Tai Chi: What moving from the Dantien really involves
When Tai Chi people say “move from the dantien” what do they actually mean?
I think most people involved in Tai Chi know roughly what the Dantien is, but for clarity, let me add my own definition:
There are various dantiens in the human body. The word translates as “elixir field”. I’ve written about the Crotch Dantien here before. But when they just say “dantien” they mean the main one, which is located in 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, but rather, the whole area.
Things the dantien is not: a glowing ball of energy, a special undiscovered organ, an undiscovered muscle, your cosmic connection to the mothership.
That’s the what of the matter covered, but 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. The dantien moves and the arms effectively trail behind (although that doesn’t mean there’s a delay — it’s all happening instantaneously). This connection is formed by what the ancient Chinese called the muscle/tendon channels. Written records of these things go back to the Mawangdui Tombs from the Western Han Dynast (206 BC — 9 AD), where a Tao Yin manual was discovered in the 1970s, but who knows how long the ideas had existed before that. Over time the muscle/tendon channels evolved into what we now know as the meridian system used in Chinese medicine.
Mammals usually have muscle/tendon channels on the front and back of the body. These are classified as Yin channels on the front because these are the softer parts of the body and yang channels on the back, which are the harder parts. The channels themselves consist of whatever parts of the body occupy those locations — muscle, tendon, ligaments, fascia and skin — and can be influenced by deep diaphragmatic breathing (which is also centered on the dantien area).
This “guiding and pulling” influence from the breathing is quite key: If you can hold the body in a neutral position (the classic Zhan Zhuang posture where you hold your hands as if holding a ball is good for this) then you can keep an equal amount of 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 and can be strengthened using Zhan Zhuang, Tao Yin and Qigong exercises. 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.
In Taijiquan the dantien, legs and feet must form a connection and drive the power 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, tangible phenomenon, rather than an abstract idea.
As I’ve mentioned, Tao Yin, Qigong and Zhan Zhuang exercises are great for developing the required connections, but the best exercise I’ve seen to help you develop this skill is a single-arm wave from Chen style silk reeling. Here is a video I’ve made showing the basic single arm wave exercise: