Dantian -- north vs. south, hard vs soft

Discussion on the three big Chinese internals, Yiquan, Bajiquan, Piguazhang and other similar styles.

Dantian -- north vs. south, hard vs soft

Postby Formosa Neijia on Thu Mar 19, 2020 7:52 am

A few years back i found myself in a bit of a disagreement with a baguazhang teacher. He was saying if i wanted to study with him, I would need to stop all my weight training and let my muscles go soft and flacid like his. He was especially critical of my core work which in his opinion had made my dantian much too hard. Considering that this teacher didn't look any different than someone who had never trained anything in their entire life and was putting down many of the things that I found very useful, I wisely declined to study with him.

The next teacher I ended up studying from shortly thereafter was a master of 2 northern and 2 southern systems and his first comment to me was, "I've been training a long time! Feel how hard my dantian is!" I chuckled remembering the previous conversation with the other teacher. Needless to say, the southern style this teacher was known for not only values and developes a hard dantian/core, it even uses dynamic tension in performing the forms.

The bagua teacher was obviously into total relaxation and had the lack of physique to show for it, including the "buddha belly." He noted this was necessary for the dantian rotations, etc. The southern master completely disagreed and taught me how to use the dantian to perform his style. The dantian and reverse breathing pump the breath up and back and the muscle tension and relaxation act as pumps to move the qi out into the limbs and back into the torso.

My subsequent study of southern crane also confirmed this as my crane teacher had no problem with me having muscle and his style also used the reverse breathing as a pump. However one night, a master of bagua, taichi, and xingyi that is a friend of my crane teacher came to visit and he was surprised i was doing crane considering my background in the 3 IMAs he was teaching. When I showed him the training i was enjoying doing with my teacher, he looked a little disgusted and made similar comments to those of the bagua teacher I mentioned at the top of the post. I think he was trying to get me to study with him since he gave me his card.

From these and a few other experiences I have surmised that many northern styles and their dantian usage rely on total relaxation while southern style usage uses a different method that is equally potent and allows for a bit more physique to be present.
Has anyone else noticed anything like this?
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Re: Dantian -- north vs. south, hard vs soft

Postby everything on Thu Mar 19, 2020 8:33 am

they both sound like red herrings at the opposite ends of the spectrum... what is your experience/reflection on it?
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Re: Dantian -- north vs. south, hard vs soft

Postby Peacedog on Thu Mar 19, 2020 8:48 am

I've seen it go both ways.

A lot of the tension based stuff gives me pause for concern regarding health, but the lifespans of early weightlifters were remarkably long in many cases.

As far as dan tien rotation is concerned, and I include martial arts dan tien rotation/bumpachen/nauli kriya in the same boat, I've met both hard bodied people and complete fat asses who could do it.

It's always hard to say what can be combined and what cannot. I will say, I've seen little advantage in being physically weak/frail. And the more "relaxed" school practitioners seem to have bigger problems with this as they age. Some people associate southern practices with shorter lifespans. I just don't know if that is true though.

Some people live a very long time using either approach. Frankly, lifestyle habits seem to be the biggest issue there and no amount of chi gung is going to protect someone from smoking three packs of cigarettes a day, while living off of baijiao and pork fat. Disease was traditionally a bigger problem in the south anyway due to the warm climate and generally more unstable government.
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Re: Dantian -- north vs. south, hard vs soft

Postby Bao on Thu Mar 19, 2020 9:25 am

In CMA, both relaxation and using effort should always be functional imho. Practicing an extreme method in either way should have a clear, practical function. If someone cannot teach the practicality of a certain philosophy or method this always shows the teacher’s own lack of understanding and has very little to do with the legitimacy of a method or the lack there of. IMHO.

From these and a few other experiences I have surmised that many northern styles and their dantian usage rely on total relaxation while southern style usage uses a different method that is equally potent and allows for a bit more physique to be present.
Has anyone else noticed anything like this?


