Great video post from Nabil Rene whose work in Chen style Tai Chi I’ve been following for a while now. Take a look:
For clarity, his assertion is that the “dantien” is something that doesn’t exist by default, the way, say, your shoulder exists, but that it is formed by the simultaneous actions of other parts of the body. In this case, the hips, back, spine, breathing and more.
I’ve written here before that this is somewhat similar to the idea of the lap in English. The lap is formed by taking a seated position, and when you stand up it disappears.
So, when you form Tai Chi postures, you are also forming a dantien. Or at least you should be.
You can think of this as being an incredibly complicated prospect, but I don’t think you need to. There is also an implied simplicity to the idea. The problem is that when you start out the feeling of ‘strength’ in that area of the body is inherently weak, but correct practice of Tai Chi should be the training you require to start to build that dantien so that it’s a much stronger feeling.
Correct practice on a daily basis is what you need.
Of course, if you talk to Chinese medical practitioners, to them the dantien is as real as any other part of the Chinese medical system, and doesn’t require ‘work’ to exist. But I think that when talking about Tai Chi things, it’s safer to assume that this is not the dantien being talked about.
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
As it happens, I was trying to get a friend to understand how to do it today. I’ve been trying to get him to do this for a while actually (more than 2 years), but despite practicing diligently, he’s never really got it before. He’s got better at parts of it, but never the most important bit – moving from the dantien. It’s a very difficult thing to teach. You can describe it in words, but they’re open to misinterpretation. You can show them what you mean by doing it yourself, but its very hard to see unless you know what you’re looking for. You can even try and move their body for them in the right sort of way, but again, it’s not really the same thing as them doing it for themselves.
For some reason, today the penny dropped and he got it! You could almost see a light bulb appear above his head. The key seemed to be a combination of using the phrase “the arms trail behind the dantien” and trying a double-handed silk reeling exercise for the first time and watching me do it. For some reason, this time, it worked. It was a real Eureka! moment.
Of course, he can’t do it perfectly yet, but at least now I know he’s on the right track. He’s letting the pull of his dantien guide his arms. It sounds so simple, but it’s very hard to actually do. You can lead somebody to the gate as best you can, but they need to go through it themselves.
What was interesting was that with this new way of moving, he instantly felt muscles in his abdomen and lower back moving in ways they hadn’t done before. They were being worked. Instead of this area being ‘dead’ it was now full of movement. So much so that doing a Tai Chi form in this way was suddenly physically demanding. What had once been empty, floating movement was now full, rich and damned hard work. It was also mentally demanding. If he stopped paying attention, he stopped doing it.
His immediate observation was, “You can’t learn this from a book”.
Yes, he’s right. You can’t.
To learn Tai Chi you need to practice, under the guidance of somebody who has gone through that ‘move from the dantien’ gate. Once you’ve got through the gate it’s much easier to practice on your own, as that is the basis of everything that follows.
What you can find in books, like the Tai Chi Classic, which I recently produced a commentary on, only really makes sense once you’ve gone through the gate.
A lot of the requirements of Taijiquan that you find in writings are really external rules to encourage you to go through that gate. For instance, the rules about feet matching the hands, and knees the elbows, etc. These are all external requirements for dantien-driven movement. If you truly are moving from the dantien then your feet and hands will already be co-ordinated. Your knees and elbows will already be in harmony. All these rules will make sense. Before then there are still too many possibilities of going down blind alleys or faulty understanding.
In that sense, books and rules are useful in that they can help you stay on course, but they’re also a trap that you can get stuck in.
Tai Chi is also not an intellectual process. It’s a feeling. As human beings we tend to want to define everything and label it so we can think we understand it that way. Tai Chi isn’t like that. You need to do it, not think it.
I heard about a teacher once that used to confiscate any Tai Chi book that he saw on sight for the benefit of the student attempting to read it. He was probably right.
One of the most frequent things you hear in BJJ is “move your hips“.
Brazilian teachers tend to say “escape your hips“. Which is an odd-sounding translation of presumably something that sounds better in Portuguese. In American and English it usually gets turned into “hip escape“, as in, “do a hip escape here“, “it’s not working because you need to hip escape more“.
We hip escape up and down the gym as a warm up (also known as “shrimping”) because it’s a fundamental movement you need to have in your tool box that you can pull out without having to think about it.
But why? What is it? Simply put: It’s designed to create more space between you and your opponent on the ground.
You can use hip escapes for escaping bad positions like side control and mount. But it also has benefits for attacks too. Basically a good rule of thumb is that if what you’re doing isn’t working try doing a hip escape and doing it again. The change of angle and leverage will probably fix it.
Now we know what a hip escape is, let’s get to the point of all this.
When we say “move your hips” that’s not the part of the body that you need to move from. If you just moved from your hips you’d never go anywhere. You’d just spasm on the floor like a dying fly having its last buzz. What you actually need to do is push with your toes and feet on the ground so that your hips move.
