“Schweeet!” I thought to myself.
I was 19 years old, and my karate teacher was talking about a mysterious energy field located in the abdomen. I couldn’t wait to experience it for myself!
That was my first exposure to the concept of dantian (丹田), and it turned out to be a huge disappointment. I had to wait 10 years before I actually felt anything other than frustration at dantian.
Even after I gave up karate and switched to internal arts, even after I learned the real secrets of energy cultivation, even after I practiced diligently for a few years — I still didn’t feel anything.
For years, I kept thinking, “where in the world is dantian?”
(Now maybe you get the Carmen Sandiego joke?)
In the world of qigong, tai chi, kung fu, and karate, people spend years searching for dantian, but never find it. Many give up, convinced that dantian is either mystical mumbo jumbo, or a metaphor.
I’m here to tell you that dantian is real, that it’s not a metaphor, and that with the proper training, and a bit of patience, you can feel it for yourself.
The Golden Golf Ball In My Belly
Right now, as I’m typing this, I can feel a golden, golf-ball-sized sphere of energy in my lower abdomen. This is almost exactly as the Chinese classics describe.
I don’t understand the physics behind it, but there really is a ball of energy in my belly. It’s not mystical mumbo jumbo, and it’s not a metaphor.
The Chinese word dantian (dāntián,丹田) literally means “elixir field”, but a better translation might be “energy center.” It is located in your lower belly, and it is the natural center for your body’s energy.
Dantian is important not only for energy arts like qigong, but also for martial arts, especially tai chi chuan.
Women and Dantian
One caveat before we go any further: women seem to experience dantian twice as fast as men.
I noticed this phenomenon early in my teaching. When I talked to my students about my difficulties finding dantian, the men were all nodding, but the women looked confused.
As I dug deeper, I learned that women — of all ages — seemed to feel dantian much earlier than I would have predicted.
I don’t know if this is because of the uterus, which is right there near dantian, or because women tend to be softer and more open-minded than men, but the results are obvious. Women find dantian much, much sooner than men.
So Where Is It?
So where in the world is dantian? You can location dantian easily as follows:
How to find your dantian:
The classical measurement uses a biological inch, which is the width of your own thumb. Go 3 of your own thumb-widths below your belly button, and then 2-3 thumb-widths into your abdomen, straight toward your back. That’s the center of the energy field we call dantian.
Unfortunately, going searching for dantian with your thumbs isn’t terribly helpful. If you haven’t cultivated qi at dantian correctly for a few years, there isn’t much to feel.
For years, I knew where dantian was; the problem was I couldn’t feel anything there.
Are There Three Dantians?
To confuse things even more, there are actually three dantians:
- Upper Dantian (上丹田, shàng dāntián), located in the forehead between and slightly above the eyebrows.
- Middle Dantian (中丹田, zhōng dāntián), located in the centerline of the chest at the level of the heart.
- Lower Dantian (下丹田, xià dāntián) located in the lower belly 2-3 anatomical inches below and 2-3 anatomical inches behind the navel.
The lower dantian is the safest and healthiest place to store energy. If you try to store energy at the middle or upper dantians, there are risks. To attempt this without the supervision of an expert would be…well…risky.
Why take the risk when there are safer and better options?
The lower dantian is also the most useful place to store energy. It acts like an energy bank account. The Qi stored there can be used for just about anything — vitality, longevity, mental clarity, martial arts, or even sex.
How Big is Your Dantian?
Beginners often have trouble feeling dantian because they are looking too hard for the “golden pearl,” which is how it is described in the classics.
For most people, dantian starts out bigger, not smaller. It may be the size of a golf ball, a tennis ball, or even a soft ball.
That’s because the energy hasn’t consolidated yet. Again, I don’t understand the physics behind it, but dantian seems to shrink as you advance. Or not shrink, but consolidate.
For example, I can feel that my dantian is about the size of a golf ball — but that’s just the core of the field. The energy from the core of dantian radiates out in all directions, like the light from the sun. So really, my dantian is a much larger sphere that extends past the boundaries of my body.
What a Fraud!
Incidentally, I have a student who can “see” energy. (There are more of them than you might think, but people like this typically keep quiet about their abilities.)
She told me that she was confused when she first met me. She was looking for the boundaries of my energy field, as she was used to doing with people. But she couldn’t find mine.
