The wonders of the dantian

The wonders of the dantian

Connecting to the dantian in the lower belly is a core practice in qigong and what are called the 'internal arts'. The following passage is taken from my new book Qigong: Cultivating Body, Breath & Mind


The lower dantian

In the practice both of qigong and internal alchemy what is known as the

lower dantian – ‘field of elixir’ or ‘cinnabar field’ – is considered a vital

energetic store, as well as the centre of gravity in the body.


The importance of the core in modern exercise and movement work is well

understood. From the Chinese martial arts perspective, it encompasses

the waist, lower back, hips, groins and lower abdomen, together known

as the yao. This is the area where power is generated. Major acupuncture

points are located here, for example Mingmen (Gate of Life) between the

second and third lumbar vertebrae, Guanyuan (Gate of Origin and also

known as Dantian) and Qihai (Sea of Qi), both on the midline of the lower

abdomen, and Shenque (Spirit Gate) in the centre of the umbilicus.

What could be called the ‘core of the core’ is the lower dantian deep inside

the belly. While it is sometimes imagined as a singular point, it can more

easily be experienced as an area, and quite a large one, which might

explain why its location varies from school to school. Some place it lying

deep within the lower abdomen at the level of the umbilicus, others [more

commonly] two to three inches below the umbilicus and also deep inside

the belly.


Probably the best way to locate it is simply to absorb the mind into the

lower abdomen between the front and back of the body and experience

what we find there. To do so, we need to be calm and softly focused

– finding the still centre within our depths. Lower abdominal breathing –

without strain – practised diligently will help build a pleasurable sensation

in the dantian. This is a feeling of deep rest, centredness and peace, and

also of aliveness, expansion, energy, gentle throbbing or other feelings we

struggle to find words for. By resting in the dantian and nourishing it with

breath, qigong offers a way to build our store of qi and jing.

According to traditional Chinese medicine, the area of the dantian is the

home of the bao (Room of Sperm) in males and the zi bao (Uterus) in

females. This suggests that generating quiet power in the dantian will

increase libido and enhance fertility.


Focusing on the dantian, and especially breathing into it, should be

practised in a natural and not overly-determined way. Like cultivating a

plant, it should not be forced.


The middle and upper dantian

Although – as is so common in Chinese traditions – there are a variety

of opinions, it is generally agreed that the middle dantian is located in

the chest at the level of the heart, or more precisely in the centre of the

chest between the two nipples in men, deep to the acupuncture point

Shanzhong (Chest Centre). The upper dantian is located within the brain

at the level of the eyebrows where the non-channel acupuncture Yintang

lies. In the Daoist tradition this is called the Niwan Palace, the central one of the nine palaces of the brain ‘where all the various spirits meet’.

Some qigong practitioners equate the middle dantian with the heart

centre – the home of compassion, love and empathy, and the upper

dantian with transcendence, intuition and intellect, and propose that all

three should be cultivated equally. However most of us, especially in the early stages of practice, need to establish our root by focusing on lowering

the centre of gravity, relaxing the chest and breathing into the lower

dantian. Doing so helps us build a strong foundation. Opening the heart or

focusing on the upper dantian before the root is well established may lead

to emotional and mental disharmony. Yet the long-term aim is to cultivate

all three dantian. Without opening the heart, we may become too earthbound

and risk being seduced by the physical and libidinal power of the

lower dantian. And without opening the upper dantian, we may neglect

the power of the unlimited mind.


Neidan – internal alchemy

The multiple historical and modern practices which co-exist under the

umbrella term qigong span a spectrum from powerful physical practices

at one end to quiet and still internal ones at the other. Here they sometimes

merge into more esoteric practices found in the neidan (internal

alchemy) tradition, also known as the Way of the Golden Elixir.

In neidan practice the lower dantian is known as the stove (or golden

stove), a name deriving from the practice of waidan - external alchemy,

considered the precursor of chemistry. Early Daoists sought to create

a material elixir to prolong life and even confer immortality by refining

minerals and metals in a crucible. Dan means cinnabar and as in

Indian, Tibetan, Muslim and European alchemy, one of the most important

substances for the Daoists was mercury for which cinnabar is the

main source.


However the toxic nature of many of these elixirs, and the death from

poisoning which followed, meant that the focus turned to neidan – internal

alchemy – with the aim of creating a powerful medicine (the elixir)

within the body itself, primarily through breathing, visualisation and deep



Neidan practices are complex and their effects can be powerful and should

only be engaged in under the guidance of an experienced teacher. In

fact like all practices that focus on deliberately generating qi with mind

concentration and visualisation, it is best to first build a strong body and

resilient nervous system before attempting them.

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