Your hips moving is the result of the action, not the action itself.
Which brings me onto Tai Chi Chuan and the dantien (the lower abdomen area of the body).
All wise and knowledgeable Internet-enabled Tai Chi practitioners know that we need to “move from the dantien” in Tai Chi Chuan. (This is the supposed secret to Tai Chi that you get told by your wise master only after you have paid the required tuition fees for a number of years. 🙂 )
Cheng Man Ching, Single Whip posture.
But again, where does the action originate? I would say that, just as in JiuJitsu, you don’t actually “move from the dantien” by originating action there. Your dantien moves, but it’s your foot that provides the impetus. Your foot pushing against the ground is where the ‘power’ comes from in Tai Chi Chuan.
(A side note here for the Order of Advanced Tai Chi Wizards of the Internet: When you get this concept of the power from the ground you will find that you can actually originate the movement in the dantien as a kind of dropping force that is then rebounded from the ground, so it’s less of a push with the legs. File this under “advanced” if it makes no sense right now and come back to it later).
What Tai Chi Chuan specialises in is transmitting this power to the extremities without interfering with it as much as is humanly possible. We know that in Tai Chi we need to be relaxed (song), which seems like the last thing you’d want to be if you have to hit something hard, but there is a method in the madness.
In Tai Chi Chuan you are trying to transfer that power – the ground reaction force – from your foot all the way to your fingers as smoothly as possible and directing it with the dantien. This is called ‘threading a pearl through the 9 crooked gates‘ in the Tai Chi classics. The gates here are the joints of the body. All the breaks in connection between your foot and fingers are the points where power leaks out. Usually we cover these things up by using muscular strength to get by – you can spend years fooling yourself with this, and it’s a very hard habit to stop.
In Tai Chi we all know we are told we should “round the crotch area” – sometimes called “Kua”, but more accurately called “Dang” in Chinese – but why? What does that mean anyway? I’m going to try and point you in the right direction with this post.
The three dantiens
There are three main dantiens in the body that Tai Chi is concerned with. Firstly there’s the main one in the lower belly, which acts as a nexus, or control point for the whole body, but slaved to it are two other dantiens – the chest dantien and the crotch dantien.
There are clear parallels here to the idea of chakras in Yogic folklore, and indeed there are more “dantiens” in the Chinese system that relate to the other chakra locations in the body too, but for the purposes of internal martial arts, it’s the crotch and chest dantiens that are most important.
The crotch dantien is located at the Hui Yin point, and shown in the drawings from Chen Xin’s book:
These dantiens are points where you can use to store force that can be used in the release of power in the way that the internal martial arts express it – i.e. from the ground to the point of application.
It’s often said that Tai Chi is “boxing with the legs”, and this relates to the use of the crotch dantien. The knees are also in the domain of the crotch dantian, so, you need to think of the legs, hips and crotch all working together.
So what is that supposed to feel like? Well, It’s a bit like sitting on a space hopper – that feeling of grasping something with the inside of your legs, but not too forcefully.
When you take up your stance in Tai Chi you should feel this ‘energy’ inside that leg arch, as if you are sitting on a space hopper. That’s not exactly a scientific way to describe it, but hopefully, you get the idea.
So your knees are involved too: when you rotate one leg forward, the other leg must rotate backwards to keep the grip on the ball. This forms the action of opening and closing, and is part of the overall action of opening and closing that is going on all over the body.
Squeezing the ball
As you move through the Tai Chi form you ‘squeeze’ this ball between your legs (just as you do a space hopper). So the crotch (the part of the body where the legs join the torso) can close on one side of the body and open on the other, but the feeling of there being something there is maintained throughout.
In Zhan Zhuang practice you get a lot of people describing holding a balloon between the legs, or a ballon supporting your limbs – that’s the same idea, and with enough practice it can actually start to feel like this.
While the space hopper or balloon may be imaginary, the feeling isn’t. It reminds me a lot of the verse in the Tao Te Ching about the value of what’s not there:
“Thirty spokes share the hub of a wheel; yet it is its center that makes it useful. You can mould clay into a vessel; yet, it is its emptiness that makes it useful. Cut doors and windows from the walls of a house; but the ultimate use of the house will depend on that part where nothing exists. Therefore, something is shaped into what is; but its usefulness comes from what is not.”
This feeling of buoyancy in the crotch dantien forms part of the way the power is transferred from the legs to the torso, and ultimately out to the fingers.
Store and release
In terms of training this power, traditionally it’s common to stand in a low horse riding stance for a long period of time. I think this is more about building leg strength than the sort of power I’m talking about though, so while there’s nothing wrong with it, I think you need a moving exercise to practice what I’m talking about.
Trying to focus on just developing this power while doing the whole Tai Chi form isn’t optimal, as there are too many other things going on at once.
