This month, I’ve been writing about balance. As beings who are immersed in the phenomenal world with seven billion others, balance tends to come and go. One of the greatest impediments to an experience of balance is our resistance to the stuff in our lives – such as situations in our immediate sphere, situations in the broader world, and our own thoughts and emotions. This resistance has a contractive effect on the body, mind, and spirit. As we close the deeper parts of ourselves, this tends to cause our energy and attention to shift to the upper and superficial aspects of the body.
One area in which this trend is most apparent is the breath. Especially when we’re stressed, the breath enters only the upper chest and our focus resides in the sense organs of our head and in our own repetitive thoughts. It’s caused by a state of vigilance, and the feeling perpetuates the vigilant state. As a most basic and fundamental intervention for balance, nearly all stressed people would benefit from shifting our focus downward.
Qigong (“chee gong”) is the ancient art of learning to perceive, cultivate, and manipulate Qi (life energy). Elements of Qigong theory and practice are present in Chinese Medicine and martial arts. Most Qigong practices are meditative, and may include slow, graceful movements, rapid forceful ones, or no outward movement at all. One’s attention is nearly always on some facet of the energetic anatomy of the body. In my opinion, the greatest gift of Qigong is a concept called the “lower dantian.”
In Qigong theory, our energetic makeup consists of a “central channel” like a vertical axis that runs from the very top of the head to the very base of the torso at the perineum. When our energy is relatively focused and consolidated in this central channel, we feel strong and centered. Along the central channel are three highly significant energy centers, called dantians. The lower dantian is located a few inches below the navel and a few inches deep (about halfway between the front and back of the body). The middle dantian is located at the level of the heart, and the upper dantian is located at the level of the eyebrows, all centered at the midline of the body.
The lower dantian is considered to be a region in which energy is stored and transformed, like a cauldron. It’s our center of gravity, and it’s the place from which movement and power are initiated in numerous Asian arts (massage, calligraphy, kung fu, tai chi). Now, it’s time for an experiment. Stand up for a moment and throw a punch in the air.
Chances are, you initiated the movement from your shoulder. I’m going to have you try it again, but this time, first get in touch with your lower dantian. Stand with a slight bend in your knees and bring your attention to your belly. Focus on a point a little below your navel, and deep at the center of your body. By scanning around in this area, you can find a point that feels most powerful and solid. Take a few breaths, imagining you’re drawing ambient energy into this point and consolidating it there. When you’re ready, try throwing another punch, but this time, let the thrust begin at the lower dantian, feel how it ripples through your pelvis, and allow the impulse to rush up and out to your fist. Do it a few times – feel the energy build in the lower abdomen like a mounting electrical charge, and then allow it to release like a bolt of lightning. Does it feel different than punching from the shoulder?
When we’re under stress, our breathing is shallow, and we’re consumed by our thoughts, this is a clear indication of energetic imbalance. Our energy needs to be anchored downward, and there are two ways to fix this. The first is to breathe naturally. By naturally, I mean the way we breathed as babies, which probably doesn’t feel natural anymore – belly breathing. Let your abdomen relax completely, and allow each breath to descend the whole way down to the pelvis, imagining you’re filling and opening this bowl, including your hips. Humans are epidemically restricted in the belly, which limits the depth of the breath and causes a massive energetic “knot” in this area which contributes to the preponderance of big bellies in our country.
The second thing to do is to focus on your lower dantian. Close your eyes and breathe into this area. As you inhale, imagine that you’re funneling energy from every direction into this point. As you exhale, imagine that the energy is being condensed into an area the size of a pearl. The more you condense energy into this point, the more grounded and powerful you’ll feel. If you make this a daily practice – breathing into your belly and focusing on your lower dantian – you’ll begin to notice that stressful events don’t throw you off the way they used to. You'll bounce back quicker, too.
If this feels good, consider living more from your lower dantian. What would it feel like to stir a bowl of food or beat eggs with the movement coming from the lower dantian? How would it feel to initiate the movement of walking from the lower dantian? How about painting, or writing, or dancing, or speaking, all from the lower dantian? Give it a try and let me know what happens.
Dr. Peter Borten