The Central Axis-Line is situated and begins above the Ni-Wan at the crown of the head and extends downward through the centre of the body through the perineum extending further downward between the centre of the two feet and into the floor/ground. The development and refinement of the central axis-line produces both sound health and martial outcomes. For this article, I will refer to it as CAL. In Chinese it is termed Zhong Ding. I have also read articles were it likened the CAL to an “axle and a wheel”, the axle being the CAL and the wheel being the waist.
As we know when attending workshops we are going to be introduced to new areas of practice. We may find some aspects consistent with what we already do and are easy to incorporate into our practice. Other areas presented at a workshop may either not appeal to us at the time or, may not be seen to be relevant to our particular practice at all. Regardless, I am of the mind that if I retain just one thing that I can begin to practice then I am better positioned to deepen both my understanding and practice.
An important question was raised during the recent July workshop hosted by Li Chi Hsiang Sydney about maintaining nose-to-navel alignment. Nose-to-navel alignment is a mindfully maintained unbroken straight line that runs vertically from the nose to the navel and promotes turning as one piece, body symmetry, and facing completely in one direction. The question came about due to an exercise I was doing that I happen to do in a way that departs from nose-to-navel alignment, which for this article I will refer to as NNA.
Firstly, as I mentioned during the workshop the NNA is important to maintain. I was simply focusing on refining the CAL and sharing with participants a deepened aspect of the exercise they may enjoy exploring at some point in their practice, if not now, then perhaps later? However, we should also be aware that, the NNA cannot be maintained in every posture. I would suggest in most 100% weighted postures it is quite difficult to do so without torqueing the knee which is not desirable to say the least. I would further suggest NNA is not maintained during some transitions either and there are a number of postures where the NNA is not maintained. NNA is mostly evident in 70/30 postures.
Generally for beginning students I would correct their “finished posture” by pointing out their NNA to promote stability, symmetry and the whole body facing in one direction. It is good to maintain NNA where one can do so comfortably, of course. This includes whilst doing both form and fundamental exercises. Rather than thinking of them as separate, one could think of the CAL as the internal deepening and lengthening of the NNA.
During the workshop I shared two exercises specifically for developing awareness and refinement of the CAL. The first being “turning the millstone” (axle & wheel), which focuses on maintaining the NNA whilst developing an awareness of and turning around the CAL. The second exercise was the “silk reeling exercise” that I perform turning my waist seemingly separate from my head.
When I do the silk reeling exercise with a “floating head”, meaning my head remains stable whilst my body is turning, I am doing so for a specific purpose and not that I’m simply disregarding the NNA. If people choose to maintain NNA alignment during the silk reeling exercise by all means they should continue to do so. In fact, I would suggest that entry-level and intermediate-level students focus on maintaining NNA.
So what am I try to develop and refine?
Firstly, the silk reeling exercise has a number of important areas of practice within it, for example: developing circling energy, developing spiralling energy through the whole of the body, developing cross-over energy, maintaining and developing left/right channel alignment, and rotating around the CAL. Crucial to developing these aforementioned areas is the CAL. The reeling silk exercise is not simply to develop smoothness and fundamental coordination of the hands and arms. Like all the fundamental exercises, the silk-reeling exercise has quite a few levels of practice, or what I call “central themes”, to it. These range from basic loosening of the arms and opening of joints and eventually extend into embodying and integrating all the previously written central themes.
All the fundamental exercises develop and refine various energies through systematically deepening our practice internally layer by layer through the bodily tissues. Our first objective and basic requirement for leading us deeper into internal practice is for our bodies to become soft, loose and aligned, along with our movements becoming balanced and even. Our bodies having become soft, loose, aligned, balanced and even we are then better placed to develop and refine other deeper aspect of the exercise as mentioned above, should we so choose.
In my experience, when initially refining the CAL it will feel shaky, unstable and somewhat large and quite cumbersome and hard to distinguish or separate out from the rest of the body mass. After a time of developing and refining the CAL it gradually becomes more distinguishable, stable and thinner. When the CAL is stable and thinner, rotating around it becomes noticeably much smoother, quicker and functionally consistent and reliable.
In getting the CAL to grow thinner we must begin by softening and loosening everything around it. If, I am rigidly maintaining NNA I cannot achieve this loosening requirement easily, simply because the NNA requires the whole body to move and turn as one piece to maintain its integrity. This makes separating-out and distinguishing the CAL a little more difficult – not impossible, but a little more difficult – and limiting in a functional sense. If I were to personally rate NNA and the CAL on a scale of importance and functionality from 1-10, with 10 being the highest, I would rate the CAL at 10 without hesitation. Relative to Taichichuan practice, I refer to the CAL as the ridgepole upon which all is dependent and is integrated into. However, both the NNA and the CAL are necessary, but just at different stages in our practice and essentially for different functional purposes and outcomes.
Maintaining a floating head, some may say “holding my head statically”, during the silk reeling exercise I am in fact separating out and distinguishing clearly and growing my CAL thinner by allowing everything around it to loosen through the turning actions of the waist. I am thereby further separating-out, defining and refining my CAL. Continually distinguishing my CAL from the rest of my body and rotating around it clearly, has an internally consolidating and strengthening effect on the CAL.
Relative to health, holding my head in a “floating” position when doing the silk reeling exercise releases tension from the neck area and stimulates chi flow. If you try doing the exercise yourself with a “floating head” you will feel the muscles at the side of your neck gently move up and down, this action has a subtle massaging effect on the neck area and releases tensions promoting blood flow. Suffice to say, developing and refining the CAL brings enormous health benefits.
In a functional sense, let’s say, in push-hands, I can lose my NNA and manage okay, but if I lose my connection with my CAL then, in that moment, I am very much at the whim of others. It would be unwise to underestimate the functional efficiency of the CAL and its role in serious Taichichuan practice. For example internal movement along the CAL can occur in a number of ways – up or down, circular rotation, spiralling up or down and in or out. One can draw into it or draw out from it. One can release from it or absorb into it, open or close it, up, down, in, or out, or any combination thereof. Suffice to say, this is a complex area of CAL functionality.
In summary, it may perhaps come down to personal choice and what it is you are developing or refining at your particular stage of practice. Personally, my focus is on further refining the CAL. For others, it may be best suited for them to focus on the NNA for the time being – either scenario is okay. Maybe now you are refining your NNA; maybe later you will begin to refine your CAL then integrate both into your practice?
In closing, the working title of the morning session of the Li Chi Hsiang July workshop was “a thousand pieces into one”. In doing the silk reeling exercise I was offering an alternative way of beginning to separate-out and refine an important aspect of Taichichuan study and practice, through first beginning to locate and then rotate around your CAL specifically. I was not providing an ultimatum between CAL and NNA. Having refined the CAL, the NNA can better serve the development of the CAL. In fact, the smaller and more refined the rotation around the CAL becomes, the closer it hedges back to what appears to be an external NNA, but with an altogether different quality, flexibility and increased functionality.
Finally, when we see a person doing Taichichuan and I mean Tai-Chi-Chuan specifically, it is important not to dismiss what they are doing on the basis of one idea or simply on the basis of the external appearance of their form. When we ask the person why they are doing something in a particular manner, we may just learn something new and thereby gain a deeper appreciation of Taichichuan.
In the internal arts we see only 10% of what is happening externally, while 90% remains internal. It then takes a very keen eye to see what is occurring “behind the curtain”.
So thanks, Pat, for asking the question. I trust I have been clear in going some way toward an appropriate answer.
- John Hartley
John Hartley, Founder and Principal Instructor of Inner Health School of Taijiquan, Adelaide