It’s important to stress again that there is no actual ball of energy between your legs – it’s just a useful metaphor for helping you get the right feeling for the particular winding in the legs and hips that helps produce power through the store and release mechanism in the horizontal plane.
As you turn one way then the other, the windings of the legs results in opening and closing actions which store power, that can be released into movement.
This is another reason why you really need to turn the waist a lot in side-to-side motions in Tai Chi Chuan (usually a lot more than you think). Without sufficient turning of the waist, you’re just not getting the hips and legs involved enough and activating their store and release potential for power.
The Tai Chi move ‘Wave hands like clouds’ is a good example of this. Notice that I’m turning all the way through to the sides to get the most store and release out of the legs:
My teacher always admonishes me to ‘relax the waist’ when he’s critiquing my form. Over the years I’ve learned that what he’s really asking me to do is increase the range of movement that my waist goes through. Obviously, stiffness inhibits the range of motion of the waist, but just realising that you need to turn more than you are currently doing is a valuable insight in itself. And now hopefully you can understand the reasons why.
Here’s week 5 of my course Pulling Earth Pushing Heaven, on mindful Tai Chi movement.
OK, so to recap, we’ve started off looking at building the elastic connection along the channels. We’ve looked at relaxing the lower back and getting the power to come from the lower body. We’ve talked about not compromising the movement in the arms. We’ve added in reverse breathing. Now we’re going to try to keep all that and get the movement to be directed from the middle of the body – the dantien.
This is a great clip of Chen Bing teaching a basic silk reeling circle with a lot of emphasis on relaxing and being heavy.
People often wonder how being relaxed can generate power in martial arts. If you watch the video you can see how being relaxed in the upper body leads to great power in the lower body. And once you have that power in the lower body you can start to use it to drive your movements. Of course, there’s more to it than that, but it’s a start.
Yang says: “2.) Sink the chest and pluck up the back. The chest is depressed naturally inward so that the ch’i can sink to the tan-t’ien [field of elixir]. Don’t expand the chest: the ch’i gets stuck there and the body becomes top-heavy. The heel will be too light and can be uprooted. Pluck up the back and the ch’i sticks to the back; depress the chest and you can pluck up the back. Then you can discharge force through the spine. You will be a peerless boxer.”
Personally, I like thinking of it as ‘shelter’ the chest, rather than “sink” or “hold in”, even if that’s not the exact translation. I think that works better in English for me, it implies a more natural position with less force being used than ‘hold in’ does. YMMV.
The whole thing is intimately related to the breath and ‘sinking the chi to the dantien’. If you change the focus of the breathing to the dan tien area, so that area expands when you breathe in and contracts when you breathe out (that’s ‘normal’ dan tien breathing, there’s reverse as well, but let’s not get into that) then your upper chest will natural soften and have the feeling of hollowing – so it’s not so much something you actively ‘do’, it’s more like something that happens as a result of doing something else. The old Wu Wei idea of doing without doing. The whole posture in Tai Chi should be as natural as possible without any artificial additions – but it does require effort (including mental effort) to do, paradoxically – you have to make an effort to be as relaxed as possible, usually by getting rid of the unnatural habits we pick up through doing things like typing on this computer or misusing our bodies in other ways, such as stiff shoulders and neck.
If you let the upper chest expand as you perform the movements then you are effectively ‘letting the chi rise up’ rather than ‘sinking it to the dan tien’. In Tai Chi you need to make your centre of gravity the dan tien area, and this requires letting the tension in the upper body release downwards (of course, you still need that opposite feeling of being drawn upwards from the crown that’s talked about in the classics, and in the above quote as “pluck up the back”, otherwise you slump, or get that crumpled ‘old man’ look I see too often in Tai Chi practitioners, which is not good either IMHO).
One of the meanings of chi is air, or breath, so you can see how ‘sinking the chi to the dantien’ relates to breathing from that area, and how ‘letting the chi rise up’ relates to the breath being too high in the body. All the posture requirements of Tai Chi (as featured in Yang Cheng-Fu’s 10 Important Points essay) are all part of the same thing really, so it can sometimes be misleading to consider them on their own as separate things – or as Mike Sigman said:
In relation to the tail-bone tuck (which I think really just says that the tail-bone should point downward and says nothing about “tuck”), one way of looking at that requirement is that it’s for the same reason the gua is sunk and relaxed, the back is relaxed, the head is suspended, the armpit is rounded, the crotch is rounded, the chest is hollowed and the back rounded slightly, and the stomach is relaxed. They are all done to affect the same thing which connects them all.
All this being said, there are a wide variety of interpretations of what these things mean amongst the different styles. Amongst Tai Chi stylists (mainly from Yang Lu Chan lines, since Chen guys seem to want to be a law unto themselves ) I think my view above is by far the most common IMHO, but you can counter pose it with the view amongst some Bagua stylists that the chest should be expanded outwards, but this seems to be part of a complete system and way of doing things that is very complete and detailed, and includes circulating energy in directions counter to the more usual way of doing it.