Well, I guess there’s nothing for it but to write about rotating the dantian, since it’s been on my mind and in my practice for a couple of months now.
I first encountered the notion of controlling the rotation of one’s lower dantian, the energy center inside the lower abdomen, in Damo Mitchell’s book “Daoist Nei Gong.”
Mitchell teaches his students to get in touch with the natural rotation of their lower dantians and to speed them up. Normally, he says, the dantian makes a complete revolution once every 24 hours; he suggests learning to rotate it in coordination with the breath—one rotation per breath cycle—to more efficiently drive energy through the body’s meridians and thereby attain greater health and vitality.
Mitchell says some of his students have reported that rotation of the dantian feels likes having a fish flopping in the belly.
Wow! I wasn’t aware that the dantian rotated at all and so certainly had even less notion that I might be able to control its rotation. I was mightily intrigued by the fish-flopping-in-the-belly image, but I was also pretty sure I wouldn’t experience dantian rotation, let alone learn to control it. It seemed way beyond me.
However, one day, when I was feeling gritchy and unmotivated and hadn’t done my qigong practice for the day, I thought, well, maybe I’ll just do some standing meditation.
So I just stood with my arms up, focusing on my dantian, as Mark Cohen had recommended in an article in a 2012 issue of T’ai Chi magazine.
As I stood there, focusing on my dantian, expecting nothing in particular, I noticed some peculiar sensations in my abdomen. What was that? I watched and waited and yes, something seemed to be moving—and it wasn’t gas. I felt mostly downwards movement in the front of my lower abdomen, but there was enough of a hint of upwards movement deeper inside for me to feel there was circularity.
Michell says you should be able to hear as well as feel your dantian rotating, but I heard nothing. I only had a sensation of turning, and the feeling that the turning could harmonize with my breathing. I followed the fish in my belly for awhile, and then quit—I’m not sure why, but I think I found it some combination of boring, unpleasant and scary.
I had similar experiences a few more times during standing and seated meditation. It was fairly easy to access the sensation—too easy, I thought, for something Mitchell had said could be difficult—so I questioned whether what I felt was rotating was really my dantian. But what else could it be?
And was I actually making it speed up? Dantians don’t have spokes or other markers to facilitate counting their revolutions, but if my dantian were rotating only once every 24 hours, I don’t see how I could have experienced motion.
Rotating the dantian had never come up in my Yi Ren Qigong training, which made me uneasy about doing it, or anyway focusing on it, and also unsure of how to integrate it with my Yi Ren practices.
I asked my teacher, Dr. Guan-Cheng Sun, the man who developed Yi Ren Qigong and trained me to teach it, what I should do about the fish in my belly.
He said I could incorporate it with silk reeling in my taiji practice, silk reeling being a spiraling motion that travels throughout the body and, in particular, through the dantian. (I offer this definition now, although in the past I conceived silk reeling as something involving the torso and most especially the arms, not the dantian or the legs.)
Dr. Sun said that rotation of the dantian is the source of power in taiji moves and that he doesn’t teach it because it’s so closely tied to the martial arts, and years ago he promised his granduncle—his first qigong teacher—that he would only use qigong for healing, not fighting.
From what I’ve learned from other taiji and qigong sources, dantian rotation is certainly not unheard of but isn’t necessarily taught, either. One teacher said his teacher used to teach students to do it but stopped, because they tended to get hung up on it. And Mitchell does say that at some point you no longer need to focus on the dantian, and that doing so can become counter-productive, at least in the nei gong practices he teaches.
So I don’t know. My relationship to rotating my dantian remains uneasy.
Standing around cranking my dantian feels like an unnatural act—not only in the doing of it but in the thinking about it. If the dantian is supposed to turn once in 24 hours, should a person really be messing with Mother Nature by trying to get it to turn so much faster?
Plus, after awhile the feeling of having a fish flopping in one’s belly becomes unpleasant as well as unnerving.
I feel much more enthusiastic about developing dantian-centered silk reeling in my practice of taiji. That feels natural and really quite lovely, although I can’t sustain it for long and am not aware of my dantian making anything like a complete rotation in any given move.
And here’s a curious side note: Perhaps 20-25 years ago, maybe more, but definitely before I had started practicing taiji or qigong, I would periodically get strange sensations in my lower abdomen. While they weren’t painful, they seemed odd enough that I asked my doctor about them. He came up empty and even asked doctor friends about it. They were puzzled, too.
Eventually, the sensations stopped occurring, although I think they recurred once or twice in more recent times. I’m not sure, because I find it very difficult to remember how physical sensations past actually felt, but I wonder now if what I felt way back then was simply my dantian turning.