In a previous article I outlined the importance of the centre point. This point, when unmoving in relation to the tissues and structures around it, allows the exponent to rotate so as to diminish incoming forces. But, once we have developed our idea of the centre point and our ability to utilize it, we can move on to train this general area of the body more deeply. This further exploration is to develop what I call the ‘working centre’, an area of the body that has been the subject and focus of many martial development methods throughout history.
What is the working centre?
The centre of the martial arts is usually located in the lower portion of the body. Sometimes it is referred to as the centre of gravity, sometimes the reservoir of ‘energy’, sometimes as the centre point, sometimes as the physical centre when measuring from our extremities. However, a very useful idea for this area of the body is that it is the juncture or nexus of the many tissue chains, lines of association or coordination’s that run throughout the body. As such, movement here will have an effect across the body which, as we will see later in this article, can be very useful for the Martial Artist.
In my previous articles on the subject of the ConnectedBody, I outlined the major body lines and their role in movement. In those articles I have mentioned that these lines are linked at the level of the lower abdomen and that this meeting place is important to the development of the MartialBody. In this article we will explore this junction, and the active components of this area of the body, how they are developed and ultimately how they are used.
The anatomy of the lower abdomen.
The centre of the martial arts, known as the lower Dan Tien, the Tanden or the Hara, is defined in many different way’s dependent upon the tradition. However, in my time studying various martial arts that have their focus on this area, it is safe to say that there is often little consensus among adepts about which definition is most important. As such, it is important to highlight early on, that the definitions and information in the is article are simply ones which I have personally found useful.
The working centre is primarily composed of the physical tissues located in and around the lower portion of the body. When developed, these tissues can take on the feel of a ‘Ball’ in the lower abdomen and their manipulation can produce the sensation and physical appearance of a ball rolling or rotating. Of course, many doctors have sliced open people’s bellies, and none of them have found a large ball in there, so something else must be producing this effect. That something else is the muscles and associated tissues of this region and the pressures that their engagement create in the area they surround.
The center could be confused by some with the ‘core’ as it is termed in in the Strength and conditioning world, however this misses the mark when looking at the tissues involved and the how they are used. To outline the muscular and associated sinews/ connective tissues briefly here is largely an intellectual exercise. It is useful to know what the structures are, but equally we shouldn’t be too hung up on them.
To outline them in brief (omitting some of the smaller muscles and tissues )
Psoas major and minor, Quadratus lumborum, Iliacus, Periformis, Muscles of the Pelvic Diaphram & Pelvic Floor, Internal obliques, Transverse abdominus, External obliques, Rectus abdominus, Diaphragm.
As you can see, these tissues represent the complete encapsulation of the lower abdominal cavity, and it is this complete, all sided, support than can create the effect of the ‘Ball’. In fact, the cavity itself is also extremely important in the development of the working centre. It is in this space that we can identify the centre point of rotation for instance. It is also here that pressure changes, created via the manipulation of the tissues around the cavity, create mechanical advantage and can development the various muscles that are touched or effected by the pressure change.
Linking to the rest of the body.
The individual muscles I highlight above are only part of the story however and in fact, when taken alone, don’t particularly mean much to the practitioner. Instead it is how these various muscles and their associated connective tissues co-ordinate with each other and the rest of the body that really matters. It is this co-ordination that creates the impression of the ‘ball rotating’ when you place your hands on the belly of someone with advanced development. However, this sensation is no more than a fun little distraction to the real purpose of rotating the centre, to fuel movement.
The muscles of this region are arranged such that they fill the pelvic basin, they wrap the sides of the body, the front and the back and run across the top of the abdominal cavity. Also through training they co-ordinate and connect with the rest of the body so that as they are pulled or tightened, effects occur at distal points seemingly separate to them.
For example, the Diagonal muscles, used in oblique or diagonal centre rotation are arranged such that they connect to some of the major muscles in the back, and front of the body, from the Trapizius, the latimus dorsi, the supinator’s and pronators of the arms, the pectoralis major and minor etc. This is true of all of the tissues in this region and as we activate them we can create horizontal, vertical or diagonal actions.
