Hara Tanden – An Imaginary Spot

When the muscles of the lower abdomen are tensed, the seat of body’s power, the tanden, appears. The tanden is the tension of the muscles and appears only in the living body. It was not discovered through western medicine or academics because it cannot be found in a dissected body.

“The Essence of Budo” by Prof. Sato Tsuji, (Professor of Literature, Kogakkan University) and Kawakubo Takiji, Iaido Hanshi

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Is the Hara Tanden the core of your being or is your brain the core?
We can address this from a western perspective, but also from an eastern perspective.
Talking about Hara Tanden may be very confusing for many of us. If you try to understand Hara Tanden with your brain, you will undoubtedly have a short circuit in your head.
Attempting to approach Hara Tanden from an Eastern point of view with our Western education will give many difficulties and errors in the translation of the concepts involved.

Hara Tanden, your engine

For those who have a problem with Hara Tanden’s concept, we can do a comparison with a rowing boat with outboard engine.

Are you going to use the engine or the paddles?

Most of us only move our bodies as efficiently as we can. Unfortunately, we just paddle even though we have an engine in our body.
Hara Tanden is about where our centre of gravity is. Your lower body muscles can be used to move more efficiently. Hara Tanden will serve as a base for upper body support. Without a strong support base our motions will become unstable and the power of our upper body will simply depend on the local muscle power.
To use our motor effectively we need fuel, Hara Tanden uses “Ki” produced by effective breathing.
Understandably, the words Hara Tanden or Ki mean nothing to you. It is very difficult to explain them.

2 different explanations

Of course, there are many more explanations, but these are examples from the West and the East.

From Wikiwand:
The Hara or lower Dantian, as conceptualised by the Chinese and Japanese martial arts, is important for their practice, because it is seen, as the term “Sea of Ki” indicates, as the reservoir of vital or source energy. It is, in other words, the vital centre of the body as well as the centre of gravity. For many martial arts, the extension of energy or force from this centre is a common concept. Many martial art styles, amongst them Aikido, emphasise the importance of “moving from the hara”, i.e. moving from the centre of one’s very being – body and mind. There are a large number of breathing exercises in traditional Japanese and Chinese martial arts where attention is always kept on the tanden or hara to strengthen the “Sea of Qi”.

The “Wiki” text is certainly written from a Western point of view, trying to define something we don’t understand.

From a Chinese text on Dantian (Tanden):
Anatomically speaking, what is in the tanden is the lower abdomen, and it is nothing more than a multi-layered structure of the intestines. However, from a mechanical point of view, the lower abdomen is a place where the force called gravity and the repulsive force generated from the ground are in opposition .

The physiology of the joints, a masterpiece of manipulative science, explains that this up and down force that collides in the pelvis draws a circle along the structure of the pelvis. The imaginary Tanden stands in opposition to be supported by this circle. In other words, it can be said that the sense of fulfillment you feel when you put effort into the tanden is, first of all, a sense of vertical balance that arises from the feeling of stepping on the ground, or more simply, a sense of mechanical stability.
Concentration of energy in Tanden means performing abdominal breathing. Specifically, the pumping action of the diaphragm causes gentle cardiopulmonary exercise in the upper part, and repeated contraction and relaxation of the internal organs, mainly the intestines, in the lower part.
Also, “bringing the mind down” is actually a way to release the tension in the brain.

The Chinese text (translated) is less philosophically orientated than the wiki text.
The Chinese and Japanese understand the idea of “Qi/Ki” very well because it is part of their culture. Most martial arts texts are mainly practical and explain how to carry out the movement of the body.

There is no magic involved

The word “Ki” or “Qi” is often used to describe the magical power of the martial arts of the Orient and is often translated as energy. This translation is in fact not covering the concept of “Ki” or “Qi” as understood by Japanese or Chinese practitioners. A paper written by a Western follower of Chinese Martial Arts and TCM will give you some practical insight of the “Ki” or “Qi” concept.

