Tai Chi: What moving from the dantien actually means

white ferris wheel under cloudy sky

“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. 

out of order text on persons belly

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.

tiger stretching over brown trunk during daytime

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.

 

 

Zhan Zhuang tips – standing like a tree

two brown trees

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

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.”

and

“Discomfort reveals places of dysfunction and should be welcomed as an opportunity for improvement.”

and

“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:

Bad news people – Qi is not mystical

 

woman holding eye and concentrating

Magic? Or something else…

I read this in a blog post today:

“I remember one time when a student was showing a qigong posture she was taught from another teacher and spoke about how qi circulated through it. He adjusted her posture slightly and said “now you have qi circulation”. “

From here. 

When you read something like this I think it reinforces the incorrect idea that Qi is some type of etheric, mystical energy that rises in our bodies like steam and can be directed by the mind… (in fact, that’s what the article goes on to talk about)

Well, frankly, it isn’t. At least in the context of martial arts, it isn’t. Acupuncturists probably have a different opinion on that, but I’m not talking about acupuncture.

But at the same time, if you know what is meant by “Qi” (through your practical understanding) then that original sentence I quoted above does make sense. Let me explain.

You’ve got to remember that when a Chinese teacher talks about Qi in terms of martial arts, what they are talking about is related to your physical structure. The stuff that makes you up. Skin, bones, tissue, muscles, etc…

If you have “strong Qi” then it means you are physically strong. So, for example, a strong athletic young guy or gal would be described as somebody with “strong chi”. Usually, the posture is good, the eyes bright, the hair shiny, etc… These are all aspects of “strong Qi”.

A weak slumped, tired, or sick-looking person would be described as having “weak Qi”.

man old depressed headache

You, my friend, have “weak Qi”.

So, an old person could have either “strong chi” or “weak chi” depending on how they presented themselves. If you’re bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, you’re doing well. Your Qi is strong.

close up photo of blue peacock

Strong Qi, or BDE as the Yooth say today…

In Tai Chi your Qi refers to your physical structure in a movement, as well as a special type of conditioning of the body’s structures that takes place through exercises like Standing Post and Silk Reeling. Through these exercises, you can strengthen the felt connection from your fingers to your toes – a kind of all-over body suit. It’s the strengthening of this ‘body suit’ that explains the circus-style feats of strength you see martial arts groups demonstrating. Things like throwing a needle through glass, bending a spear on your neck, being resistant to blades and breaking rocks with your hands.

 

I would not suggest trying these things at home! Sure, there are often ways to fake feats like the ones above, but there are also ways to do it correctly, utilising the conditioning of the body’s Qi.

Martial arts techniques in Tai Chi require two things – Qi and Jin. Here we’re only talking about Qi. I’ve talked about Jin before.

Qi (Chi) relates to structure. So, if you adopt a Tai Chi posture that’s relaxed, sunk, stable and strong (i.e. your structure is good), then you are “using your Qi well”. And it could be said the “Qi is circulating well”. (Actually, nothing is circulating in the sense of water in a pipe). If your structure is off in some way then it could be said that your “chi is not circulating well”.

So, if we read that quote again, with the new knowledge that it is to do with posture and structure:

“He adjusted her posture slightly and said, “now you have qi circulation”. 

Could equally be written:

“He adjusted her posture slightly and said, “now you have better structure”.

So, to me that means, he corrected some defect in her posture (say an overly tense lower back, or tense shoulders, for example), so that her “Qi” started to circulate – i.e. the posture regained its natural strength.

Sorry guys, but none of this has anything to do with steam or heat or a mystical energy in the body. But it’s so easy to assume that this is what is meant when you read quotes like the one above.

Especially once you add to that the fact that people can feel pretty much anything they can imagine. 

 

The whole Chen Tai Chi curriculum, in video form

Well, this page is interesting. It’s from Bosco Baek (and some of Bosco’s students) who is based in Los Angeles, USA, and from the looks of things, and it looks like a video reference for the whole Chen style Taijiquan curriculum!

https://chenbing.org/videos

Chen Bing Taiji Academy (陳炳太極院) was established by Master Chen Bing who is a 20th generation representative of Chen Family Taijiquan.   Its headquarter is located in Chenjiagou, Wenxian County, Henan Province, China. – the birth place of Taijiquan.  Master Chen Bing is a direct descendant of Chen Wangting (陳王廷), the creator of Taijiquan.