I found northern and southern internal practice different, though both very rewarding in their own ways. I wouldn’t say all Northern styles focus on relaxing the Dantian. Breathing deep and full is not just relaxing, it never is. But Hakka arts internal work is definitely very different from Northern Neigong. Southern styles use breath and sounds differently, much of it would go under the category “power breathing”, something that in northern styles is more associated with external arts. In northern neigong, all internal exercises start with calming the mind “Xin” and natural, not forced deep breathing. Southern styles internal practice often start directly working on breath and breathing patterns. I am certainly not an expert on Hakka methods, but still IME.
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Re: Dantian -- north vs. south, hard vs soft

Postby GrahamB on Thu Mar 19, 2020 11:00 am

I don't know about the whole north/south divide. Sounds a bit to general to me to be always true.

I think it's people, not styles. Call me crazy, but the question of whether you'd want to learn from the bagua teacher you mentioned would be answered best by getting hands on and seeing what he does when you try to do something non-compliant to him.

Thanks for the recommendation the the pilates video btw, I'm working through it slowly. All looks good so far, but I do worry I may become pregnant :D
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Re: Dantian -- north vs. south, hard vs soft

Postby windwalker on Thu Mar 19, 2020 12:49 pm

From these and a few other experiences I have surmised that many northern styles and their dantian usage rely on total relaxation while southern style usage uses a different method that is equally potent and allows for a bit more physique to be present.
Has anyone else noticed anything like this?


One might view it as the "type" delivery system for energy developed.

This characteristic of a wave as an energy transport phenomenon distinguishes waves from other types of phenomenon. Consider a common phenomenon observed at a softball game - the collision of a bat with a ball. A batter is able to transport energy from her to the softball by means of a bat. The batter applies a force to the bat, thus imparting energy to the bat in the form of kinetic energy.

The bat then carries this energy to the softball and transports the energy to the softball upon collision. In this example, a bat is used to transport energy from the player to the softball. However, unlike wave phenomena, this phenomenon involves the transport of matter.

The bat must move from its starting location to the contact location in order to transport energy. In a wave phenomenon, energy can move from one location to another, yet the particles of matter in the medium return to their fixed position. A wave transports its energy without transporting matter.


A wave transports its energy without transporting matter


very interesting for those arts who specialize in it.
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Re: Dantian -- north vs. south, hard vs soft

Postby Formosa Neijia on Thu Mar 19, 2020 7:07 pm

Peacedog wrote:A lot of the tension based stuff gives me pause for concern regarding health, but the lifespans of early weightlifters were remarkably long in many cases.

As far as dan tien rotation is concerned, and I include martial arts dan tien rotation/bumpachen/nauli kriya in the same boat, I've met both hard bodied people and complete fat asses who could do it.


I agree that lifestyle is a major consideration. But the southern styles often don't get credit for longevity and power. This is one of my favorite clips.

This guy is 83.This style is sometimes known as the "iron Buddha" system and they use heavy dynamic tension in their forms in the early parts of the training. Notice how small his waist is and that he seems to still have muscle even at his age. A friend of my wife's family does southern monkey and hard qigong and I showed him some taiji daoyin guys that emphasize total relaxation once and his response was that he would blow through them. He had visible pectoral muscles even under his shirt and a trim waist at the age of 75 and I used to be amazed at how many bowls of rice he could eat at banquets.

As to the fat levels, IME people who practice based on relaxation tend to be fatter and this has an effect on their health. Both of these bagua masters were what i would call skinny fat -- low levels of muscle with corresponding higher levels of fat even though they looked "skinny." Having higher levels of fat becomes a problem for the lower back due to the "pulling down" effect of the fat on the organs and the waist, in general, and this prevents full development of the "pull up and in" type actions. Dantian rotations without direct low back work IMO just make matters worse for fatter body types. It can be done but having a tire sloshing around your belly doesn't help, I unfortunately know from experience.

Bao wrote:I found northern and southern internal practice different, though both very rewarding in their own ways. I wouldn’t say all Northern styles focus on relaxing the Dantian. Breathing deep and full is not just relaxing, it never is. But Hakka arts internal work is definitely very different from Northern Neigong. Southern styles use breath and sounds differently, much of it would go under the category “power breathing”, something that in northern styles is more associated with external arts. In northern neigong, all internal exercises start with calming the mind “Xin” and natural, not forced deep breathing. Southern styles internal practice often start directly working on breath and breathing patterns. I am certainly not an expert on Hakka methods, but still IME.