These links between the muscle/connective tissue groups in the lower abdomen and the rest of the body can be expanded to literally link the toes to the fingers. Through training the of connection through the centre the feeling of linking the body becomes extremely clear and real. The famous saying from Tai Chi is that ‘one-part moves, all parts move’ and this is physical reality for anyone who has sufficiently developed this area of the body.
The need for development.
With all this anatomical information, it could be thought that the working centre is just something everybody has. However, most people are not only completely unaware of these muscles and how to manipulate them, they have not developed control or connection in the area in the first place.
Actually, for most people living a modern life, these muscles are deficient in some way. Either they are holding habitual tension and are constantly tight like banjo strings, or they are clack and weak through poor posture and lack of use. As such, the idea that we could just ‘have’ a working centre is a bit of a nonstarter.
As an example, sitting for long hours per day can have a profound effect on the tissues of the centre. Perhaps more than any other group, office workers often find that a combination of weakness and tightness in the various tissues of the centre is commonplace. Muscles like the Psoas and the various flexor and extensors are profoundly affected by sitting for long periods and this can legitimately hamper the progress of those also looking to develop their centre. Again, often individuals in these professions may not be able to pinpoint precisely where the problem lies, they simply feel that their ‘hips ache’ or they have shoulder or thoracic spine soreness. As an office worker for much of my adult life, believe me when I say that it is a constant battle to maintain useful posture and mobility.
So, in fact, the first step for most people is to think about how we can identify the issues in this region of the body, so that we can correct them. This is where the myriad styles of movement and awareness training from the martial arts come in. We see martial arts working with everything from floor movement to inversion, to static standing positions, to rapid movements in order to ‘feel’ where their body may be weak or tense. However, perhaps the most developed and refined techniques for the development of the active centre can be found in the martial traditions that are known as the ‘Internal Arts’.
Systems that could be called ‘internal’ are found in many cultures, but they all have a deep focus on looking inside, at what the body is actually doing when it moves or produces forces. Often, the centre is of primary importance to this process and is the focus of much of the training. In the MartialBody system we draw on the training methods found in these traditiona for the creation of the active centre. Rather than outlining those specific methods here we can, instead look at the common concepts that are utilized when someone is trying to develop this area.
Developing the working Centre
So, we have established that the working centre is a group of tissues and their associations with each other, the space they inhabit and the area they encapsulate. We also have thought about how these tissues are usually underdeveloped or habitually tight, so what processes can we use to begin to correct issues and develop the practical working centre?
Awareness: - This is perhaps the most important point when thinking about how we develop a centre. Becoming aware of the general area of the body initially, but then being more precise and feeling exactly what may be moving, pulling or pressurizing. Simple awareness cannot be over emphasized and without it, there is no chance of identifying what you need to work on and where. A teacher watching you will rarely be able to pinpoint precisely what you should work on … its down to you.
Without this acute awareness most are simply be unable to begin to develop the working centre. As such, the first phase of training to develop the working centre is in the static holding of varied poses and the ‘feeling’ of how these poses impact the area. We can then move on to maintaining this awareness when moving, usually slowly at first but then at increasing speeds and circumstances.
We can also utilize partners who can variously push, prod and poke us to help us feel what is happening and why. These pushes and prods can often be held so that we have something for the mind to identify as we go through the process of becoming aware.
Release : - When we bring our awareness into focus we can start to work on things that we may feel are problematic. This is almost always a case of releasing tension or bound tissue. The deeper our awareness goes into the centre the more we feel the tension and imbalance in the area. Unlike ‘stretching’, releasing is often led by breath and deliberate relaxation. The process of releasing tissue allows it to become controlled in a more precise meaning that we can intentionally tense or release it at will. Again, it is very useful to utilize a training partner here. As they push into a bound tissue we can release against there pressure and they can feed back on the results.
