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Lesson 4: The Waist, Legs, and the Dantian.


It’s a funny thing, language. When you’re  trying to describe something like the dan tian, or the waist, or these things  that are really crucially important things in tai chi… and martial arts  in general. These words don’t mean the same thing from one school to the next. I mean, you  might look to the dictionary and find a common  definition. But when you go to a specific school  or a specific art form or a branch of medicine or a particular type of meditation practice,  the words don’t mean the same thing anymore.  

And depending on geography, words have different meanings.  Think of a word like serviette. In North America,  you could ask for a serviette or a napkin and you  might get the same thing. But in the rest of the  english-speaking world, it’s not the same thing.  A napkin is a diaper. It’s what babies wear.   A serviette is the thing you use to wipe your face. You really don’t want to be offered one when  you need the other.

So, this is the thing with  language, and it happens in Chinese, of course.   Chinese has many different dialects, and from one  village to the next a word might mean a completely  different thing. In English, we experience this  all the time. You go from one town to another  and the word has a different meaning. You go  to some places in the USA where you’re sure  they’re speaking English. But the words don’t mean  what you think they mean. So, you just have to get  used to where you are. So, when somebody tells  you to focus on the dan tian, the translation is  sort of like the “field of elixir.” That’s not  the dictionary definition. But that’s really  sort of the meaning of it. “Cinnabar” I think  is the the reference. But the cinnabar is like a an elixir. So, it’s it’s an energetic centre,  or a physiological center in the body.

It’s very important. But I try not to talk about it because  I get students from many different schools.  They each come from a school where the  word dantian may have a different meaning.   And when you are studying at that school you  should learn what it means in that school,  and not argue with the teacher. So I try  not to use the word dantian.

In acupuncture,  the word dantian refers to an acupuncture point.  Nowadays they use words like guanyuan which is on a little bit below the navel and shimen,  which is a little bit less below the navel, and even qihai sometimes. These are three  different acupuncture points. Each one of them and has several alternative names, depending  on which family you learned acupuncture in.  One of those names is dantian. So, in one  school you’re learning acupuncture and this point is called dantian, and in another school  they say, “No, no. That’s guanyuan. This one  is dantian. In another school somebody would  say “No, that’s qihai. This one is guanyuan.  So, this one is dantian. It’s just a matter  of dialect that determines what it means.  

This can be very important because “real dantian”  as we sometimes say, is inside… a little bit in  front of the spine and directly above the  perineum…. depending how you’re standing.  

And how you’re standing is what we’re going to  be talking about today. So, dantian is extremely  important and this is the point in a tai chi  curriculum where the teacher would normally talk about the dantian and how important it is. But  this is the point in the curriculum where I say I’m not going to talk about that right now. We’re  going to, sort of, talk around it because I have  all of these different definitions of dantian  in my mind. And I would tend to switch from one  to the other if I’m not careful. So, I would  have to remember which dialect I’m speaking…  

So, I won’t speak any of them at all. We’ll  stick to pretty much English if we can. So, when we’re talking about the dantian, we’re  usually talking about the lower dantian,   which is around here somewhere. In some schools  it’s the naval. In some places it’s the area  from the naval to the base of the pelvis. In  some schools, it’s the lower abdominal muscles  that move the waist. In some it’s the line  between the lower abdominal muscles and the  upper abdominal muscles. It all depends  on how the teacher is talking about it and how they’re using it to inform their  method and their technique, and so on.  So, just let’s say that this area is extremely  important for a whole bunch of different reasons.  

So, we want to learn how to move this area… how  to feel this area… how to focus our mind and  our energy in this area… how to learn to let the  waist… shall we say, improve our proprioception.   We say the body has a mind of its own. This is  where it is. It’s in here. Some people think it’s  a lot lower. But it’s really here. So, when this  area is loose and relaxed and comfortable, then your body can move intelligently and can redirect  forces from the ground, direct it with the waist,  express it through the hands. Now that’s a common  expression that’s used in tai chi where they say,   “The power is generated in the legs is directed  by the waist and expressed through the hands.” Here’s the thing. The reason we say that is  because people tend to be too tense in the waist.  

