Chi
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The Controversial -

At the time I started studying martial arts in 1990, there were mainly just stories of incredible feats by martial art masters, or occasional grainy VHS footage, usually of a master shrugging off a scrum of assailants with ease. Now, with the seemingly infinite library of YouTube, there is an endless array of fantastical videos of “documented” evidence of chi masters doing what was previously only seen in movies. Undoubtedly, the reader has seen some of these videos as well. A touch, like the Vulcan death grip, sends an opponent to the ground helpless. A stern expression and shaking hands send invisible waves of energy at a group of participants that, as if on cue, fall over like bowling pins. For some, seeing is believing, for others the famous quote from Carl Sagan seems appropriate: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”


The chi-knockout or “no-touch knockout” is quite possibly one of the most polarizing expressions of chi. It is the holy grail of belief for some and a bridge too far for others. (both excellent movies by the way) When talking about chi in martial arts, no discussion can exclude George Dillman (10th-degree black belt in Ryukyu Kempo Tomari-te). Dillman spoke to me about how chi works and the now infamous National Geographic video.

“It does exist. It is for real,” Dillman stated, unequivocally, when asked about chi. Although chi is usually connected with martial arts, Dillman attributed harnessing chi energy with enhanced performance for non-martial art athletes as well, “You don’t need to be a martial artist. Baseball players, basketball players – You think Michael Jordan could go up into the air and float, like unbelievably toward the basket, put the ball in, without chi doing it?”

The degree to which a person can express or use chi, or if it can be expressed at all, is where the entire debate lies. There are opinions ranging from chi being able to provide powers and abilities similar to a kind of magic, to the view that the witnessed demonstrations of said chi-power are little more than the power of suggestion or worse, chicanery.

In the widely viewed segment of National Geographic’s Is It Real?(2005) regarding chi, a no-touch knockout famously didn’t happen. Dillman protégé Leon Jay attempted the technique on a subject, and the technique was ineffective. Dillman provided his own take on what happened in the episode, which you can watch online, but when asked about it, he provided another as well. “Everybody goes to Leon Jay not doing it, and I can actually explain that. I got caught in a scramble on that, because I didn’t know they were recording him, and he had a problem at the time.” Dillman explains that traveling to a different time zone and a personal issue with Jay were both factors in the performance of the technique. “Your chi and your energy have to readjust based on the time zone. You need one full day for one hour.” And regarding the personal issue, “Well, you can’t divide your thoughts, that’s kinesiology. I could put a napkin on your head and tell you you can’t do something, and actually, you’ll believe you can’t do it because you’re thinking about the goddamned napkin.”

While the notorious confrontation has become legendary, Dillman ememphasized a point worth noting regarding the encounter, “That wasn’t me. That was Leon Jay... Everything I did on there worked, and everybody goes to the negative. The positive on that was, they said on there, I’m the best they’ve seen do this, and I’m certainly a force to be reckoned with. Pay attention to those two sentences.”*

Reality or Fantasy? 

There is energy present in the body, but is it chi? What if medical science took a look at all of this? They could probably clear it up rather quickly, right? Well, as luck would have it, in my conversation with Mr. Dillman he mentioned that there had been a study done years ago at the University of Pennsylvania, and pointed me to one of his students that participated in the study, Dr. Charles Terry, M.D.

Dr. Terry is a Physiatrist and a medical acupuncturist. He runs a martial art school as well and is the holder of multiple black belts. (9th degree in Wei Kuen Do, 6th Degree in Modern Arnis, 6th degree in Small Circle Jujitsu, 10th Dan in Ryukyu Kempo) Dr. Terry told about the study and also about where the limits of our understanding of chi may lie.

“I used to have seminars, and we did a medical study on pressure points at Penn, while I was there, that Dillman came down for,” Dr. Terry said. While the study was not on the no-touch knockouts, pressure point knockouts are similar, “It has to do with energy transfer and chi, from an Eastern standpoint.” Dr. Terry explained the process, “While they were doing one of these seminars, we decided to move it over to the hospital, actually, and wire people up with EKG, pulse, oximetry, heart rate. Measured a few different parameters and then different people were doing pressure point techniques on each other in an effort to try to get a better idea of what’s going on.” In addition to the EKG (Electrocardiogram), some participants were also hooked up to an EEG (Electroencephalogram) as well. What was the outcome of the experiment? “We didn’t have any consistent results that said like, this was one mechanism that was happening all the time, but what we were able to say was that it didn’t appear that it was dangerous. Because that was my biggest concern as a physician who does martial arts.”**

Given the results, could it be the power of suggestion, some form of groupthink, or subconscious agreement with subjects acquiescing to the techniques without realizing it? “When we did the volunteers with the hands-on knockout study it did not look like it was power of suggestion, ‘cause there were people that were definitely unconscious – I don’t know if you can will yourself to become unconscious like that, but it didn’t appear to be suggestion as far as that goes.”

Is there a way to study the no-touch knockouts? “The ability to project from one person to another person? You’re starting to go a little bit beyond what I think science can demonstrate well, right now.” It looks like, for this one, we’ll just have to wait.

The Power

It may be that a comprehensive understanding of the energy in the body is simply not possible. It may be unknowable or perhaps just not singularly quantifiable. Dr. Terry explains, “The way the brain communicates with the rest of the body is through electrical signals going through nerves, basically. So, depending on how you’re talking about the term “energy,” to me, I think chi is kind of a catch-all that just covers all sorts of energy that flows.”

One thing is true: For all that we know about the human body, we don’t know everything, and regarding chi, certainly, not enough.

Duncan, Isadora. My Life. New York, Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013. Originally published 1927.

*After rewatching the episode, I could only verify that the narrator said, “Without a doubt, George Dillman is a force to be reckoned with.”

**Black Belt Magazine’s September 1998 issue contains an article about the study.

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