That sinking feeling. Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Pexels.com
I’ve been doing some work with the Tai Chi Classics lately, which has thrown up an interesting point. There’s only one time the Tai Chi Classics mention the “dantien” by name, which is the admonition to “Let the qi sink to the dantien”.
Instead, it uses the term “waist”, a lot.
I’ve been wondering why this is.
It’s not like the Tai Chi Classics don’t utilise archaic Chinese language – they do. They mention Chi, Jin, Xin, Shen and Yi all the time. But only that one line about the Dantien.
One of the most quotable lines in the classics is:
“The jin should be rooted in the feet, generated from the legs, controlled by the waist, and expressed through the fingers.”
Again, it says waist here, not dantien.
I wonder if it’s because “waist” gets across the idea that it’s the whole area of the abdomen that you need to utilise, including the front, sides and back.
The idea of sinking the qi to the dantien is another of those lines from the classics that is often stated and little understood. You’ll find a hundred different interpretations from a hundred different practitioners. So, I might as well add my own.
To me it’s not a particularly esoteric subject. It’s a practical consideration.
It simply means relaxing the upper body enough that your weight seems to settle in your lower body. Your breathing also lowers, as it relaxes, and becomes diaphragmatic breathing, so the abdomen expands and contracts as you breathe. There should be almost no expansion of the chest when you breathe like this.
With your breathing and weight settled around the dantien area you can sense a kind of fullness, or heaviness. Thus your “qi” is sunk to the your “dantien”. It should also help you feel calm. If you notice when you get stressed or anxious, your breathing quickens and raises up in the body. Sinking your qi to the dantien is the opposite of this.
In terms of martial technique, it helps you stay rooted. You’re using your mind to overcome a ‘fight or flight’ reaction. Of course, as soon as you engage with an opponent, the temptation is to react too physically with your arms and shoulders – this would be ‘letting the qi rise’ and the wrong thing to do from a Tai Chi perspective. Instead, you should maintain the sinking feeling in the lower body and try and stay calm and move from the dantien.
Sinking the qi to the dantien will always improve your technique, regardless of what it is, when dealing with an opponent.
Sink your qi to enhance your technique. Photo by Anton Belitskiy on Pexels.com
“Stand like a perfectly balanced scale move like a turning wheel.” Photo by Paweu0142 L. on Pexels.com
Uber-malcontent Oliver Gerets, is back in my comments section, this time complaining that my “statements are still oversimplified and misleading.” Which I think probably just means that he hasn’t bothered to read much of my blog before, as everything I said in the post he’s referring to on whole-body movement is pretty well explained in previous posts, if you want to look for it.
His issue is that I said the following were the 3 movement principles of Tai Chi, without further explanation:
1) moving from the dantien
2) power up from the ground (jin) – rooted in the feet, expressed by the fingers.
3) coiling and spiraling actions from the dantien out to the extremities and back.
He’s right – I did exactly that and moved on because I didn’t want to get sidetracked on them and get onto the main point I was discussing. You see, I’ve gone over those points before, but we might as well use this as a springboard to discuss these ideas again and un-simplify everything. Just like Al Pacino in the Godfather – just when I thought I’d got out, but he pulled me right back in.
Let’s deal with Oliver’s first complaint.
“1. There is no generally accepted definition what the dantien is amongst Taijiquan practitioners. Not even in Chen style. “Moving from the dantien” is a hollow phrase with very little practical meaning.”
I don’t know what he means with the “not even in Chen style” comment, so let’s ignore that.
I’d agree that there are no accepted definitions of anything amongst Taijiquan practitioners of what the dantien is, but there are no accepted definitions of anything amongst the practitioners. They’re a strange bunch of people ranging from weekend dabblers to full-on fanatics who have very differing views on everything under the sun, but the people at the top of the family trees tend to disagree much less. They all know what they mean.
I also think most Tai Chi people do know what the dantien is. For clarity, let me add my own definition:
The dantien I’m referring to is simply the lower abdomen area of the body. It encompasses the front, sides and back of the body. It’s a general area, rather than a specific point. When I’m talking about “moving from the dantien” I’m talking about movement originating in this area of the body. You could call this area the waist, if you like, so long as you understand that it’s not a line, like a waistline is.
