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.