This is a favorite instruction from one of my martial arts teachers. As we move through different postures and exercises, he often reminds us, “Where is your vertical line?” or “Find your vertical line.”
This vertical line runs from the crown of our head straight through our body to the perineum, right between our legs. It goes by several names – central channel, central axis, central equilibrium, or in Chinese zhong ding. The Chinese characters for zhong ding are 中 meaning center or middle, and 定 meaning to settle. The bottom part of the second character means upright or correct. So zhong ding means to settle or align in the central upright position. If you are a Star Trek fan, imagine the warp core, the energy source of the space ship, usually pictured as a vertical cylinder pulsing with light (as in the photo above).
When our zhong ding is properly aligned and cleared of any blockages, a channel is open between heaven and earth, pulsing light and energy. We are in balance, grounded, moving freely and effortlessly.
As with many aspects of martial arts, this concept works just as well in daily life as it does in the dojo. Going through some unsettling shifts in recent months, I have felt confused, off balance, and out of sync. Anxiety takes our energy upwards into our heads, and we lose our connection to our body and our emotional ground or center. We sometimes try to avoid sadness, escape discomfort, or control things outside ourselves. In our struggle, we increase the suffering of suffering.
This is where we practice, isn’t it? On the razor’s edge. Not where we are all comfortable and kumbaya. No, we practice for these times when we are caught off guard, knocked off balance, at the edge of our comfort zone, in pain, afraid. In other words, we practice in life, in real life, as it is.
So I hear my teacher’s words. Where is my vertical line? Find my vertical line.
I find it first in my body. When I sense my zhong ding aligned and open, then my body leads my emotions and my mind into balance. Energy pulses through the open channel. Yes, sadness is still there, but in equilibrium with all other emotions. Fear is soothed with stillness. Everything moves freely and in harmony.
Until it doesn’t.
And then I hear another teacher’s favorite instruction.