Observations on the importance of the yao/koshi to the actor in Japanese Noh ̄ and Chinese Jingju (‘Beijing opera’) From an article by Ashley Thorpe

Ki or chi/qi

Energy may be considered as a culturally specific phenomenon, but there is correspondence between no ̄ and jingju. In Chinese, qi can mean breath, air or spirit, but it is also a technical term used in traditional Chinese medicine to refer to a vital life energy. The conception of qi as referring to the energy of the actor is in evidence in jingju, as Jo Riley explains:
Qi means more than mere breath control. A performer who has qi is considered to be ‘in-spired’, moved by a special kind of energy or filled with presence. During training, the master will often point to the student’s abdomen and demand that the student draw up his qi. This is the heart or residence of qi, the undefined and indefinable centre of the human body from which presence( force) flows.
Shelley Fenno Quinn has suggested that qi [in Japanese, ki, 気] was used by Zeami Motokiyo (c.1363-c.1443) to describe the technique of the no ̄ actor in producing his voice.

Basic training

The focus on basic training automatically raises significant differences between the two forms. In no ̄, an actor develops through the learning of kata [型], movement patterns that form the basis of plays. Techniques that might be regarded as basic, such as kamae [構え] and suriashi [摺り足], underpin all kata, are used on stage in performance, and thus cannot easily be demarcated as a distinct set of basic training exercises (even though these techniques might still be described as the ‘basics [’基本]). Incontrast, jingju has training explicitly conceptualised as jiben gong [基本功], ‘basic techniques’that are only practised off-stage, but nevertheless are central to underpinning the quality of movement on-stage. Jiben gong includes exercises designed to cultivate specific skills, fitness and endurance in the actor, including in the yao [腰] ‘lower abdomen and thighs’, tui [腿] ‘legs’, taibu [台 化] ‘stage walking’, yuanchang [垈 魁] lit.‘circular course’, a training exercise in which the actor practices fast stage walking by repeatedly circling around the room, shanbang [山膀] ‘mountain arms’, yunshou [云 手] ‘cloud hands’, tanzigong [毯子功] lit.‘carpet training ’but meaning the conditioning of the body for acrobatics, and bazigong [把子功] ‘weapons training’. Thus, jingju performers do not begin by studying particular plays or characters, but by focussing on how these foundational skills and movements should be mastered. Once central aesthetic ideas are understood and the body has become accustomed to the demands placed upon it, jiben gong is extended according to the conventional requirements of one of four role types in which the actor may specialise: male [生], female [旦], painted face [昌], and clown [丑]. A professional actor must have technique “inside the heart” (xinli you, 心里有), a state fully achieved only by solid training in jiben gong as a child, and further consolidated throughout adulthood. Thus, the conceptualisation of the ‘basics’ and its relationship to the actual material performed on stage is different in each form.

Building presence (kigurai) – harnessing tension: the significance of yao/koshi 

In no ̄ and jingju, I have experienced energy emanating from the lower section of the trunk of the torso (yo or koshi in Japanese, yao in Chinese). The term yao/koshi is difficult to neatly translate into English. Koshi can variously refer to the pelvis(to include the hips, pelvic carriage, lower spine, sacrum and coccyx), the lower abdomen, the upper thighs, the centre of gravity in the lower abdomen, and all the muscle and other bodily material situated around these areas.
In my own experiences of training, although I can locate the central locus of energy reasonably precisely to a specific area of the body, I would never describe it as only element of the lower trunk working to produce, support and distribute energy. I find the yao/koshi to exist as a kind of ‘interconnectedness’ between the skeletal and muscular structures in the lower section of the torso. For instance, in no ̄, I find that the locus of energy emanates from the base of the spine. Yet, tension is also achieved by pushing the base of the spine inwards and extending the hips backwards, creating a solid central focus of compressed energy around the lower back more generally, which is then forced further downwards. Indeed, teachers have often stressed to me the importance of having good koshi, which supports the basic kamae stance. In jingju, energy is considered to emanate from an area described as the dantian [丹田], an ‘energy centre’ situated towards the front of the waist just below the navel which is also cited in relation to Chinese martial arts, Qigong, and Taiji. Basic exercises aim to strengthen the yao as a means to cultivate stamina and suppleness in the dantian, which, in turn, supports all movement, from walking, to gesturing, to acrobatics.