That’s very generous of him to share these videos. It’s fascinating. Things I’ve noticed so far:

  1. The advanced stepping and silk reeling he shows shares a lot of similarities with Bagua (the tea cups-style exercises of Bagua Zhang are obviously silk reeling exercises, so this should be no surprise, but it’s the first time I’ve seen a Chen guy walking a circle, like they do in Bagua).
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8JBxWQz3bg
  3. The advanced push hands videos look a lot like ‘wrestling without being allowed to grab the legs’. Looks like good basic training in stand-up grappling:
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjiw-JAl9YI
  5. The ‘primary explosive power’ video combines all the basic ‘fa jing’ moves you find in the Chen ‘old frame’ form into a nice little sequence:
  6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LqcFfZaYPYA
  7. There’s a Yoga sequence at the end! Obviously he finds that a useful addition to Tai Chi. More weight to the idea that the primary origins of the ideas of body movement in Tai Chi and Yoga originate from the same source (or at least are compatible).
  8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FXT67_vgncw

VIDEO: Yi Jin Jing – The Muscle Tendon change classic (Exercises 1-12 with full explanations)

yi-jin-jing-2

Below is a nice explanation video of the Yi Jin Jing by Shi Heng Yi of the Shaolin Temple Europe,  recorded during a Qi Gong Retreat in July 2018 at the Shaolin Temple Europe located in Otterberg / Kaiserslautern in Germany.

I don’t practice this set myself, but I tend to think of it as a kind of expanded version of the Ba Duan Jin, a set I do practice. As with the Ba Duan Jin, you need to keep in mind the ideas of muscle-tendon channels, and the suit idea, when you practice all qi gongs. In fact, that’s exactly what the monk is explaining in the video – “when you do this exercise you must feel which part of the body it affects, which muscles and tendons it is stretching”.

Without the understanding of muscle-tendon channels and the suit, these are just repetitious exercises, but the understanding of what you’re looking for can transform them.

Here’s the explanation video:

And here’s the complete routine performed by Shi Heng Yi.

The 12 Exercise / Posture Names are:

1) Wei Tuo Presenting The Pestle (Frontways)
2) Wei Tuo Presenting The Pestle (Sideways)
3) Wei Tuo Presenting The Pestle (Upwards)

4) Plucking Stars On Each Side
5) Pulling 9 Cows By Their Tails
6) Displaying Claws and Spreading Wings

7) 9 Ghosts Drawing Swords
8) Placing 3 Plates On The Floor
9) Black Dragon Shows It’s Claws

10) Tiger Jumping On It’s Prey
11) Bowing Down In Salutation
12) Swinging The Tail

Turning qigongs into functional qi exercises

Screen Shot 2018-07-18 at 10.08.55 AM

Reconstructed Daoyin tu Drawings of Guiding and Pulling in the Mawangdui Silk Texts

The Daoyintu “Drawings of guiding and pulling” were uncovered in the Mawangdui site in ChangshaHunan, in 1973. The texts were written on silk. From Wikipedia:

“They include some of the earliest attested manuscripts of existing texts (such as the I Ching), two copies of the Tao Te Ching, a copy of Zhan Guo Ce, works by Gan De and Shi Shen and previously-unknown medical texts, such as Wushi’er Bingfang (Prescriptions for Fifty-Two Ailments).[1] Scholars arranged them into 28 types of silk books. Their approximately 120,000 words cover military strategy, mathematics, cartography and the six classical arts: ritual, music, archery, horsemanship, writing and arithmetic.[2]

The tombs date from 206 BC – 9 AD, which puts them in the Western Han Dynasty (this was mentioned in a previous post of mine on Buddhism), and contained the burial tombs of Marquis Li Cang, his wife, and a male believed to have been their son. The site was excavated from 1972 to 1974.

The scroll above was found in 1973 and dates to 168BC. Again, from Wikipedia:

A painted scroll on display at the Hunan Provincial Museum and known as the Daoyintu found in tomb three at Mawangdui in 1973 and dated to 168 BC shows coloured drawings of 44 figures in standing and sitting postures doing Tao yin exercises. It is the earliest physical exercise chart in the world so far and illustrates a medical system which does not rely on external factors such as medication, surgery or treatments but internal factors to prevent disease.

What they are doing in the scroll is clearly related to what we call Qigong today – an exercise system that has come out of China. These exercises are still found all over China, and in many cases, the theory behind them has merged with martial arts, and they tend to be practiced together.

The question still remains – what are they actually doing? How is this good for health?

I believe you need to understand “suit” theory to get a handle on what they’re doing. I first heard the “suit” theory from the writings of Mike Sigman. He just posted about it again recently:

Mike: The “suit” idea is that the connective tissues throughout the body and muscles can be developed and conditioned to the point that they wrap the body like a snug spandex/lycra “suit”. The “suit”, however, is not just a passive connection: it can be controlled, conditioned, etc., as an aid and support to strength and movement. The “suit” is just a model that can be used to illustrate the functional qi of the body. As “qi”, the suit responds to controls and actions from the subconscious mind. 

First of all, if you’re looking for an explanation of what “qi” is, when it comes to martial arts, or its functional usage, then I think this is where you should be looking. Qi is not some mysterious energy that flows through the universe and through invisible channels in the body – it’s the physical connections you can create through conditioning exercises where you stretch this “suit” and gradually learn to manipulate the body using it. This naturally leads to the idea of the body being moved by “qi” not muscle, which is a phrase we hear given lip service to in Tai Chi, but rarely explained. It sounds initially like magical qi thinking, but if you can understand the “suit” theory you’ll see that it’s actually grounded in a solid practice that builds up over time. Another of the meanings of the word “Qi” is simply breath. However, if you realise that using the breath is one of the key methods you can use to stretch the suit, that also makes sense. 

