Check out the latest info and research from Coach Chris' explorations in the Subject of Internal Power.
The centre, Dan Tien, Hara or Tanden is described in a myriad of different ways across the many different martial arts. It can be described as an ‘energetic centre’, the centre of mass for the body, the convergence of the bodies planes of potential, the location of the most influential movement muscles, the site of the major body line Nexus, the location of the ‘second brain’ nervous tissues and many other varied descriptions.
In this article I will be exploring a few of these ideas, specifically ones that lack the need for personal interpretation on the exact meaning, such as ‘energetic centre’. Although this does in fact describe the centre from a certain point of view, as with all of my articles, the aim here is to demystify via concrete terminology and avoidance of terms, concepts and ideas that mean many different things, to many different people!
So first let’s explore what area of the body the ‘Centre’ constitutes. In essence the Centre is the lower 3rd of the torso but does not include pelvis or hips. It would be fair to say that, once again, this is open to debate depending upon the tradition, history or location of the martial style discussing it. But perhaps the most common interpretation I have encountered is that the centre is like a relatively large ball located in between the iliac crests of the pelvis. The pelvis is the frame within which the Centre sits rather than being a part of the centre itself. Think of the pelvis like a bowl and the Centre like a ball sat in this bowl, that is a good visual representation of the centre as it is meant in this instance.
Taking this analogy further, now imagine this ball as being held in place by a series of sheets of elastic, these are the muscle groups and connective tissues associated with the centre. Indeed it is these muscle groups that actually create the concept of the ball, by forming a sort of frame around this ‘central space’ on all sides. The major muscle groups of the centre in this instance are the Diaphram forming the top of the Centre, The Psoas Major/Minor and lower Erector Spinae at the back, The Illiacus, internal obliques, external obliques, the external oblique aponeursis, transverse abdominus, the lower rectus abdominus as well as all of the Tendinous tissues that are linking, covering and associating these various muscles. Finally, the base of the centre is composed of all the pelvic floor muscles and associated tissues.
This complex network of tissue is linked to the various major body lines of connection that we have discussed in previous articles. The centre is truly connected to the fingers and the toes through this network of lines and is a central nexus linking them all together.
How motion of the space at the centre creates potential energy.
This complex arrangement of muscles and connective tissues constitute the majority of what we would call the centre in the internal arts, more accurately they frame the centre, which is more like the area located on the inside of these tissues. It is this area that we can ‘move’ and manipulate in order to create stored potential forces and their resulting motions. Imagine the ball in the bowl example, if the ball is heavy and the bowl has a narrow base, if you were to roll the ball you would see an effect in the bowl tipping this way and that. The balls motion effects the frame that it sits in. Now, if you were to connect the ball on all sides to lines and sheets of elastic (muscle and connective tissue) if you move or rotate the ball you would create tensioning and potential energy storage in the elastics. This is one of several concepts of ‘centre driven movement’.
The movement of a ball in the lower abdomen can be a useful concept for the internal artist. Even though the ball itself does not exist (anatomically the area is a big jumble of pipes) there is a definite feeling that a ball is created when the correct development and attention is paid in the practices. This simplification of the processes to the rotation of a ball is vital if the practice is to go deep. Imagine trying to focus on the actions of each muscle ‘framing’ the ball, our mind simply couldn’t keep up. If a coach were to say to their student “ok so you want to tension the left Psoas and Illiacus, while pulling the transverse abdominus and turning the pelvis in this motion” … it would just be gibberish and the physical reality would not match the instruction. This is why we talk of the ball at the centre and how its rotation creates real, physical and powerful effects across the body. This ‘rotation’ is easy to feel when you place your hands on the belly and back of a high level adept, it is a strange but very clear sensation.
So in essence this rotation and associated pulls on the web of connective tissues result in ‘potential’ being created in the body during every motion. There is a constant interplay of actions as the rotations at the lower dan tien occur and every one of these tensioning, windings or spirallings create a potential in the tissue and frame of the practitioner. For instance, the forward rotation of the Centre as seen in the Hebei Xing Yi ‘Splitting fist’ or Pi quan, actually loads up the front axis tissues as well as the intercostal of the ribs, stretching them as the ball rotates forward and down. This potential, linked with the opposite opening at the back (also due to the forward rotation of the ball), combined with the stepping and through the back forces creates an extremely powerful forward and downward method. The huge volume of force that the Xing Yi exponent can famously develop is directly related to their level of dan tien control, development and mobility.
The motion of the centre of mass
Another idea we see utilized in the Internal arts is the use of the centre as the focus of the bodies mass. This idea stems from the classical symmetry model of the human body with the ‘centre’ equating to just that, the centre of the bodies symmetry. It is a useful model to stabilise motions and create fluid but rooted movement when needing to move quickly.