Some Japanese expressions

To write concepts, the Japanese use one or two kanji (or more) to express a complete concept. An explanation in a Western language requires more words and still cannot transmit the message fully. Find a few examples here.

  1. 呼吸法 Kokyū-hō: breathing method – in the context from Martial Arts: Abdominal Breathing.
  2. 緊張 Kinchō: tension 弛緩 Shikan: relaxation – “Tense” and “tension” (緊張) is often used to describe the prolonged or continuous contraction of muscles, tendons and other parts of the body.  Its opposite is “relax” or “relaxed” (弛緩). Breathing is an alternation of tension and relaxing.
  3. 含胸抜背 gankyô bappai: relax the thorax, elongate the back. “Lower the chest means the chest is drawn in to enable chi to sink down to the dan tian (or the abdominal energy field about 3 inches below the navel)”.
  4. 気位 Kigurai: pride, haughtiness. Kigurai can be seen as fearlessness or a high level of internal energy. What it is not, is posturing, self congratulating.

Kyokotsu and 含胸抜背 Gankyô Bappai

Kyokotsu (sternum) and Hara Tanden are connected through the spine and the attached muscles. Especially the latissimus dorsi plays an important role.
The use of the sternum is called 含胸抜背 gankyô bappai: relax the thorax, elongate the back. This skill opens the shoulders for power transfer coming from the legs.

含胸抜背 gankyô bappai

Become conscious of the point in the middle of the chest (the midpoint where both nipples are connected) and pull it down while pulling it back. Open the shoulder blades with the latissimus dorsi instead of opening them with the trapezius muscles of the shoulders

Kyokotsu is the lower point of the sternum in the Hino Budo exercises. Most of the exercises in previous posts on kyokotsu have to be seen as methods to make the torso more flexibel. Of cours, kyokotsu is translated as sternum and all the points on the sternum can be considered as the focal point for exercises and movements.
Using 含胸抜背 gankyô bappai is in fact the more practical application of the sternum manipulation.
After creating gankyô bappai, we can make a link between the sternum and the arm, especially the elbow. Most of the Aikido methods have exercises to develop “Hiriki” or elbow power. Unfortunately, when there is no connection between the sternum and the arm, elbow power will solely depend on arm muscles.

Pressuring Hara Tanden

Before we can transfer power from legs to arms, we need to be conscious of Hara Tanden in the lower torso.
When we look inside the abdomen, we may not be able to see the Hara Tanden. The creation of the imaginary spot is the result of a breathing technique by controlling the diaphragm and the pelvis.

The main action of the pushing down is a backward action against the spine.

Sometimes you will find a text: “Lower the chest means the chest is drawn in (or pushed down) to enable chi to sink down to the dan tian (or the abdominal energy field about 3 inches below the navel)”.
When you push down the breath, the Ki/Qi sinks into the Hara Tanden.

After several sessions of breathing exercises, you can feel the Hara Tanden in the lower part of the torso.
We can connect the upper part of the body with the hara tanden by using gankyô bappai. “Become conscious of the point in the middle of the chest (the midpoint where both nipples are connected) and pull it down while pulling it back. Open the shoulder blades with the latissimus dorsi instead of opening them with the trapezius muscles of the shoulders“.

気海息 or “Kikai breathing”

This is about abdominal breathing (Hara Tanden breathing). As you will notice, the first word “Ki” is a breathing related word.

There are many types of breathing, but in martial arts abdominal breathing or kikai breathing is preferred. Not all abdominal breathing is efficient for martial art power. Hara tanden breathing creates pressure in the lower abdomen.
When the muscles of the lower abdomen are tensed, the seat of body’s power, the tanden, appears. The tanden is the tension of the muscles and appears only in the living body. It was not discovered through western medicine or academics because it cannot be found in a dissected body.