An interesting part of the release process is that is it often not limited directly to the tissues of the centre. In almost all cases, in fact, the practitioner will need to release other areas of the body that may be compounding the errors in the centre. It is possible to feel, for instance, that as the upper body releases the lower part of the body ‘fills’. In some traditions this process of release is known as ‘building the stone ball’ or ‘filling the dan tien’ as the lower torso can begin to feel dense and spherical.
Pulling the Tissues : - Once we feel the tissues and have released them to a satisfactory level we can begin the long and somewhat tedious process of developing them and bringing them under conscious control. One of the primary ways we can begin to develop them is to start to tug and pull on the various tissues. This pulling is often done across longer chains of tissue with the tug in the tissues of the centre a side effect of a larger extension. This has the added benefit of associating the rest of the body, and its various major lines, with this central nexus.
The feeling of tugging on the various tissues over time will develop them and the practitioner will begin to feel the urge to ‘tense’ or pull on those tissues as they are extended. Now this is not some type of isolated action like tensing our bicep, but instead a subtle type of counterpull against the tug cause by extension. It is a unique feeling deep inside the torso and one that will often arise naturally when we have worked correctly up until that point.
Over time this counter pull can be performed without the preceding extension or tugging on the tissues. It is from this new ability we begin the ability to co-ordinate the counter pulls in unison and so ‘rotate’ our centre. Slowly, and painstakingly, our ability to rotate the centre forms and eventually the control over this process is so acute that someone touching the abdomen will feel a sensation like a ball rotating. Indeed, touching an adepts abdomen who has embedded this ability and trained it to a high degree can be quite startling, the power and immediacy of the rotation often shocking.
Creating Pressures: - when we feel the pulling and rotating effect through the centre, pressure changers occur in the lower abdomen. Squeezing this area is often a purposeful practice and you can find traditions that heavily focus on this aspect of the process. Techniques like the famous ‘reverse’ breathing a primary example.
This compression of the lower abdomen has various effects. One of the most common is related to ‘bolstering’ the posture. The increased rigidity in the area of the abdomen produces a type of support and link between the upper and lower halves that greatly enhances the full body power. Also, the pressurization of the lower abdomen can produce an all round ‘tension’ in the network of the body, which further enhances the link between the centre and the extremities. This is often felt during breathing exercises where extension is held as one breaths in and out.
Using intent to fuel the working centre: Using the working centre is something that can be greatly enhanced by the use of our minds, specifically our intent. ‘Intent’ can have various meanings in the martial arts, but I like to refer to it as the link between the minds will to act and the body carrying out the action. Strength of Intent is the strength of the neurological connections that make our muscles fire and that prepare us for movement. Much as thicker wire will transmit signal more effectively, the constant and focused training of this network will increase the strength of the centres action.
The intent is trained in various ways, primarily though we work with the ‘move before you move’ concept, where one uses their mind to really try to move the body without actually letting it move even a millimeter. Like the sprinter in the starting blocks, the body reacts with a very strong preparatory signal, priming the relevant tissues for the work to come. This feeling is then maintained during the whole movement, always leading it with the will to turn more. Over time, the force of this method is expressed in instantaneous action when used at combat speeds, with no hesitation or lag in the application of correct movement all fueled by the Working Centre.
How does the working centre benefit the martial artist?
Great! But I can almost hear the question brewing in your mind, “But how is it useful?”. A very good question! One that can be answered in a number of ways, but almost all of which relate to solid mechanical effects.
Firstly of course, there is a very good basic reason that the working centre has been the focus of so many martial arts traditions throughout history. It makes you a ‘stronger’ exponent. Although, strength here does not refer to the type of strength a power lifter possesses, it is a strength none the less. Instantly, when you feel the body method of someone with a well-developed centre you recognize it, it is overwhelming and sometimes confusing to receive. The sensations felt by the partner are the result of several things going on.
Distal Power Generation: The use of the working centre allows us to generate our power away from where it may be used. Imagine an engine, attached to a chain, attached to a grinding wheel. The place of action, the surface of the grinding wheel, is not the source of the action.
