If you’ve practiced tai chi or qi gong or seen a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioner, you might have heard of dantian.
Dantian, or dan tian, translates from Chinese to mean “field of elixir.” It describes what’s believed by some to be the seat of life force energy in the body.
The concept of dantian has roots in Taoist and Buddhist traditions and is believed to be related to higher states of consciousness.
In TCM, dantian are considered to be energy centers similar to the Indian yogic concept of chakras.
They’re believed to hold the “three treasures” of the body, known as:
These are thought to be subtle energies that support and sustain the blood, bodily fluids, and solid tissues.
According to tradition, practitioners cultivate and protect the proper formation and circulation of the dantian energies to restore and promote health and well-being. This involves cultivating the qi, or life force, into more rarefied forms.
Dantian are considered by some to be essential for cultivating health and wellness on a subtle level.
They’re believed to support the development of the physical body as well as the development of the mind and the soul on the path of consciousness, according to a 2018 article in the Journal of Daoist Studies.
Dantian are also used in:
In traditional martial arts, proper posture and movement are coordinated with the breath to cultivate energy within the dantian centers.
It’s important to note that there is no scientific evidence to support the energy forces associated with dantian.
That said, some studies mention possible beneficial effects of dantian breathing, a practice similar to diaphragmatic breathing.
There are three main dantian in the body:
- the lower dantian
- the middle dantian
- the upper dantian
Upper dantian (shen)
The upper dantian is most closely related to the third eye, or Ajna. It’s believed to be located within the pineal gland. It’s considered a vessel for the shen, an energy believed to be more subtle than qi.
“Shen is spirit and intelligent consciousness, and is the result of cultivating your jing/essence upward through the heart into qi and then finally shen,” says Martha Soffer, founder of Surya Spa in Los Angeles. “Likewise, if your jing or physical essence and qi/life force are not healthy, your mental state will suffer as well.”
- seat of shen energy
- related to the third eye chakra
- corresponds to spirit and intelligent consciousness
- considered to be located within the pineal gland
- the most subtle of the three energies
Middle dantian (qi)
The middle dantian is located at the center of the chest and is most closely related to the heart chakra, or Anahata. It’s associated with the thymus gland and is considered to be the seat of qi.
“Qi is more subtle and less dense of an energy than jing, and as you elevate through the dantians, you also evolve through the purity of consciousness and subtlety of energy, just like you would in looking at the chakras,” says Soffer. “Qi, like prana, is as ubiquitous in the body as it is in nature. It’s the basis of form and function for universal energy.”
According to practitioners, the middle dantian is the spark of all living things. The energy in this dantian is considered unique when compared with the other two.
“The energy here is created from the food and fluids we consume and the air we breathe, and is appropriately located around the upper abdomen, where we consume, digest, and distribute energy throughout the body,” explains Ali Vander Baan, a licensed acupuncturist and founder of Yintuition Wellness in Boston.
According to Soffer, when a person’s essence (jing) is properly cultivated, their life force rises to support the middle dantian and the opening of the heart.
“This is a common occurrence on the path of enlightenment, to become open-hearted, loving, compassionate, and a source of good for the world around you,” explains Soffer.
- seat of qi energy
- located in the center of the chest
- related to the heart chakra
- universal energy as form and function
- less dense than jing energy
Lower dantian (jing)
Known as the vessel of jing, the lower dantian is believed to be one of the three treasures, or essences, vital to a person’s health.
Jing “is the most substantial energy, composed of genetic material, and is the source of energy from which the physical body is created,” says Vander Baan.
Jing is believed to be a person’s essence. It’s said to be related to the wisdom of our genetic code, reproduction, and the gifts passed down to us from our parents.
According to Soffer, the jing is closely related to the kidneys and adrenal glands and is also related to the survival response.
“Jing gives a person physical life force and the will to survive,” says Soffer. “Jing has similarities to Kundalini… in that it’s a seat of strength and both physical and sexual power, a person’s body consciousness, and sense of place.”
The lower dantian is believed by some to be a combination of the root and sacral chakras. According to Soffer, it’s located two finger widths below the navel and parallel with the perineum.
Jing is believed to be like Kundalini energy. According to Soffer, it may feel like heat within the body because of its transformative qualities. It’s referred to as an internal spiritual fire that can be cultivated to awaken the upper energy centers.
This “root of power” is seated between the kidneys and helps to circulate water and blood throughout the body, says Soffer.
