called the resting potential. A cell membrane is about 10 nanometers across, and one side is 70 millivolts more negatively-charged than the other. Voltage controls the opening and closing of these channels, propagating electrical signals and our neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, GABA, etc.)
Not only the nerves and neurons are electrical in nature; all of our 40 trillion cells act like batteries, capable of storing and releasing a charge as needed. Without ions we don’t feel, we don’t move, and we’re not alive. Our different tissues have different bioelectric properties. Our bones are piezoelectric semiconductors. The water in our bodies plays a crucial role in enzymatic activities and semiconduction. Hydrated proteins throughout the body behave as semiconductors. Ground substance polyelectrolyte molecules associated with the collagenous connective tissue matrix are energetic charge reservoirs. Special water-binding cells called glycosaminoglycans have a high density of negative charges due to the sulfate and carboxylate groups on the uronic acid residues. Your body’s matrix of fluid-filled tissue is a system capable of absorbing and donating electrons wherever they are needed, from the surface of our skin all the way into our DNA.
It is intelligent to be skeptical. However, at this point in our understanding of bioelectricity after so many years of gradual peer-reviewed research, 130 years after the invention of the electrocardiogram, it is willful ignorance to not “believe in energy”.
• Electrocardiogram (ECG / EKG 1893), measures electrical waves in the heart, your heart rate.
• Electroencephalogram (EEG 1924), measures electrical brain waves, brainwave frequencies.
• PH balance (potential hydrogen 1909), measures the ion balance, the voltage in your cells.
Your Intention Leads Your Bioelectricity
Research has continued and is accelerating. Human energy at the acupoints have been tested and measured by researchers studying equiconductance (Robert Becker 1979), impedance (Gerhard Litscher 2011), and electrical potential with a Kelvin (capacitive coupling) probe (Brian Gow 2012). Efforts are underway to measure energy being emitted beyond the body, from the hands of qìgōng practitioners, with intriguing results which will be shared in a future article.
Recently, it was discovered that imbalanced electrical charges can exist between microdroplets of water and air. In April 2023, researchers at Duke University announced that these types of electric fields also exist within and around another type of cellular structure called biological condensates. Like oil droplets floating in water, these structures exist because of differences in density and form compartments inside the cell without needing the physical boundary of a membrane. They found these tiny electrical imbalances are another way of transmitting energy, changing the way researchers think about biological chemistry.
The human experience of energy has only been cross-referenced with this body of biophysics research in recent decades. Our mind’s intention to move or feel is the origin of the action potential. In other words, our consciousness is at the center of this energetic system. It is said that our consciousness is merged with our energy, and they cannot be separated. It requires experiential insight from either intentional practice or sometimes naturally occurring energetic experience for this topic to have practical value and be understood as reality. This mechanism of bioenergy and the subjective physical experience of it has been explored and documented for thousands of years amassing a wealth of empirical evidence in the disciplines of meditation, qì-gong (energy skill), yoga, rei-ki (spiritual energy) and other mind/body spiritual traditions.
Medical qìgōng and acupuncture can be traced back to their origins thousands of years ago in unbroken lineages. The practice of working with the body’s energy for general health or advanced healing has been developed to the highest degree in China. This knowledge has been preserved, translated, and spread widely thanks to a small handful of “open” teachers, including Dr. Yáng, Jwìng-Mǐng from Taiwan. Using the mind to lead the qì, one can address many health concerns or energize the central energy circulatory system for spiritual practice. This experiential energy exercise was known as far back as the earliest Buddhism and referenced in Buddhist sutras written about 400 BC. It has been transmitted continually in tantric traditions, where a crucial aspect of training involves manipulating the “winds” (qì) and “channels”.
Sometimes in various lineages and disciplines, there is misunderstanding that the systems are describing “similar but different” types of energy and circulation pathways and systems. However, the fact is there is one objective reality, one human physiology, and one energetic circulatory system we are discussing. It is time to bridge the gap of understanding and bring the medical research of the West together with the experiential research of the East. During qìgōng or meditation when you arrive with full awareness in the present moment with a non-conceptual state beyond words, surpassing confusing human language and mental expectations, you may personally feel your energy circulation for what it is and perhaps “see the light”. Even a glimpse of feeling your energy strongly can inform one with enough innate understanding to transcend the mundane daily experience and lead to your full energetic potential. Where your mind goes, energy flows.