So, they don’t move it and they hold too much  tension throughout the body. So the legs don’t  get to do their job. So when you talk about the  legs having a different role from the waist,  that helps you to put more power in the legs and  direct more with the waist. Having said that,  the waist also generates power and the arms  generate power. But when we’re teaching we say.  

“No, no, no, the arms don’t do  anything. They just express the power that is directed by the waist and generated  in the legs. That’s what we say, because teaching that way works. It allows  the students to actually get better and to get out of the really nasty old habits of  everything sort of being locked up and everything trying to do every job… like every soldier in  the army is trying to do everybody’s job. There’s  no division of labor. The the Private is trying  to be the General. The General is trying to be  the Private… and it doesn’t work that way. So,  learning how to distinguish between the different  parts of the body… learning how to assign roles  to varying degrees to different parts of the body starts with saying, “Okay, let’s let the legs do  the work because they’re the strong muscle groups.   They’re the ones that do all the moving around.  Let’s let the waist be more of an administrator,  and let the arms just follow orders.  So, this is how we start to learn  how the body moves… how it expresses itself, and  how it generates power effortlessly. And this will inform the biomechanics later on.

But  remember that everything that you learn in the  beginning you are not going to understand.  This is the Dunning-Kruger effect. We must,  of course, every time somebody talks about the  Dunning-Kruger effect, know it’s usually somebody who’s just read about the Dunning-kruger Effect  and then thinks they know everything about the Dunning-kruger Effect, which is an example of the  Dunning-kruger Effect. So, if everybody who says they know about the Dunning-kruger Effect actually  really understood the Dunning-kruger Effect, then the Dunning-kruger Effect would be  disproven… I think, in that moment. So, look up Dunning-kruger Effect . It’s a fun read.

Now, when you want to have the legs be able to  generate the power and you want the waist to be  able to direct the power, that means that the  waist has to be loose and relaxed. What is the  waist?

The waist is very important. Training the  waist is really important and I have spent a lot  of time working on training my waist. This is why  my teachers would watch me practicing tai chi and  working on that aspect so much, they’d see me  do this and they’d say, “Wow, what a waste!”

So, when you turn the waist… twist the waist…  a lot of people say, “Oh, when you turn the waist  you’re really talking about the hips. Right?”  No, no. If the hips move and nothing else  happens, then the waist gets carried along by  it. But if the hips are still and the waist  can twist… I need some better lighting  here. I think this is a little dark.

So,  the waist should move a lot, and for most people  it doesn’t move at all. The reason it doesn’t move is largely the result of a muscle called the psoas  muscle… and the psoas muscle… we’ll get to in  a minute. But let me show you… The the navel  should be able to move relative to the pelvis.  

The ribcage should be able to move relative to  the navel and there should be six places along  here where you can move each part of the waist  relative to the one below it. So, you have a stack  of six or seven discs that all rotate relative to  the one below and above it and when they do this  this the center of this let’s call it the dantian  you know why not so if the center then everything  below gets pushed that way and everything above  gets pushed that way so if the thing above moves  that way and the thing below goes that goes the  other other direction and the legs are there to connect to the ground, so that when you twist,  you’re not just floating in space… that  the legs end up not moving that way. You have  this progressive rotation happening in the waist like this. So the waist is actually pushing  that way and moving the body that way. So,  the things above are getting pushed that way  because the things below are pushing against  the ground. Does that make some sort of sense?  No? Okay. Well, forget about it then. If it  doesn’t make sense for now then we’ll come back  to it. It’s okay to do that. It really is. So,  the important thing is that the waist can  move. The top can move relative to the bottom  and each part above. Each part can move  relative to the thing below and the thing above,  and you can divide that into at least six  stages. Basically, now you can also rotate it  this way forward and backwards. You can protract.  You can undulate. You can expand and contract.  

