What would Newton say about the tanden? AP Photo/Royal Society/PA
As you spend more time at the dojo during this typical Chicago winter, you will hear repeated admonitions regarding your "center". You may be instructed to "move from your center", to "maintain your center", perhaps even to "visualize your center". At some point, someone may have even deigned to point out where your "center" might be found.
However, have you ever stopped to consider the exact nature of your center and why it seems to be a recurring theme in Eastern arts? The center, or tanden in Japanese, and dantian in Chinese, is key to many arts, ranging from the martial to the sublime. Karateka are reminded that power comes from the tanden, while tea ceremony or chado practitioners try to act from their tanden. Taoist and Zen meditation require their adherents to be aware of their centers, especially during meditation.
The center is also considered to be the source of ki or chi, which can be loosely translated as life energy. Internal martial arts such as tai chi, emphasize movements from the center. Aikidoka are taught that ki emanates from the tanden. In the most basic position of Japanese swordsmanship, chudan kamae (middle guard), the sword is held in front, drawing a direct line from the the swordsman's center to the opponent's throat.
Regardless of what your style preaches about the tanden, it is a very physical entity. In fact, the tanden is the center of mass of the human body at rest. The tanden is located three finger-widths below and two finger-widths behind the navel. As such, it is the key to your balance as a martial artist. As this video from the National Geographics' Fight Science illustrates, balance is maintained by keeping the center directly over the feet.
Newtonian physics dictates that the center of mass must be set in motion in order to generate momentum. Simply put, any strikes or throws that begin by setting your tanden in motion is likely to generate the most momentum, so long as the movement of the extremities are integrated with the center. Momentum, of course, translates into force at the moment of impact.
Regardless of whether you believe in the more mystical qualities of tanden, or you simply regard it as your center of mass, you must learn to move from your center. Heed the advice from the masters, but also remember that the core muscles are critical in supporting and moving your center.