Without knowing your center, your entire body will be unsettled.
In some ways, this phrase is very literal and easy to understand. If you don’t know (can’t feel) your center of mass, you will easily lose your balance – whether from an opponent’s moves or simply when trying to execute your own moves.
I doubt anyone who has practiced martial arts with great vigor can say that they have never lost their balance. Maybe that person exists, but it’s not me.
The real trick is knowing your center. You should be able to feel when you’re off balance. Then you can correct first static postures and then movement through those postures. When you can feel your center, even difficult transitions between techniques can be accomplished smoothly. This is the real key to forms practice in traditional systems. Static postures build the frame. Individual movement drills allow you to perfect certain techniques, adding power, familiarity and fluidity. But forms teach you to transition between techniques. Sometimes these transitions are so easy as to seem natural. But sometimes we find ourselves in slightly awkward positions as a result of the previous technique (whether or not it landed successfully), and the practice of forms allows us to study how to change direction and swing momentum and refocus power into the next technique. All this requires that we know our center.
But what I just described (while a whole lot deeper than it would appear at first brush) is still only the surface level of knowing your center.
All traditional martial arts that I have encountered fall somewhere on a continuum of utilization of the dantian (丹田 dāntián) in movement. Later posts will probably look more closely at the many questions of the dantian and its usage in martial practices. But for now I would like to suggest that knowing your center ultimately implies knowledge of your dantian – in addition to the knowledge of your center of mass described above!
The traditional martial systems with which I have experience all contain exercises that are not outwardly martial – that is, they are not directly combat movements. Some of these movements even look a little silly to an outside observer – when you encounter movements like this in your own practice, pay attention! A lot of them are body training methods designed to give your body the proper attributes and habits of movement to truly express and utilize your art. Many of these movements that I’ve encountered are specifically designed so that the practitioner learns to first sense and then manipulate the dantian.
I remember reading somewhere (years ago, so I currently forget the source) of a Chen Taijiquan master who could, while lying on his back, shoot seeds from his lower abdomen to the ceiling! This is knowing your center!
So how is the second part of our phrase (your entire body will be unsettled) understood in the context of knowing your dantian? This is less directly understood than knowing your center of mass. The key lies in the type of relaxed movement that is required in movement from the dantian. Once you can sense the movement in your body through the dantian, you can start to drive that movement from the dantian. In order to make this work, superfluous localized muscular tension has to be removed from the body. If you don’t have a sense of your dantian (if you don’t know your center) you will not recognize these areas of tension and your entire body will be unsettled.