The waist can do all kinds of really neat,  funky things. It can solidify itself into a solid alignment. It can just firm up and go  like this, so that’s solid and can’t be moved. 

It’s can be a solid object. Or, it can be  loose and fluid so that just moves like this. It’s like a great big… never mind. Anyway…  I’m going to turn this off because it’s a little  bit bright… The waist is important. The problem  with the waist is that it tends to hold tension,  because the spine is part of the waist  and that holds you up. To stand upright  requires you to either be balanced or be tense.  

If you are balanced like a string of pearls  balanced on end, then every part of the spine can  move. It can be fluid and each vertebrae can move  relative to the to the next and it can rotate…  and there… What’s that instruction on twerking?  “Step one: reconsider it…. Don’t do it?”  

I was about to. I really was. I was gonna…  You don’t want to see that. So, when the waist  is loose, it can move. All the muscles can do  things. If the waist is tense. it’s not stronger.  

It’s immobile. It’s weak. It’s brittle. …and  the entire structure is more fragile. It’s very easy to get pushed over and it’s very difficult  to generate any real power with your punches,  your throws, or your joint locks. It’s  very difficult to avoid moving awkwardly.  

If the waist is tense then you sort of plod along.  But if the waist is loose, then the power is  connected to the ground and you can move fluidly  through space, and find power from the center of  the earth. Okay I’m rambling a little bit here.  Let’s talk about the psoas muscle. Now, the psoas … is a unique muscle because it’s the  only muscle that attaches the legs to the spine. 

There are lots of muscles in the legs that attach  the legs to the pelvis. But there’s only one that  attaches the legs to the spine and that connects  the femur (the leg the thigh bone) to the all of  the lumbar vertebrae and one of the thoracic ones.  So it goes all the way up to the lowest rib, and  it attaches to the vertebrae in the spine, there.  So the psoas muscle is.. well.. it does this,  right.

But when you do sit-ups…like  we used to when I was a kid. In the 70s,  when we were doing sit-ups… so, you would lie  on your back and then you’d just reach out and  touch your toes. People thought they were doing  stomach exercises. But, in fact you, were mostly  exercising your psoas muscles. And if you have  back pain chronic back pain it’s quite possible  that you have a really tense psoas muscle that is  pulling your spine and making it making it curve  more …and not just making a curve but making  it less capable of changing its shape.

So, the  spine is held in a single shape most of the time  and the whole body is trying to move around it, and it puts a lot of pressure on the bones, and  on the discs, and it can cause a lot of pain. It affects the nerves and it tires out the muscles in  your back. So, if you can relax the psoas muscle, then that lets the spine go. When the psoas is  tight, it pulls your belly button forward and it does this. So that’s a tight psoas muscle.  It’s pulling on the spine. It’s pulling it down toward the legs. If you relax the psoas muscle,  then the lower back can go backwards. Now, people don’t do this very well because it also  moves the center of gravity and when they move the center of gravity they’re going to fall over. So, to relax the waist, to straighten out the lower back means that you have to relax the psoas  muscle and every time you lift the leg you can try to lift the leg using the iliacus instead of  the psoas muscle now here’s an interesting thing: because the psoas and the iliacus are sort of  joined together when they meet with the femur,  and they separate so that the iliacus connects  to the top of the the iliac crest. So, it attaches to the pelvis and the psoas muscle  goes off on its own and connects to the spine.  