I included the northern so-called "external" styles in my original statement because I have heard a lot of people from mantis, long fist, etc. also say you should be completely relaxed, although my N. mantis and long fist instructor did have reverse breathing and forceful dantian rotations as part of his method. Agreed about the Hakka arts as some versions, especially Chu/Chow gar s. mantis are using unreal amounts of dynamic tension in their arts. The worst case of elbow tenditis I've ever had came from my practice of Chow gar. However some of the Fujian and Guangdong based arts also use reverse breathing and dynamic tension, it's not just Hakka styles. Wuzuquan is very hard, for example, and it's Fujian based.

GrahamB wrote:I think it's people, not styles. Call me crazy, but the question of whether you'd want to learn from the bagua teacher you mentioned would be answered best by getting hands on and seeing what he does when you try to do something non-compliant to him.

Thanks for the recommendation the the pilates video btw, I'm working through it slowly. All looks good so far, but I do worry I may become pregnant :D

At that point, I was looking for higher level training, not fighting. If I thought he couldn't at least defend himself, I wouldn't have gone to talk to him in the first place. But in talking to these guys, I came across this split in philosophy and I think you have to choose a path to specialize in at a certain point. That's why I brought this up.

Those courses are gold, aren't they? For only $10 she goes into quite a bit of detail and her instructor course is only $10 more and she covers all the anatomy and phsyiology. Her pranayama course expands into the different breathing patterns you can do with the training. The Pilates takes the reverse breathing using the core as its base and ties all movement into it. I'm finding it essential for un-packing my iron shirt practices, which weren't explained very well. But yeah, make sure no one is taking advantage of you while you lay on the ground with your legs spread in the air. :D
everything wrote:they both sound like red herrings at the opposite ends of the spectrum... what is your experience/reflection on it?

My wife's first response to me telling her about the first bagua teacher was, "You're not going to get fat again are you?" Haha. No way I was going back to that. With the relaxation path, I don't think enough people take diet into consideration. Aikido-ists physiques should be noted. Massive amounts of qi won't prevent diabetes.

As for being opposite ends of the spectrum, my reflection on it is that you need to eventually pick a path. Perhaps both work but they work in different ways and I saw the relaxation path as a dead end for me. I'm just completely turned off by it. I'm more of a "fire" than a "water" guy. And since going down this path, I now seem to better understand a lot of the Shaolin practices like muscle change, bone marrow, and iron shirt. Also, if having a "hard dantian" is prized then a lot of Western stuff like cardio fitness, weight training, Pilates, and especially old-time strong man stuff can be brought into the mix allowing you to see connections between all this stuff. D_Glenn did an excellent job showing how some branches of baguazhang do the hard dantian trainings too in that thread on qigong in circle walking, but my experience is that isn't too common, at least where I'm at.
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Re: Dantian -- north vs. south, hard vs soft

Postby Peacedog on Thu Mar 19, 2020 7:49 pm

Wow. For 83 years of age that guy is frikin’ amazing. Good for him.
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Re: Dantian -- north vs. south, hard vs soft

Postby Trick on Fri Mar 20, 2020 6:58 am

how does an martial arts exercise develop an alert mind body relevant for combat if the exercise is about consciously focus on muscle tension or on the dantian for that matter ?....I mean, in combat or in any other interactions, does one perform optimal when ones mind just mind ones own presence ?.......What matter if the dantian is developed to be hard or soft, are there even such an division. Either one is centered or not ?
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Re: Dantian -- north vs. south, hard vs soft

Postby Bao on Fri Mar 20, 2020 1:00 pm

Peacedog wrote:Wow. For 83 years of age that guy is frikin’ amazing. Good for him.


Amazing. Just look at the movability of his back. 8-)

Trick wrote:how does an martial arts exercise develop an alert mind body relevant for combat if the exercise is about consciously focus on muscle tension or on the dantian for that matter ?....I mean, in combat or in any other interactions, does one perform optimal when ones mind just mind ones own presence ?.......What matter if the dantian is developed to be hard or soft, are there even such an division. Either one is centered or not ?