I’ve got no idea why she’s written “out of order”, but there’s a photo of the dantien area for you. Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com
I’m not sure what more explanation I can give of that – it’s fairly simple.
The how of the matter is not so simple. Anybody can move that area of their body without any connection to the rest of their body – the limbs and head, for example. Dancers do it all the time. What’s hard is making it connect to everything else.
In Tai Chi you need a tangible connection between the dantien area and the extremities so that once you move the dantien area, the extremities are also moved as a consequence. This connection is formed by what the Chinese called the muscle/tendon channels in antiquity. These then formed the basis of the meridian system over time.
Mammals usually have muscle/tendon channels on the front and back of the body.Yin channels on the front and yang channels on the back. They consist of muscle, tendon, ligaments, fascia and skin and can be affected by abdominal breathing (which is also centered on the dantien area).
If you can hold the body in a neutral position (the classic Zhan Zhuang posture “hold the ball” is good for this) then you can keep an equal tension on the front and back muscle-tendon channels. You can then use your breath to create a small pull on these channels when you breathe in and out. The connection starts off as very weak, but grows stronger over time.
So, Zhan Zhuang, Tao Yin and Qigong exercises strengthen this connection over time. Eventually, the connections get strong enough that you can affect the movement of the limbs with small changes in the dantien area, like rotating it left and right, or up and down, all in coordination with the breathing.
A Tiger showing a stretch along the yin channels on the belly and a corresponding contraction on the yang channels along the back. Photo by Flickr on Pexels.com
In Taijiquan, (which deals with humans standing upright, not tigers), the dantien, legs and feet must form a connection and drive the power of the rest of the body:
From the Tai Chi classics:
“The feet, legs, and waist should act together as an integrated whole, so that while advancing or withdrawing one can grasp the opportunity of favorable timing and advantageous position.”
“The principle of adjusting the legs and waist applies for moving in all directions; upward or downward, advancing or withdrawing, left or right.”
Movement originating in the dantien, therefore, becomes a real, physical phenomina, rather than an abstract idea.
This is what I mean, Oliver.
The best exercise I’ve seen to help you develop this skill is a single-arm wave from Chen style silk reeling. In my original post I linked to a video showing the basic single arm wave. I’ll link to it again here.
In future posts I’ll address Oliver’s next 2 complaints.
Have you noticed that some people always seem a little bit out of breath? Especially when they talk. I think it’s a problem of posture. Not a huge posture discrepancy, like bending over or tilting to the side, perhaps not even anything visible, but just a slight incline here or slump there that has become ingrained, causing the body to work harder than it needs to draw in oxygen.
The abdominal muscles relax while your diaphragm contracts downward, pushing all your guts out of the way.
Your intercostal muscles contract to expand your rib cage, lowering the air pressure in your lungs and creating a vacuum in the chest cavity.
Air flows through your nose and mouth in response to the vacuum.
The intercostal muscles and diaphragm relax while the abdominal muscles contract, pushing air out of the lungs.
Breathing is an automatic process that should be happening effortlessly, yet we mess about with it far too much.
So what does this have to do with Tai Chi you might be asking? Well the posture requirements needed to achieve the optimum style of breathing are provided by correct application of Tai Chi principles. I find standing upright with the head ‘as if suspended from above’, as it says in the Tai Chi classics and a relaxed upper body is the key. When we slump in even a minor way we impinge the correct functioning of the breathing process.
One of the best ways to train this is in Zhan Zhuang, “stake standing” postures, because it takes the complexity of movement out of the equation. With regular practice your general sense of being upright tends to improve.
One of the best free sources of information on Zhan Zhuang is the Channel 4 TV series Stand Still, Be Fit! that breaks it down into easy 10 minute lessons.
Notice that there’s no specific advice on breathing, but a lot of attention is paid on alignment and posture. The idea is that with correct posture, the breathing becomes natural again and follows what the Taoists called ‘the way’.
