While I was in Chiang Mai just over a month ago the most valuable experience hands down was studying and receiving Chi Nei Tsang.

Studying Chi Nei Tsang at Blue Garden. Here is our teacher, Remco, getting all up in this lucky student’s left kidney.

If you don’t know what Chi Nei Tsang is, I for sure suggest you read more about it. If you really care to, you can read about my fun times learning CNT HERE (it’s a pretty long, rambling post though so save it for when you have a coffee and 10 minutes to kill).

In a nutshell, Chi Nei Tsang is an abdominal massage based in Chinese Medicine. As the story goes, negative emotions are stored in our organs. Our gut is our “second brain”, the small intestine in particular. And much like the food we eat, when we are unable to digest and deal with our emotions they are stored in the second brain. Apparently even in our bones.

And likewise, when organs (or bones) are squished into awkward positions because of poor posture and movement mechanics, this can also cause negative emotions and stress to manifest, along with degeneration of the organs.

Chi Nei Tsang can be a pretty intense experience for some people. Especially if you’ve got a lot of pent up emotional shit or funky movement and postural patterns (dancers… Just sayin’!).

So anyway, learning this massage was a blast. Helped me with many things. And I miss having my belly rubbed everyday. Any takers? 😉

But now, over a month since my last belly-rub session, I’m learning how I can apply Chi Nei Tsang principles to movement related issues, particularly those rooted in poor breathing patterns.

And so, the topic of today’s post is on learning how to first breathe and then move from the tan tien.

What’s the tan tien?

The lower abdominal tan tien is an important place in the body in Chinese Medicine. This point is located roughly 2cm below the navel, deep in the abdomen, and correlates to your center of gravity.

In yoga, this point correlates roughly to the sacral chakra, and in Japan is referred to as hara.

Your tan tien is your energy center, where “life force is stored”.

Sorry, guys, if I’m not using science words. Just deal with it for now. Science isn’t always everything.

Tan tien is an important reference point in activities like Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and many martial arts. In dance, I reckon that when teachers and choreographers want you to stay more “grounded” it  would be helpful to be connected to your tan tien.

Unfortunately in dance, and other bendy-people-activities like gymnastics and yoga, we put so much emphasis on being able to bend backwards and doing crazy twists, it becomes easy to lose the connection to the center of our bodies. This can be a cause of lower back pain (much like they say about imbalance of the sacral chakra).

Many of us, and non-dancers too, lose connectivity to our tan tien. You can blame stress, poor spinal stabilization patterns, unresolved emotional issues, or poor organ function due to lifestyle. The result is the loss of ability to breathe into the lower abdomen favouring a paradoxical breathing pattern instead. We forget how to contract the tan tien, relax it, and move from it.

The image on the bottom represents a paradoxical breathing pattern, with the belly sucking in with inhalation, air going first into the chest, rather than both expanding together.

In Chi Nei Tsang, the practitioner will first “clear” the tan tien to allow chi (energy) to flow more freely to it, and open it, bringing more awareness to the area.

It is possible to achieve similar effects by yourself through moving and breathing mindfully.

Some people who know pretty well will remember that I used to refer to my lower abdominal and pelvic region as a “black hole”. Literally had no ability to connect my brain to the black hole (tan tien!).

After having received Chi Nei Tsang I was finally able make a connection to my lower abdominal area. After waking up tan tien, things starting feeling different. Much different.

  • I was able to breathe into my lower abdomen, whereas before I was a paradoxical chest breather (still mostly am…Workin’ on it,guys, ).
  •  Because my breathing was coming more naturally, I felt my inner core activate more reflexively- I no longer had to brace so much to stabilize.
  • I felt my hips were able to extend fully, whereas before I could not, or had to actively contract my glutes to get to that range of motion.
  • I was finally able to maintain a neutral spine and pelvis without tucking under and reduced my normally uncontrollable pattern of resting in a heavy anterior pelvic tilt.
  • All former pain symptoms disappeared (knee, hip, hamstring, lower back, shoulder).
  • Amazing mental clarity and calm.
  • Finally could get full cervical spine (neck) flexion
  • Felt my weight shift more posteriorally onto my heels, whereas before I had a tendency to shift onto my toes and make every movement super quad dominant.
  • Felt grounded into the earth, lighter.

These improvements lasted for weeks, and now, about a month after returning to the cold north, not getting  regular Chi Nei Tsang, and doing several dance classes (loading the dancer-dysfunction back into my system), I can feel these effects leaving me. Noooooo…

I just want to be able to move like her:

Oh my God that single leg landing in deep plie… One day.