Moving system

The arms and the legs are fundamentally our tools to perform actions like grasping an object or walking around. The torso is the place where our main components of our body are located.

Anatomically, the arm begins at the sternoclavicular joint, the connection of the collarbone and the sternum. Manipulation of the sternum or gankyô bappai affects the spine and the arms.

The legs are connected through the hipstructure to the lower end of the spine. The opening of the crotch is necessary to transfer the power from the legs in the spine. By controlling the Hara Tanden, we stabilize the pelvic girdle and give access to the power coming from the legs.

Mata no chikara – Power management from the groin

Hara Tanden is mainly used to transfer power from the legs to the upper body.
股 Mata is mostly translated as crotch, inner thigh, groin or femur.

Using “round crotch” is not only in martial arts often used, it is also important in artistic body movements.

圓襠 En machi – Round crotch
股の力 Mata no chikara – powering up Mata

Making crotch round is a skill to open the groin for transfer of power. The iliopsoas is the muscle that controls the hip joint.
Using Hara Tanden to develop legpower uses iliopsoas muscle. If this muscle is not not active, the upper and lower limbs will not work together. You can’t even push the floor.

Making crotch can be created naturally by doing the following. Open both hip joints while pulling them left and right, both knees are subtly tightened inward. See picture above (圓襠 En machi – Round crotch)
The breathing exercises “Hachi Danken” are very helpfull in making the crotch round.

Fundamentally making crotch round is the same as gankyô bappai, the opening of the shoulders.

Tsugi ashi – Using The Iliopsoas

Tsugi ashi 次 足, mostly translated as “succeeding or following legs/feet” or “shuffling”. There are many explanations for this kind of footwork.
Fundamentally, tsugi ashi is build upon the use of the ilipsoas. Without an active iliopsoas, we cannot pressing down the feet to generate power.

The distance between the feet when using tsugi ashi
Between the feet, in most instances, there is a width of approximately shoulder width. When the distance becomes greater, it becomes more difficult to carry out tsugi ashi.

How to activate the iliopsoas and perform tsugi ashi (shomen uchi)
The example is given when using a sword, but it is also possible when using tegatana or handblade.

  1. Open the front of the hips to activate iliopsoas, front foot is ready to move forward
  2. Push with back leg into the ground, knee of front leg softens
  3. Put front foot heel forward softly on floor
  4. Put ball front foot down, heel back foot goes up, knee of back leg softens
  5. Move back foot forward, don’t cross feet

If iliopsoas is not enabled, it becomes hard to push with the rear leg. The rear foot is going to have a dragging effect.

The iliopsoas and shomen tsuki
The same skills as with shomen uchi strike will be used during shome tsuki.
In Tomiki Aikido, tanto-randori is a method to explore your skills against an attacker who is using a frontal attack (shomen tsuki) to the chest with a soft tanto.
A frontal attack (shomen tsuki) can also be used as a frontal strike to the face with the palm of the hand.

Ayumi ashi

Ayumi ashi is normally associated with ordinary walking. This is correct. Unfortunately, most people are not walking efficiently and are frequently exposed to loss of balance. We see this often with elderly people.
Keeping balnce is important in ordinary life and certainly during martial art training.

How to keep your balance during walking?

  • The heel of the right foot in front lands on the ground. When the heel of the front foot lands, the back foot is firmly pushing the ground without lifting off the ground.
  • Then, when the front right ball of foot touches the ground, the rear left heel rises.
  • When you fully step into the sole of your right foot, the left knee come forward.
  • The left foot is brought forward

One of the more important skills in ayumi ashi and tsugi ashi is the flexibility of the knee. The knee must be very relax and this gives the ability to stretch and bend.

Published by

Eddy Wolput

A passion for Martial Arts since 1964

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