Have never heard about soft or hard dantian. Breathing is breathing, the dantian is the dantian. Learning to move from the center of the body is what is important and to build this way of moving into a body method. You shouldn’t even need to think about it, and instead it should be there naturally by itself whenever you need it.
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Re: Dantian -- north vs. south, hard vs soft

Postby Formosa Neijia on Fri Mar 20, 2020 6:08 pm

Trick wrote:how does an martial arts exercise develop an alert mind body relevant for combat if the exercise is about consciously focus on muscle tension or on the dantian for that matter ?....I mean, in combat or in any other interactions, does one perform optimal when ones mind just mind ones own presence ?.......What matter if the dantian is developed to be hard or soft, are there even such an division. Either one is centered or not ?


A couple of points about southern styles that use dynamic tension and this type of hard dantian training:
1. dynamic tension in the forms is preferable to doing forms relaxed because the air provides no resistance. Fights obviously often involve struggling against people which the dynamic tension helps prepare you for. Forms are basically exercises. Some forms use more of this, some less.
2. the dantian training aids power production by being hard at the point of impact. This simply won't happen without training. Transferring force from the legs to the hands can't be done efficiently through a jello-like core. The breathing needs to be trained as well to make that happen.
3. for qigong purposes, the muscles act as pumps to pump the qi back and forth from the limbs and torso through contraction/relaxation (kai/he, open/close). This effects bone marrow because you're essentially packing better oxygenated blood into more efficient, bigger muscles. There is a cyclical effect.
4. Some of the forms are done with a more qigong purpose and others are more fighting focused. The qigong forms are for building the body (focus inside), the fighting forms are focused outside the body obviously.

Obviously there is a difference between exercise type training and fighting type training and a good school would have both.
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Re: Dantian -- north vs. south, hard vs soft

Postby Formosa Neijia on Fri Mar 20, 2020 6:48 pm

Bao wrote:Amazing. Just look at the movability of his back. 8-)

Have never heard about soft or hard dantian. Breathing is breathing, the dantian is the dantian. Learning to move from the center of the body is what is important and to build this way of moving into a body method. You shouldn’t even need to think about it, and instead it should be there naturally by itself whenever you need it.


Well if you are amazed at his movement, my comments above are clues to how he's developed it. The iron buddha style is very hard in performace, granted it becomes softer at the age of 83.

Yeah many systems dont pay much attention to dantian at all. I saw some teachers never mention it, which is a problem IMO. Breathing isn't just breathing, however, to many other systems. Training it leads to solid results since without breath, there is no movement and no power. The danitan is the literal center of the body so training it is the main emphasis of the body method. Without training, it won't be there any more naturally than what an un-trained person has.

BTW, the bagua teachers above that i talked to want a soft dantian because they are emphasizing their version of large dantian rotations which in their opinion requires a super soft abdomen. The hard dantian rotations I was shown are shorter, sharper and can be trained to work with rapid punches. This avoids the windup seen in many versions of large-frame Chen style, for example.
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Re: Dantian -- north vs. south, hard vs soft

Postby everything on Fri Mar 20, 2020 7:24 pm

It seems these old "masters" are probably right and wrong. I'd rather "separate" yin and yang altogether. Do whatever hard/soft biomechanics makes the most sense. If you want to nerd out on every little thing, golf is probably a much better acid test. Because millimeters off make a difference and it's so easy to test. On the yin, I'd rather do qigong with no regard to IMA or MA. Do the sinking, do the rotation and microcosmic orbit. Don't try to have any martial connection at all. But we're not being fat and lazy or lacking in nutrition or going full cosmic hippie. The internal energy is there in either of those "external" extremes. That's why they seem like red herrings to me. Go full yang or full yin just seems by definition not taiji. But you gotta do what you need to do.
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Re: Dantian -- north vs. south, hard vs soft

Postby C.J.W. on Fri Mar 20, 2020 8:12 pm

As someone who's done both IMA and southern styles, I've had similar experiences involving teachers with opposing views on dantian development as well. Based on what I've been able to glean over the years and personal trial and error, here are my two cents worth:

1. Reverse breathing is for fighting, whereas abdominal breathing is mainly for health.

2. Having a soft, large "buddha belly" is an indication of incorrect neigong practice -- or simply that you've been eating and drinking too much. The ability to utilize dantian for power has nothing to do with the amount of fat on your belly.