There is, however, a technique I’ve been using to try to hold on, and this is to do tan tien focused breathing.

How to do tan tien breathing?

It’s super easy and effective. If you do it regularly.

I taught one of my dance clients how yesterday.  After a few rounds her neck alignment improved (now getting full left cervical rotation! BAM). She noted similar things as I had: Felt more grounded, calm. Good things for a dancer to feel.

How to breathe into tan tien (a self Chi Nei Tsang technique):

1) Find your tan tien with your fingers and get comfy poking into it.

The easiest position to start in is lying on your back, knees bent or with pillows supporting under your knees.

Remember your tan tien is about 2cm below the navel and deep in the abdominal cavity. Place your fingers there and on an exhale, press into your belly until you can’t poke in any deeper. This may feel weird. Good. Go with it.

Take note of how it feels in there. Do you notice if it feels cold or warm? Can you feel a pulse? How far down can you get before you meet resistance?

2) Breathe into your tan tien!

Breathe into this special place that stores your life force. Put some awareness into your center of gravity.

With your fingers still poking into your belly,  inhale and try to push your fingers out. As you exhale, allow your fingers to sink deeper into your abdomen. See how deep you can go. Hold your breath at the bottom for a few seconds. Repeat for a few minutes.

Aim for your exhalation to be 3 times as long as your inhale. Get out all your air, and then some more. I like to work with an in 4 out 12 count. You can start with a 1:1 ratio and move up to 2:1 until you can handle 3:1 exhale to inhale.

An Ayurvedic doctor once told me to work on a 30 second inhale, 30 second exhale pattern. I managed to do this once. I almost passed out. On the bus.

Be aware of where your breath goes first. You will likely feel that as you inhale, it is difficult at first to guide the breathe into your fingers, but it will become easier each time.

You can also try humming, or making a “shhh” or “chooo” sound as you exhale. This will ensure you are truly getting a full exhalation. Auditory cues don’t lie. Often there’s more air left than you think. These are also healing sounds used in Chi Nei Tsang and Qi Gong.

3) Repeat a few time a day. Experiment with different positions. Try it while walking.

Much like any skill (chin-ups, push-ups, speed reading), the more you “grease the tan tien groove”, the easier it becomes. You don’t need to spend 30 minutes working on breathing all at once, because that sucks. Just break it up into mini sessions throughout the day (especially before dance class, dancers!).

I like to attempt tan tien breathing in positions that I know are challenging for me. Like in a supine hip bridge. God it really sucks. Just try it.

Another fun challenge is to breathe into your tan tien while walking, without your fingers for feedback. I attempt this quite often and find I have to slow my walking wayyyy down to do it properly.

When you are able to bring awareness into your tan tien, it’s almost like you’re not even breathing, but like the breath is moving you.

By having this energy channel open, the breath will flow there naturally. You don’t need to use any effort. Rather than forcing through muscular effort, the breathe simply moves you into the correct place. It’s magical.

It’s Wu Wei– Action through non-action. Allowing what feels spontaneous and natural to occur. What if your dancing could feel like this? It was rare for me, and probably the cause of my many injuries, always relying on excess muscular effort.

Try tan tien breathing while doing inversions- Head-stand, hand-stand or shoulder-stand. That takes some mad skillz.

Try doing this focused breathing in dance positions like an attitude line, or to initiate a turn.

The more you try to play with breath and gravity and allow yourself to be moved in new ways into new positions, the more fun you can have with movement.

The trouble with trying to teach movement and posture to people, I think, is that it isn’t easily possible to describe how to do it in terms of muscular execution. The person has to feel it for themselves by directing their breath into the right place, helping them to naturally move into the appropriate position.

This can’t truly be taught, but only offered to them through a learning experience. It is up to the student to be open to it and allow it to happen.

This can be frustrating.

I often want to resort to more obvious ways of cueing,  like, “shoulders back”, or “squeeze your butt”.

What I try to do more often is direct the client on where to breathe. If they direct the breath into the right area, at the right time, the movement and the posture becomes natural. The breath dictates it so.

So I suggest you try building a tan tien awareness practice. Make it a regular part of your day. Just for fun. Poke your fingers into your belly and breathe. It just might change your life.

Have a listen to master Mantak Chia talk about tan tien and the second brain. Cool stuff!