The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Dan Tian in Internal Martial Arts

We have another guest post by Jonathan Bluestein, who has written some of the all time post popular articles at Cook Ding's Kitchen. Below is an article on the Dan Tian in Internal Martial Arts. Enjoy.

Dan Tian Gong in the Internal Martial Arts

Clarification: In this article shall be discussed the lower Dan Tian (丹田) area, also commonly referred to as ‘Tan Den’ (丹田) or Hara (Belly) in Japanese.

There is a problem with the current discussion of the Dan Tian in martial arts literature. The vast majority of it is ambiguous at best. People fall prey to using metaphors borrowed from Traditional Chinese Medicine, which are not conductive to an actual understanding of martial arts theory. Other times, explanations are intentionally confusing, in order to make sense only to ‘those in the know’.

This article will not teach you how to develop the Dan Tian area. It is not an instructional. Neither would this be an anatomy lesson. However, I will be attempting to elucidate many things relating to the function and training of the Dan Tian in the Internal Martial Arts in a manner more conductive and coherent than what is commonly found elsewhere.

As you should know, the Dan Tian area is located in the middle of our belly’s mass, and its height is roughly three horizontally held fingers below the naval. I gather that in actual practice, the region used as ‘Dan Tian’ encompasses most of the abdomen’s inner contents between the middle of one’s crotch line and the belly button.

It is impossible not to use the Dan Tian area. The musculature in this region is involved in most of the complex movements we make in daily life. Therefore, the Dan Tian area is active in all martial arts. What sets the Internal Arts apart is that they have methods for developing refined control over this area, or that such control is gradually gained through other methods of theirs.

Dan Tian usage is not the be-all-end-all final secret of the fighting arts. It is simply an additional method, among many others. Dan Tian methods are more common than most suspect in the various martial arts, but this is not apparent since in writing they are seldom discussed as thoroughly as in this article (which despite its length is barely an introduction to the topic at hand).

Two main martial purposes for developing the Dan Tian

1.      A steering wheel – this area can be used to help steer the motions of the rest of the body. Later, one is able to connect to another’s center of gravity, and use one’s own Dan Tian to steer the opponent as well.
2.      An engine – movement in the Dan Tian area can initiate the movement of the whole body, and also contribute powerful waves of momentum by either Rotation or Vibration (more on that later).
These two purposes are not contradictory. The Dan Tian is supposed to smoothly function as both a steering wheel and an engine. There are several other good, non-martial reasons to develop refined control over this region, but I shall not be discussing them in the confines of this article.

The basics

The onset of Dan Tian Gong is with proper breathing, and this comes before its usage as either a wheel or an engine. Without learning to breathe deeply and correctly into the Dan Tian area, it cannot be ‘developed’. Lowering the breath to this area is simple, and can be taught within less than a minute to most people. However, maintaining such breathing for prolonged periods of time can prove incredibly difficult to get used to, especially when moving. This is partly why in the Internal Arts, we have repetitive semi-meditational drills such as Zhan Zhuang (Post Standing), Circle Walking and Silk Reeling, which allow the body to become accustomed to correct breathing and the holding of a solid and well-connected martial structure. 

Only after Dan Tian breathing has been assimilated by the practitioner, can he or she begin to sense the area better. The very attempt to breath correctly creates more nerve endings in that region, and increases one’s sensitivity to it. This takes time – in the caliber of months and years. The more advanced stage of breathing would include the following techniques:

- Reverse breathing:  Learning to expand the Dan Tian while exhaling, and deflate it while inhaling (the opposite of our natural breathing pattern). And its natural follow-up:

- Dan Tian pushing: Pushing air into the Dan Tian when issuing Fa Jin (explosive power), to add force to the strike. This also carries the benefit of protecting the abdomen wherein it is hit during one’s attack, and under correct timing (something which cannot be planned in advance), it may cause an opponent striking one’s belly to bounce back, or even break one’s hand. This mechanism is not necessarily involved in all of one’s movements or attacks.

Unfortunately, this is the stage past which most practitioners never endeavor – either because they have not been patient enough, or had not the luck to find a teacher with more knowledge.

Beyond breathing

After enough time has passed, the practitioner’s body would be aligned in a superior way. As momentum passes more efficiently through such a structure, the Dan Tian can now take control of it, and add its own specific contribution.
Two main types of Dan Tian methods train in the Internal Arts:  Rotating Dan Tian and Vibrating Dan Tian. I shall now discuss them both.

Rotating Dan Tian

This is the most common Dan Tian method. It involves the moving of the Dan Tian area in a very apparent way, and in appearance is similar (though not identical) to Yoga Nauli Breathing. The Dan Tian, now felt as a large ball, is moved around in a circular fashion. It can rotate left and right, up and down, and diagonally. The circles are used as the initiators of whole-body movements, and to add momentum to these movements – hence, an ‘engine’.  At the same time, the circles made with the Dan Tian are coordinated with the circular movements of the rest of the body – therefore also a ‘steering wheel’, as a car’s steering wheel maneuvers from afar the motions of the tires.