Mike also has videos where he explains the suit ideas further:

 

Mike: Think of the “suit”, for a moment, as the plastic coating/skin on a child’s soft, plastic-coated doll. Imagine that you can take a doll’s legs in each hand and twist and manipulate the whole doll, including the arms, by the way that you twist the legs of the doll. The connection of the arms to the legs via the plastic “skin” of the doll allows for the conveyance of the twist to the arms. That’s not a great example, but it gives you an idea about how the twisting and control of your own lower body (from waist downward) can be conveyed through the “suit”/functional-qi to effect movement in your arms and upper body.

Looking back at that picture on the silk painting from the “Drawings of Guiding and Pulling” in the Mawangdui Silk Texts, you can see that these are clearly stretching-based exercises – the arms are lifted to either shoulder height or above the heads and stances are being deliberately taken. So what are they doing? My answer would be that they are conditioning this suit.

 

Suit theory

A good way to think about the suit is by splitting it into yin and yang – the yin parts cover the soft, ventral,  areas of the body – the front, the insides and backs of the legs, inside of arms, and the Yang parts are the harder, dorsal, parts – the back, outside and front of legs and arms. “Breathing in the Qi” is usually done by “pulling” in on this connection on the yin parts of the suit, and expansion is usually done by releasing the pressure and stretch that this has built up using the Yang parts of the suit  – “guiding” – as you breathe out and open the body. Remember, Tao Yin was called “pulling and guiding”.

John Appleton’s Posture Release Imagery web page is a good source for seeing how this ventral/dorsal split works in both humans and other animals.

The point of qigongs is to develop the connections in the body to the point where you can feel them and move the body with them through natural cycles of open and close.

Mike: It’s a little bit difficult to feel the connections of the “suit” at first, so the first thing you have to do with qigongs is begin to develop the connections of your body by using breathing techniques to strengthen the connective tissues. Gradually, you develop your qi/”suit” all over the body and you learn to control it as an aid and support to your musculo-skeletal strength. There is an interesting thought mentioned in some Chinese thought that wild animals still have this rapport of qi and musculoskeletal strength; humans (it is opined) have evolved out of this rapport and have to be taught to control and develop their qi in this manner.

So, there’s the hint for what you’re looking for in your qigong exercises: “using breathing techniques to strengthen the connective tissues.”

At all times the body length connection  – the slight stretch on the suit – must be maintained  – “don’t break the qi”.

(Credit to Mike Sigman for the quotes, and the suit concept).

Natural movement in Chinese martial arts

I just wanted to say a few words about natural movement, and what we mean by it in Chinese martial arts, before I post part 4 of my 8-week course on Tai Chi movement on Sunday.

If you’ve been following the videos you’ll notice that I did a kind of ‘universal’ open and close exercise in part 1, which cycles between two phases

Open:

screen_shot_2018_06_01_at_9_31_53_am

and close:

screen_shot_2018_06_01_at_9_32_13_am

From: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fV3DaNZz3hI

If you’ve been following up to week 3 you’ll know by now that it’s not a case of just mimicking these postures – you need to be going into and out of them using the elastic connection you’ve been developing by doing the arm circle exercise.

You can see these open and close postures in nature all the time, in movement – when a squid or octopus swims it kind of pulses between open and close.

Octopus:

Open:

screen_shot_2018_06_01_at_9_25_03_am

Close:

screen_shot_2018_06_01_at_9_25_15_am

From: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxawhfXGGt8

The classic example in the animal world is the Cheetah, since it’s the most majestic animal when it comes to running. It cycles between open and close quite obviously too, which helps.

Cheetah:

Open:

screen_shot_2018_06_01_at_9_28_44_am

Close:

screen_shot_2018_06_01_at_9_28_59_am

From: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V8vejjVgIHg

In the Chinese martial arts, all the ‘internal’ martial arts like Bagua, XingYi and Tai Chi should be using open and close. The martial art that best exemplifies it though is XingYi, as all the 5 element fists go through a very obvious open and close cycle.

For example, in Pi Quan:

Closing:

screen_shot_2018_06_01_at_9_37_12_am

Opening:

screen_shot_2018_06_01_at_9_36_44_am

Closing:

screen_shot_2018_06_01_at_9_37_00_am

from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9HNML_k9a-s

When we say “natural movement” is used in internal arts, this is what is being talked about.

Of course, you can use the open and close sequence in everyday life too. Just yesterday I was kicking a ball about with my kids in the park and I started to play around with open and close as I kicked the ball, rather than just doing it with my leg in isolation. When you use open and close your whole torso and back get involved – I was quite surprised by how much extra power and direction I could give the ball when I started to use open and close to kick it. Like everything, it starts off big and clumsy and first, but you soon learn to remove the excess movement and refine it.

Look out for part 4 on Sunday when we’ll be taking a look at how breathing factors into the whole thing.