They’re called the iliopsoas muscle at the  bottom because they are difficult to distinguish.  But it is possible, in my experience, to contract  the iliacus without contracting this psoas. I know  is can do that because i can contract this and i  can still move my spine. It can move around. So, the psoas muscle is loose even while the iliacus  is lifting up. There are other muscles that  lift the leg as well. There’s the rectus femoris,  which is one of the quadriceps along the front,  and it does two things. It lifts the knee up but  it also kicks the leg out. So, the rectus femoris  flexes the hip and extends the knee. So, it’s  a handy little muscle that does two things. You have other muscles that straighten the leg like  the rest of the quadriceps. They straighten the leg but they don’t lift the knee. So there is a  division of labor here that you learn when you’re  doing standing practice, and when you’re doing tai  chi, where you learn to separate the actions of  the the vastus medialis the lateralis and the  sartorius and stuff from the action of the rectus femoris. So, there’s one muscle that  doesn’t do as much as the others and you learn to move the iliacus a little bit without tightening  up the psoas muscle. This is called “relaxing the  hips” and “relaxing the waist.” So, by relaxing  the hips you’re learning to not tighten up all  the muscles in the legs, just the ones that need  to do the amount of work that you need to do.  

The tendency towards tension is a the tendency  to try to add more muscle than you need,  which sometimes seems great. We think that  means that we’ve got plenty. But in fact,  if you have too much muscle, or too  many muscles doing too many jobs, then the muscles end up fighting each other  and fighting you. So, learning how to relax some muscles and let the weight go into the  others is part of the challenge. Now, when you do that… if you stand with your feet parallel,  and you relax the psoas muscle, you relax the rectus femoris, and you relax your calf muscles,  and you relax your feet. So, you should be able to stand with your legs bent and have the calf  muscle loose. So, the calf muscle is soft here. It is not not flexed. So, if you can stand with  your calf muscles relaxed and three quarters of your quadriceps doing just about all of the work  of holding you up, and relax the psoas muscle,  then your spine is loose your calves are loose  your hips are able to move, your ankles are  flexible and agile, and they’re ready to move at  a moment’s notice… You have a much greater range of options for directions that you  can move. But if you have tension, where the muscles are fighting each other, then  it’s sort of like a suspension bridge where things are leaning on each other. The back is kind  of leaning on itself. The hips are like this you know all these muscles are tight and it’s  like this… let me grab my old belt. Here.


So, it’s like this. You’ve got the psoas  connecting from here to your spine and if you  imagine it like this… So, the psoas is connected  to the leg and the other part is connected to the spine, and when you lean back it’s like this.  It is like you’re hanging hanging from this.  Let me get a different color belt. Can you see  that? There you go. So, I’m leaning back, and what’s holding me up is the tension on  the psoas muscle holding on to my spine.  

It’s like my spine is just hanging back resting on  my legs and that means that the legs have to lean forward. There’s a lot of cantilevering that goes  back and forth. The calf muscles will be tight.  

The feet will be tight. The hamstrings,  the glutes… everything will be tighter because I’m putting pressure on this… and  it does a number on my back. So what I want to do is bend and loosen up and relax this. So  that this is not pulling on my spine anymore and now the spine can move. But if I’m like  this… that’s the psoas muscle connecting the front of the thigh to the spine. So, bending the  legs a little and making your thighs work harder, so you should be able to feel as though…you  want everything to be loose and relaxed but you should be able to fry eggs on your thighs. So,  your legs will get nice and hot and warm just  from standing in a stance like this. You  don’t even have to go really low you just  stand like this and try to feel more and more  of the leg muscle working here and here here not so much here this will work but not as  much as you feel the vastus medialis work.  

The quads will start to get stronger and the  patellar tendon… In the beginning, if you do tai chi a lot, the patellar tendon gets a little  tired. It can start find itself doing a little  bit too much work… depending on how far you’re  prying your leg forward. I’m starting to ramble  a little here. I think I’ve covered a lot. So,  when we’re standing and loosening and relaxing,  there’s that muscle in there that you may not be  aware of unless you have back pain. That’s good…  not to have back pain. And if you can relax that,  then that eases up the pressure on your back. Your  spine can lengthen. I’ve had a number of students  who’ve been able to resolve serious back trouble by doing tai chi, and by doing the standing  exercise. So, learning how to loosen up and relax and move without all of these other tensions in  the legs pushing the knees around or pushing the hips around or pushing the waist around. Okay. This is all. What I’m saying is,

“Relax your Psoas.”

Very good. More practice.