At first, she thought I was a fraud. “This guy has the smallest energy field I’ve ever seen, but he calls himself a teacher?”
Then she suddenly realized that my energy field was larger than what she was used to seeing. She told me that she was shocked to see that the boundaries of the field extended many feet from my body. I guess that convinced her to sign up for my class!
The large field that my dantian creates is probably one reason why my students get such good results. When I teach a class, students are actually inside my energy field. And when I walk around the room, my energy field helps to circulate the qi. This is one reason why it’s helpful to learn in person.
Opening the Five Gates
My energy field is beneficial not just for students, but also for one of my life’s passions — martial arts. For example, when I punch, I can feel the energy moving through what is known as the Five Gates:
- Gate 1: Dantian
- Gate 2: Shoulder
- Gate 3: Elbow
- Gate 4: Wrist
- Gate 5: Fingers
At first, you feel the energy getting stuck at the shoulder or the elbow. Actually, let me back up. At first, you feel nothing. You may feel a little tingling in the hands like we do in qigong practice, but you don’t even feel the first gate, dantian.
Like I said, it takes time to feel dantian, even if you’re doing everything correctly.
Once you feel dantian, you’ll begin to feel the energy moving through the five gates. When you focus on exercises that explode force (fā jìn, 發勁) like One Finger Zen, The 18 Arhats, or Single Whip, then you begin to feel the energy getting stuck in one of the gates.
I’ll give away one of my hard-earned secrets: It doesn’t always seem to go in order. Sometimes it gets stuck at the shoulder, sometimes at the elbow, and sometimes at the hand.
But then, after years of practice, you feel it move easily through all five gates.
It took me over 15 years to experience this. (The good news is that my students experience it about twice as fast — either because I was a bad student, or because I’m an excellent teacher, or both!) I’ll say this about the sensation of qi moving through the Five Gates: It’s totally awesome.
Dantian and Health
Those who aren’t interested in martial arts still need to cultivate dantian. There is an important Chinese maxim that explains why:
Xian Xing Qi, Hou Yang Qi
First circulate energy, then build it.
My students know that I always emphasize circulating the energy in my teaching. We want to clear the major energy blockages before doing anything else. Otherwise, you’re just adding pressure to clogged pipes.
But after we clear the major blockages, we can start building energy. When we build energy, it first goes to the rivers and streams of your body — the 12 Primary Meridians, filling them up. After that, it goes to the energy reservoirs — the 8 Extraordinary Meridians. And then, when all of your rivers and reservoirs are filled, the energy will naturally being to pool at dantian.
With all of this excess energy, you’ll have a lot more vitality. Basically, you’ve raised your stress threshold. You have reserves of energy which can be used to combat stress in all forms — negative emotions, unhealthy food, toxins, thoughts, physical trauma, or people driving slowly in the left lane.
Trust me — you want a reserve of energy, just like you want a reserve of emergency cash in the bank. That’s what I’ve got at dantian. If I stay up too late, or eat some stuff I shouldn’t have eaten, or if my wife tricks me into to watching an awful movie like “The Expendables 2” — then I’ve got energy reserves to help me handle the extra stress.
Dantian and Visualization
Did you know that cultivating dantian is actually a form of visualization? At the end of every practice routine, we become gently aware of dantian. That’s visualization. That’s one way dantian is cultivated over time.
Another way is through the various stages of Cosmos Breathing. If you still can’t feel your dantian clearly, then it’s a good idea to practice Stages 1-2 of the The Small Universe.
There are many other ways to cultivate dantian — One Finger Zen, Warrior Postures (zhan zhuang), and Sinew Metamorphosis, to name a few. All of these methods help to build up the energy reserves, which in turn will all of extra energy to pool at dantian.
What is your experience with dantian? Go ahead and share it in the comments section below. I’d love to hear what you think. Mindfully yours, Sifu Anthony I’m Anthony Korahais, and I used qigong to heal from clinical depression, low back pain, anxiety, and chronic fatigue. I’ve already taught thousands of people from all over the world how to use qigong for their own stubborn health challenges. As the director of Flowing Zen and a board member for the National Qigong Association, I'm fully committed to helping people with these arts. In addition to my blog, I also teach online courses and offer in-person retreats and workshops.