A person touching the belly of an adept practitioner will feel his Dan Tian as a rotating ball. As one’s skill increases, the focal point of rotation becomes smaller and smaller. In the beginning, when this is just learned, all of the abdomen can be felt moving in a clumsy way. Years of practice can lead to a level of control that can shrink the size of the focal point being manipulated to that of a medal, and eventually even the tip of a finger. This occurs as over time, the practitioner requires less movement on behalf of this area to generate the same amount of control and momentum.

The most common methods to develop a rotation Dan Tian involve moving the hands in a circular manner with the body, breathing correctly, and slowly allowing the Dan Tian to take control. This is very apparent in exercises such as Chen Taiji Quan’s ‘Silk Reeling’ and Dai Xin Yi’s ‘Squatting Monkey’. The Dan Tian naturally reacts better to the circular than to the linear. Dare I say, that methods such as a Karate Tsuki and a Boxing Uppercut are not conductive tools for the development of the Dan Tian (which is fine, as they have other uses). Another requirement for this process to occur is slow movement, which is another prominent feature emphasized in the Internal Arts. Control over the Dan Tian is a byproduct of Yi (purposeful mental intent), and Yi cannot be focused into any are when moving too quickly.

Vibrating Dan Tian

In various lineages of Xing Yi Quan and Baji Quan, the training methods of Vibrating Dan Tian are known as Tuo Tuo Gong. In Wu Zu Quan, similar methods are part of the ‘Quivering the body and vibrating the shoulders’ form (Yáo shēn dǒu jiǎ 摇身抖甲).  The latter has many video examples available online.

This method is far less common than the previous one. In essence, Vibrating the Dan Tian area is making very tight and fast circles. To make these, a prerequisite is a prior ability to rotate the Dan Tian to an acceptable degree. Using Dan Tian vibrations, the external sections of the abdomen do not move in a pronounced way, as when using the first method. Instead, the insides of the Dan Tian region are twirled.

At first, the spinning of the Dan Tian’s insides is initiated by the legs. Then, the practitioner learns to pick up on that initial rotation, and used small muscles within the abdomen, as well as other muscles which envelope the spine, to keep the rotational vibration going, and accelerate it. As the insides accelerate, the entire body trembles as it absorbs the vibrations. As soon as the body takes on the vibrations, it can add them to the wave of momentums hurled into a strike, throw or joint-lock, and use it to increase the effectiveness of the end result. Other benefits are that the opponent is less capable of absorbing rotation, let alone as a fast vibration, and that the recyclable nature of these vibrations can re-absorb a missed strike or a counter-attack and make them less taxing on one’s body. As before, this is both an engine and a steering wheel.

It is easy to differentiate the two Dan Tian methods if we think of a ball filled with water. The first method is more about the rotation and movement of the actual ball, which tends to be relatively slower. The second method is about the fast rotation (vibration) of the water inside the ball. Another very valid metaphor would be that of a Powerball, and those who have played with such a device should be able to draw an analogy between its workings and the descriptions I have written of.

Another difference which I have yet to discuss is that to vibrate the Dan Tian, one requires not only a functional capacity to rotate the area, but also a well-connected structure. Vibrating the insides of the Dan Tian can be taught to beginners. However, wherein their bodies are not held together as one, the momentum would not pass from the Dan Tian to the striking limb (inefficient engine), and the vibrations would not sync well with the rest of the body (lame steering wheel). Unlike the first method, the second one cannot be trained at slow speeds, and is easier to train while holding a stationary position (as in the practice of Zhan Zhuang) rather than while moving around.

An additional method for training both large Dan Tian rotations and Dan Tian vibrations is through the use of large wooden poles or spears. Drawing circles in the air with these weapons is very useful for such practices, as the large lever they create engages one’s core musculature and naturally arouses the Dan Tian into action. Some specific movements, such as the spear’s Lan-Na-Zha, are more effective than others in developing these skills. Once the practitioner can use Dan Tian Gong, it can also be applied with other weapons.

When properly trained, Dan Tian Gong can be embedded into most of one’s movements (while standing, kneeling or even sitting). In terms of martial usage, the highest level of this skill is the effective combination of both Dan Tian methods. That is, to have the Dan Tian rotate at large whilst also vibrating on the inside, and make all of these micro-movements lead and connect with the rest of the body.

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Shifu Jonathan Bluestein is the head of the Tianjin Martial Arts Academy, and teaches Xing Yi Quan and Pigua Zhang in Israel. He is also a martial arts author and researcher. His list of published articles, most available for free reading with links (and on this blog), can be found at the following link:
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