In martial terms the source of the force can remain hidden and therefor unaffected by counters. For instance, if throwing a punch, often the shoulder muscles, Triceps, Lats etc will all be involved in generating the power and driving the punch forward. Because the power of the strike is dependent on a sequential chain of muscle tension it can often be checked of blocked along its path. It is like touching a whip somewhere along its length, if you interrupt the wave the ‘snap’ will never come. For this reason, there is a prevalence of ‘blocking’ techniques in the traditional martial arts that are highly successful against movement not driven by the centre.
However, when we use the working centre, we are able to use small manipulations at the centre that are expressed at the striking surface without this segmentation. Much like an engine turning the grinding wheel it doesn’t matter where you contact the wheel, it will always turn with power. The power is not coming from the wheel itself but from the engine, this engine is the working centre. If you aim to ‘block’ someone using the working centre it is often very difficult as the first inch of application is as powerful as the last.
Stability: Not only is the centre an area of connection to the rest of the body, it is the physical centre of the body. When it is developed sufficiently and can rotate freely, we gain stability. If you watch a gymnast tumbling, you will note that the area of the lower abdomen is often at the centre of the rotation. Even in this highly complicated movement sport, the centre maintains a stable position.
The centre for the martial artist is no different. This physical centre is further enhanced by the connections to the rest of the body and of course the ability to rotate. Imagine leaning on a free spinning wheel for instance, you will slip off as the wheel rotates by the wheel will not have to move away and its structure will not collapse. It remains stable through rotation and so will the individual who has developed the working centre.
Pairing & Balancing: The active nature of this area allows us to instantly rotate and avoid force on force movement or actions. The basic concept of this, known as pairing in MartialBody, can be found outlined here. But fueling ‘pairing’ with the working centre can, once again, transform how this effect is felt by the partner.
When we are rotating the centre, the source of rotation will rarely be felt at the point of contact. This can create very disconcerting feelings for partner where their force is diminished, as pairing occurs, but they cannot pinpoint where it is coming from. Their force is extinguished, pressure diminished and ‘balance’ to the system is restored. Of course, ideally we fire up movement and rotation at the centre prior to contact, then the interaction with our body can be shocking for someone on the receiving end.
Economy: One of the big advantages of using the centre during movement is that it increases our economy of motion. Much of the time, a limited set of muscles will be responsible for all of the effort in a given action. When we move via the working centre we are able to pull and tug on the whole body, spreading the load and the requirement throughout. This adds up to a much lower energy expenditure over the course of the day.
Power: Of course, the biggest benefit, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, it in how ‘strong’ it can make us feel. Having the ability to power very strong rotations with a huge volume of coordinated muscle can be quite useful. Imaging an axle rotating attached to a big engine. Now imagine looping your sleeve over it so that it gets caught … you will be taking a flight! This visual is a very good analogy for the way the working centre can benefit the martial artist.
Lets, take the example of throwing someone over your shoulder. If we are using the working centre, we can make a strong forward rotation, which will pull the tissues on the front of the body down, those on the back up, and in a very small space create a huge volume of force. Side to side and oblique rotations have similar utilities of course, but the general idea is that a strong rotation at the centre of only a few inches will translate to huge power and a larger movement at the surface. Combining this with concepts like pairing or HeavyBody striking can be devastating for the partner or opponent in the way of this force. In fact, many of the adepts I have met with this skill talk of constantly having to ‘throttle back’ their methods so as to not injure their students or training partners. Something I have certainly felt the need to do myself in many methods.
The centre of the martial arts is at the core (pun intended) of many of the traditions known for their power. It is an area of the body that is consistently the focus of the basic training methods, forms and body systems. This points to some very real utility that was advantageous to these ancient warriors.
However, the training of the centre has been infused with esotericism and mystical training methods. If we look at the people who can demonstrate an active or working centre, we can recognize that we don’t particularly need the esotericism to gain benefit. Simply training correctly, with the right focus will produce a centre that can be used. Once developed you will not want to perform your methods without it.