3. Relaxation is important, but not all methods are created equal. If someone who preaches total relaxation can't produce impressive power or handle resistance with their structure, it is fake.

4. Weight training is fine once you've acquired the basics of an IMA body and gotten rid of the habit of using localized muscular strength (e.g., lifting with biceps when someone presses down on your arm as opposed to guiding that pressure down to the ground using structure.)

5. Dynamic tension training found in southern styles has its pros and cons. It builds power -- and the ability to take hits -- quickly compared to softer approaches. However, at high intensity over long periods of time, it can lead to all sorts of health issues. (One of my teachers used to practice a very hard southern style from Zhejiang province in his youth and developed hernia; the master he learned it from passed away in his early 60s from a stroke.) Some systems include the use of special herbal formulas or soft qigong practice to remedy the strain it puts on the body.
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Re: Dantian -- north vs. south, hard vs soft

Postby Formosa Neijia on Fri Mar 20, 2020 10:15 pm

C.J.W. wrote:1. Reverse breathing is for fighting, whereas abdominal breathing is mainly for health.

4. Weight training is fine once you've acquired the basics of an IMA body and gotten rid of the habit of using localized muscular strength (e.g., lifting with biceps when someone presses down on your arm as opposed to guiding that pressure down to the ground using structure.)

5. Dynamic tension training found in southern styles has its pros and cons. It builds power -- and the ability to take hits -- quickly compared to softer approaches. However, at high intensity over long periods of time, it can lead to all sorts of health issues. (One of my teachers used to practice a very hard southern style from Zhejiang province in his youth and developed hernia; the master he learned it from passed away in his early 60s from a stroke.) Some systems include the use of special herbal formulas or soft qigong practice to remedy the strain it puts on the body.


I'll address some of your points.

1. reverse breathing is based on and uses abdominal breathing. In fact, it's a prgoression from abdominal breathing and I found that in my own development, getting stuck at the abdominal breathing level left clueless about a lot of pratices. For example, many of the higher qigongs and even higher levels of abdominal breathing itself are unattainable unless you learn to push the breath upward and inward. The health benefits are immediately apart IMO to anyone that does the training safely.

4. The problem is this idea of the so-called "IMA body." No one knows what that is and no one is adequately training anyone for it beyond vague "sink the qi to the dantian," whatever that means. Proper jibengong simply isn't being taught, especially in IMAs with the possible exception of some xingyi schools. If building this supposed IMA body comes first then it's nothing but a roadblock and ideas about weighttraining go no where. HOW to weight train is practically ruined by incorrect ideas about IMA that don't stress whole body power. I've dealt with so many martial art guys that "don't want to get big" from using a paltry 16kg kettlebell to do basic kettlebell swings that it almost drove me crazy. Instead i focused on non-martial arts people and specialized in getting small women to build whole body power by swinging up to 48kg. Apologies for tooting my own horn but here are three of my female students:

That's whole body power, not localized muscle force, they're producing and in a method that is able to be progressed. Please note that's nearly body weight for the middle woman. She could also do dragon flags and other iron shirt moves.
By using dynamic tension at the beginning of training, some southern systems don't fall into the trap that most of the northern IMA fall into. Bascially I see people in southern styles do the progression from hard to soft quite a bit bit I almost never see the IMAs do a progression from soft to hard. I guess both paths are viable but I see a ton of IMA people get stuck.

5.Hernias occur in southern training because there is a split in dantian usage: some are being taught to push down and out and some are being taught to pull up and in. Both release power. But down/out will lead to stressing any weakness in the abdominal wall while pulling up and in will actually fix the pre-conditions that lead to hernias, at least in absence of overdone or incorrectly taught breath packing practices. People who get hemorhoids or hernias are usually packing beyond what their abdominal wall can take while people using up/in don't have that problem because you don't "pack" the chest.

The "buddha belly" you mentioned can be at least partially produced by this down/out production of force and overdone abdominal breathing, especially in absence of any corresponding physical exercise for the core that pulls the danitan inward because they don't want the dantian to "get too hard." Add hours a day doing a training devoted to relaxation (thereby burning few calories), wonky ideas about weight training/fitness, and the lack of attention to diet and you have a perfect storm.
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