The primary idea is that rather than moving from ‘behind the eyes’ which is how we normally orient out movements we place our attention on moving primarily from the centre of mass or lower dan tien. This idea gained widespread popularity in some styles of Tai Chi and we see some of the vertical spine concepts born directly out of this idea. There are two sides to this story however and many tai chi adepts of old would lean their spine in the direction of travel to minimise the stabilising muscular tensions required to stay upright at the high speeds of a fight. In that instance the centre is used to initiate the direction then push on the spine as it inclines in the direction of travel in order to form up a powerful base behind the upper body. Similarly, the centre is used as a type of ‘platform’ for the lower body to push into. The combination of these two actions and the focus of the motion of the centre as an initiator can create huge forces for combat and extremely agile movement.
In the Daito Ryu system I studied, the centre would also be used as a weight to connect the practitioner to the effect of gravity. Obviously, gravity is effecting our structure all the time, but there is a skill in this art by which the practitioner can utilize the weight of their entire body in an instant by releasing to the forces of gravity acting upon them. This can be done in a sort of constant flow into the partner’s frame which results in some very strange reactions. This is a skill I use to this day in Submission wrestling competitions and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The idea is that the exponent will focus on dropping their centre completely with gravity, like dropping a large weight onto the floor. To do this a release in the crotch arch and side lines is often required and the mix of how and when this release happens is what creates the directions. For instance, if I drop my centre of mass completely with gravity but only release on side line I will drop to that side. The other propping up force will create the direction in which my drop occurs. This idea is seen in throws, take downs, pins and controls and is extraordinarily effective at creating downward pressures and power.
Combine these concepts with the rotations we described earlier and bone shattering powers become present (a story for another time!).
Pressure changes to fuel motion
Although there are many other utilisations of the centre which we will explore in upcoming articles, to finish this one off I would like to mention pressure changes to create power and motions. This is something that I experienced many times when touching the abdomen of several of my teachers. You would put your hands on, and ‘POP’ your hand would be flung off their belly violently. This is the concept of pressure change in the abdomen and its use to fuel motions, most noticeably Peng in Tai Chi and methods like Beng or Pao in Xing Yi.
This method is used very effectively to combine upwards and downwards forces to produce forwards and backwards forces. Imagine holding a balloon on the top and bottom, then pressing on the balloon, the sides bulge and the balloon becomes firmer. Now imagine pulling on the top and bottom, the sides pull in and again the balloon becomes firmer. This is the idea of pressure changes in the centre. The pushing or pulling on the balloon is a good analogue for the opening and closing motions in the body as one moves through their various postures and position.
Again, this pressure change can be directed to produce motion simply by adjusting the body position and tissues. We fine that a slight incline, a pull in the leg lines, a pairing in the Kwa, all add up to big directional forces when combined with the pressure change model of Dan Tien usage.
Ultimately it is in the combination of all these methods that the huge utility of the centre comes into play for movement. There are many other parts to the puzzle of the center, including its relation to the ‘second brain’ of the body, its utility in co-ordination and arrangement of the body, its ability to preserve our daily energy expenditure, its relationship to the pelvis and Kwa etc.
These are all subjects for further exploration, but for now I hope this article have been a useful overview.
Many of the mechanics of the internal arts are predicated on our ability to release or address tension. As we have discussed in previous articles on speed, connection, and heaviness, without the correct levels of relaxation, much of what makes these efficient will not be there. The tense practitioner will constantly be ‘breaking’ their expression of power as it travels through sports of tension or tight tissue.
When we think of the Internal Arts we often think of the slow motion practice or people standing in static postures but there is an interesting phenomena related to these practices. One which we see in combative exchange but is not immediately apparent in these fundamental training methods. This is the ability for some internal artists to move at blindingly fast speeds even though much of their training can be focused moving slowly.
How does static posture training or slow movement practice actually increase the speed of the practitioner? The two ideas seem to be at odds!
There are several factors at play here but first we can say that moving slowly or holding a static position makes us better able to recognize precisely how much effort is needed to perform a given action.
There is a physical law known as the Weber Fenscher Law which states:
’The higher the speed of a given movement, the less able we become to recognise the power required to perform it.’
Grab hold of any high-level Judo-Ka and try to drag them around the mat and you notice one clear attribute, stability. In the grappling arts especially, the skill of stability is a core component of the training methods and one of the main attributes that is built.
Stability can be thought of as our ability to maintain control of our posture, position, motion, and mass, either when we move ourselves or when we move in association with a partner or opponent.
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