Your body is electrical in nature, but what does that mean? How can you benefit from this understanding?
1. Practice qìgōng. Regular qìgōng (energy work) practice can increase the quantity of your energy and improve the quality of your circulation, helping to resolve issues on a cellular level and prevent many diseases before they begin. Removing tension and stagnation in your body is essential for allowing your energy circulation to be optimal. Suboptimal energy circulation results in sickness and disease. Even a half hour of qìgōng a few times per week can make an immense difference in how you feel and end the cycle of being ’sick and tired”. This moving meditation also has tremendous psychological benefits.
2. Practice grounding. The act of putting your bare feet on the ground for one second causes the body to instantly uptake abundant electrons, “plugging you in” to an unlimited source of clean natural energy. Medical infrared imaging shows that inflammation significantly subsides within 30 minutes of connecting with the earth, or “earthing”. Metabolic activity increases during this same period. Specifically, there is an increase in oxygen consumption, pulse rate, and respiratory rate and a decrease in blood oxygenation. Filling the body’s charge reservoirs is a gradual process throughout the body. When charge reservoirs are saturated, the body is in a state of “inflammatory preparedness”. This means that the ground substance, which pervades every part of the body, is ready to quickly deliver antioxidant electrons to any site of injury via the semiconducting collagenous matrix.
3. Try “forest bathing”. Walk in the woods. Scientists researching the topic find that we benefit from our inhalation of beneficial bacteria, plant-derived essential oils, and negatively charged ions. When you inhale ions into your bloodstream, they produce biochemical reactions that quickly increase levels of serotonin in your body, helping to relieve stress and alleviate depression. Qì is in the air, in the light, and in the colors around you. Connect with it intentionally.
This is the third article in a 3-part series. It is my hope and intention to clarify this topic of energy and lead interested people deeper into their personal practice, while helping to bring the East and West together into mutual understanding of the full potential of the body, mind, and spirit.
Key Terms of Bioelectricity
Action potential— The change in electrical potential that occurs between the inside and outside of a nerve or muscle fiber when it is stimulated.
Active transport— The movement of ions across the cellular membrane against the electrochemical gradient by means of the sodium/potassium pump.
Adenosine triphosphate (ATP)— A nucleotide that is the primary source of energy in living tissue. It fuels the sodium/potassium pump.
Axon— The appendage of a neuron that transmits electrical impulses away from the cell body.
Cytosol— The fluid portion of cell protoplasm.
Depolarization— Movement of the resting potential of a cell membrane back toward zero.
Diffusion— The movement of ions across the cell membrane from areas of higher concentration to areas of lower concentration.
Ion— An atom or atom group that acquires an electrical charge by the loss or gain of electrons.
Ion channel— A passive means of moving ions from one side of the cell membrane to another by diffusion.
Myosin— A protein found in muscle tissue that interacts with another protein called actin during muscle contraction.
Neuron— A an electrically excitable cell that fires electric signals called action potentials across a neural network. Neurons communicate with other cells via synapses - specialized connections that commonly use minute amounts of chemical neurotransmitters to pass the electric signal from the presynaptic neuron to the target cell through the synaptic gap.
Neurotransmitter— A chemical released by nerve endings that helps to transmit information from one nerve cell to another nerve cell, or from a nerve to a muscle.
Resting potential— A steady-state condition with no net flow of ions across the cell membrane. The resting potential can be observed on unstimulated nerve or muscle tissue.
Sodium/potassium pump— The mechanism of active transport that moves potassium ions into the cell and sodium ions out, consuming ATP in the process.
Synapse— A region in which nerve electrical impulses are transmitted across a gap from an axon terminal to another axon or the end plate of a muscle.
The above is an original article by David Silver, author of several books, and video producer for YMAA Publication Center. Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming assigned this writing project to David as part of his certification process as YMAA Qigong Master which began in May 2001 and was accomplished in September 2023.
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