- seat of jing energy
- the most substantial energy from which the physical body is created
- related to genetics, sexuality, reproduction, and survival response
- located two finger widths below the navel and above the perineum
- associated with sacral and root chakras as well as Kundalini energy
Dantian breathing is similar to pranayama, or the ancient Indian practice of breath control. It’s an intentional practice that focuses on controlling the breath, which is believed to contain subtle life force energy within it.
According to one 2017 study of 42 college students, dantian breathing may help reduce depressive mood. A small 2011 study indicated that dantian breathing may help foster a relaxed and attentive mind.
More recently, a 2019 review of the scientific literature indicated that dantian breathing may be useful in sports psychology.
“In Western terms, it’s considered diaphragmatic breathing, wherein the belly expands outward upon each inhalation and then contracts inward and upwards with each exhale,” says Soffer. “The chest does rise and fall gently, but as a secondary movement to the lower belly.”
With inward focus and intention, the practitioner draws vital breath into the lower dantian with each inhalation.
Vander Baan notes that the practice of lower dantian breathing can feed energy to the qi and shen energy centers.
The basics of dantian breathing
- Stand with your back straight and your feet rooted.
- Visualize a string running from the top of your head through your body and down to the ground between your feet. Place your hands over the lower dantian, located two fingers below your belly button.
- With every inhale, draw the breath into the lower dantian, feeling it expand with air and energy.
- Continue for 5 or more minutes, focusing your attention on cultivating energy in the lower dantian.
- You can do the same for the other two dantians if you wish.
From a Western perspective, diaphragmatic breathing has many benefits.
“It allows your diaphragm to greatly increase blood circulation, especially to your vital organs, thus improving organ function,” explains Soffer.
Additionally, Soffer suggests that deep belly breathing gently adjusts and tones the vagus nerve, which may improve the adaptive response of the peripheral nervous system.
“It allows you to feel more calm and secure instead of staying in a mild state of fight-or-flight all the time,” says Soffer.
Studies suggest that diaphragmatic breathing can reduce stress. A 2017 study suggests this may lead to improvements in digestion, and a 2021 before-and-after study indicates it may also improve sleep quality.
There are multiple techniques for dantian meditation from different lineages and wisdom traditions.
During dantian meditation, your body is brought to a state of calm alertness. The attention is focused inward on the area of the dantian — usually the lower dantian.
Visual imagery can also be used to enhance your focus and experience.
“This can be visualizing a ball of condensed energy, light, or fire in your dantian that grows with each breath,” says Soffer. “As energy builds, it’s allowed to absorb into and benefit all the surrounding tissues and eventually follow its natural path upwards to support the development and evolution of the next dantian.”
Eventually, it’s believed that jing evolves into qi and qi into shen. Shen then arises as the energy of consciousness and intelligence within the upper dantian.
This is said to result in the conscious experience of emptiness. According to Soffer, this emptiness is a description of the oneness of pure potential and universal consciousness.
The basics of dantian meditation
- Begin with an aligned posture to encourage optimal circulation of energy throughout the body, especially along the spine.
- Draw the breath down and into your dantian by activating diaphragmatic breathing (see above).
- Focus on collecting the qi contained in each breath in the area of the dantian.
- Continue to breathe and focus your awareness on the area of the dantian.
Meridians are channels of energy that run throughout your body. Dantian, on the other hand, are major energy centers independent of meridians.
“Meridians are more like rivers or streams (narrow, flowing bodies of water), whereas dantians are like lakes or reservoirs (larger bodies of water),” says Vander Baan.
In other words, meridians are more like highways for qi, or life-force energy, to travel throughout the body. Dantian are spoken of in terms of vessels, containers, or reservoirs of their respective energy.
Dantian and chakras may be similar, but aren’t considered to be the same thing.
Several of the chakras may correspond to the three dantians, but they are believed to differ fundamentally in that dantians are reservoirs or fields of energy, whereas chakras are gateways.
“Dantian and chakras are both energy centers, while dantians are also known as reservoirs of subtle essences including jing, qi, and shen,” says Soffer.
The history of dantian dates back thousands of years. It’s part of the body of alternative therapies — such as reiki, qi gong, and tai chi — that are often used in conjunction with TCM today.
There are no scientific studies indicating that dantian energy is stored in or travels through the body.
However, there is evidence that diaphragmatic breathing techniques, used in dantian breathing, offer a host of health benefits for the body.
Daley Quinn is a beauty and wellness journalist and content strategist living in Boston. She’s a former beauty editor at a national magazine, and her work has appeared on sites including Allure, Well + Good, Byrdie, Fashionista, The Cut, WWD, Women’s Health Mag, HelloGiggles, Shape, Elite Daily, and more. You can see more of her work on her website.