My first exposure to the concept of dantian was in a Karate class. I was 19 years old. My Karate teacher was talking about an energy field located in the abdomen. “Cool!” I thought. I couldn’t wait to experience it!
Here’s the problem. Lots of people talk about dantian, but few actually feel anything there. 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 was one of them. For years, I was thinking, “Where in the world is dantian?” (Now do you get the Carmen Sandiego joke?) Even after I met Grandmaster Wong, learned the real secrets of energy cultivation, and practiced for a few years, I still didn’t feel anything.
Mystical Mumbo Jumbo
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. Right now, as I’m typing this, I can feel a golden, pearl-sized sphere of energy in my lower abdomen — 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 (丹田) literally means “elixir field”. A better translation is “energy center.” 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 and Shaolin Kung Fu.
So Where Is It?
So where in the world is dantian? Traditionally, it is located slightly below and slightly behind your belly button. The classical measurement uses a biological inch, which is the width of your own thumb. So your dantian is located 3 thumb-widths below and 2 thumb-widths behind your navel.
But if you go searching for dantian with your thumbs, you’re not likely to find it. First of all, dantian can be in slightly different places for different people. Second, if you haven’t cultivated dantian correctly for a few years, there isn’t much to feel.
To confuse things even more, there are actually three dantians:
- Upper dantian, located in the forehead.
- Middle dantian, located in the chest.
- Lower dantian, located in the belly.
The lower dantian is — by far — the safest and healthiest place to store energy. If you try to store energy at the middle or upper dantians, there are serious risks. To attempt this without the direct supervision of a high-level master would be, well, dumb. 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?
Often, beginners are unable to perceive dantian because they are looking too hard for the golden pearl. For most beginners, dantian starts out bigger, not smaller. It may be the size of a baseball, a grapefruit, or even a basketball. 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 pearl — 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, a student who can see energy (there are more of them than you might think, but they typically don’t say anything) 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 realized that my energy field was much larger than she was used to seeing. She told me that she was shocked to see that the boundaries of the field extended dozens of feet from my body. I guess that convinced her to sign up for my class!
The large field that my dantian creates one reason why my students get such good results. When I teach a class, the students are actually inside my energy field. And when I walk around the room, my energy field helps to circulate the Qi. This is big reason why it’s critical to learn face-to-face from a master.
(By the way, my teacher’s energy field is even larger and more powerful than mine, which is why students in his classes get even better results.)
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 going through what is known as the Five Gates:
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 jump 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 jumping 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 is a guiding principle in my school:
First circulate energy, then build it.
Beginners in my school know that I always emphasize circulating the energy. 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 I’m tricked into to watching an awful movie like “The Expendables 2″ — 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 Cosmos Breathing. But of course, you have to learn it from a master.
There are many other ways to cultivate dantian — One Finger Zen, Warrior Qigong (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.