“Clear as a glass of water. Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself? The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
she is present, and can welcome all things.”
There’s a lot of debate about “tucking the tailbone” in Tai Chi. Some people are big exponents of ‘tucking’ or centring the pelvis, which removes the curve of the lumbar spine. Other people prefer a more ‘natural’ lower back which has more of an inward arc.
For me, it’s not that either of these positions are wrong in Tai Chi, it’s that the idea of holding your spine in a fixed position that is wrong.
If I see anybody practising Tai Chi with a fixed, ‘held’, lower back shape I think it’s just time to sigh and move on.
The lower back is part of the dantien area. This area must be relaxed and free to move.
By far the most common way people hold the spine in this position with tension is with an inward curve. If you see a curved-in back then this area is not relaxed. It might be more aesthetically pleasing but there is no way to connect the power of the ground and legs through the dantien area like this – it’s essentially cut off from that power.
Sure, you can generate power in other ways, but unless you relax the lower back power can’t be transferred from the ground.
Xing Yi is the oldest of the ‘internal’ martial arts. If you look at videos of a precursor art to Xing Yi, called Dai family Xin Yi Lie He, you can see their art has an exercise called squatting monkey as its foundation practice. Look at how it bows and unbows the spine. There’s a lot of flexibility being trained here.
These exercises are like basic, large frame, training exercises for conditioning the muscles and tendons of that area, and the movement can become a lot smaller in usage.
If you’re a Tai Chi practitioner you don’t need to start doing Squatting Monkey practice. I’m not saying that, but you do need to start paying attention to your lower back as you do whatever exercises you are doing – form, Pa Tuan Chin, Silk Reeling, Chi Kung, etc…
Ask yourself what your lower back is doing. Am I holding tension in it? (Here’s a big clue – you are!) and how should I release it? How about when walking around town, or pushing a trolley in Sainsbury’s? You’ll be surprised by how often we hold tension in this area.
Next think about the role of breathing and how it relates to the lower back. If we are doing deep diaphragmatic breathing (which makes the abdomen swell) then it should also be expanding at the back of the abdomen too. Ask yourself, do you have any flexibility here when you breathe in?
In the internal arts, Zhan Zhuang is one of the practices that gives you the most immediate benefits. It’s a practice that (initially) involves nothing more than standing and relaxing, yet this simple practice can produce a feeling of deep calm in the body and mind, and even give you the feeling of having more energy throughout the day.
How is this achieved? I’d warrant that it’s something to do with the effect of the calming action on your nervous system, plus standing for prolonged periods with your arms held away from the body is actually pretty physically challenging, so there are a lot of the benefits you experience from cardio-vascular exercise, but without you getting out of breath.
At more advanced levels of pratice, Zhan Zhuang a great way to practice Jin in different directions.
I came across a very good article recently written by Tony Dove full of good tips for starting a standing practice. Here it is.
Some good quotes:
“Use the breath as your focal point. Whenever your mind begins to wander, gently ask yourself, “Am I breathing? How am I breathing?” Bring your attention back to your breathing. Physiological awareness brings self-awareness. The mind becomes silently attentive to the subtleties of what is happening in the here and now, rather than thinking about the past, the future, or abstractions disconnected with the present.”
“Discomfort reveals places of dysfunction and should be welcomed as an opportunity for improvement.”
“Build gradually to a minimum of twenty minutes daily Standing, and a maximum of forty minutes. This is a small investment of time considering that you will probably have more energy during the day and need less sleep at night.”
Master Lam Kam Chuen’s TV series of how to begin your own standing practice is on YouTube, and a great way to get started:
Here’s part 4 of the course. This week we focus on breathing. I cover the topics of normal and reverse breathing, then show a couple of different exercises that will get you on the right track for applying the breathing methods to the movement we are working on. Finally, we integrate the breathing into the movement, preserving all the progress we have made so far. Once you get the hang of it those breathing exercises I show are not required anymore, as you should be integrating it into your main exercise.
This week is more subtle than work showed previously. An inner focus will be required. Good luck! I’m happy to answer any questions you have.