Since the first class of internal martial arts, the notion of Press upwards or Dǐng (頂) appears in one form or another. Each tradition presents the notion in its own manner, many variations exist. For example:
  • "bǎihuì (GV-20) towards the sky" (百會朝天),
  • "the top of the head is suspended" (頭頂懸),
  • "the starting point is to look upright" (起點面正),
  • "the head should push upwards" (頭宜上頂)

The common idea between these different expressions are the "uprightness" and what I call the "contact" of the top of crown of the head, the sensation that it touches something - the sky on the more imaged expressions.

What does not change is its position in the teachings: it is the first instruction. It is said that the wisdom of all teachings lies within the first lesson. When we look into the texts, we see that there is a lot in Dǐng (頂) , getting an understanding of it is part of a lifetime practice.

Dǐng (頂)

Dǐng (頂) has no direct translation. It has both a static sense as the crown of the head, the top of something. As a name, the character conveys the sense of extremity, and in particular of a summit. In this sense it can be found in words like roof (屋頂), apex (頂部), peak or summit (頂端), hilltop (山頂), pillar (頂梁柱).

It is also a verb, and in this sense, it conveys a dynamic, constant effort. Brennan translates it as "press", in the sense of pressing upwards or out. The character is found in verbs such as to stand up or withstand (頂住), to face against the wind (頂風) or to answer back to a superior (頂撞). Implicit there is a notion of persistence and constance. The term is therefore the uppermost part of something and an action that goes up and out.

Almost systematically, the idea of Dǐng (頂) comes close in the text with its complement, the idea of loosening or relax - Sōng (鬆). Both together actually fix the postural instruction for two acunpuncture points central to the practice: Governing Vessel's 20th point - bǎihuì (百會) and Conception Vessel's first point - huì yīn (會陰).

Dǐng (頂) is the direct root of key aspects of practice: Uprightness (正), Balance (中定), Awareness (知覺), and Strength (力)

Uprightness (正) and Balance (中定)

One of the most direct conclusions is that it corresponds to the extension of the column and keeping it straight. The best summary and most straightforward formulation is perhaps the one proposed by Sūn Lùtáng (孫祿堂) in the Study of Bagua Sword (八卦劍學):

"The body stands upright, it should not pitch forward or backward."

The notion is not restricted to Martial Arts. It is directly put forward in all instructions about Zazen (坐禪). One does not have to look further than the very short and no-nonsense Principles of Seated Meditation (普勸坐禪儀) by Dōgen (道元禅師), which is very similar to Sun Lutang's description above:

"Straighten your body and sit erect. Do not lean to the left or right, forward or backward."

An instruction that is expanded by Suzuki Shunryū (鈴木 俊隆) in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind:

"The most important thing in taking the zazen posture is to keep your spine straight. Your ears and your shoulders should be on one line. Relax your shoulders, and push up towards the ceiling with the back of your head. And you should pull your chin in. When your chin is tilted up, you have no strength in your posture; you are probably dreaming."

By indicating not to lean in one direction or another, the instruction points to one of the results of Dǐng (頂) : balance, or central stability (中定).

Awareness (知覺)

In the Correct Path of Yiquan (意拳正軌), on the chapter Standing Methods for transforming Strength (樁法換勁) Wang Xiangzhai (王薌齋) summarizes the teaching on the posture and its implication for the mind.

"Your head should press up, your lower spine should straighten, energy should sink downward, and your mind should quiet its thoughts."

But he also clearly indicates a direct link between pressing up properly, energy stagnation, intention and awareness:

"When learning standing methods, the most important thing to avoid is that your body or mind put forth any exertion. If you use exertion, energy will stagnate. If energy stagnates, intention will stop. If intention stops, spirit will be cut off. If spirit is cut off, you will become prey to your opponent’s tricks."

An observation that can be found everywhere in different forms.

It is noteworthy that there no effort should be involved in applying Dǐng (頂) to maintain the upright position. Effort prevents awareness to be developed. Yáng Chéngfǔ (楊澄甫) repeats the point in The Ten Important Points of Tai Chi Chuan (太極拳十要) :

The crown upward Jin means the head looks upright and the spirit reaches the crown. One should not allow to use force. The use of the force makes the crown stiff and the Qi and blood cannot circulate smoothly and fluidly. The Yi of the insubstantial must be present, agile, natural. Without the insubstantial Jin to lead the crown upward, then consciousness cannot be raised.

This teaching explicits one of the combined effects of Dǐng (頂) and Sōng (鬆): the right posture creates the conditions for the mind and the body to be available to sensation and perception.

Strength (力)

A less evident, but very present, is the link between Dǐng (頂) and the cultivation of strength.

This is the specialty of Xíngyì Quán (形意拳), and Dǐng (頂) is developed further towards its dynamic meaning, the inner movement of pressing outwards and the associated strength.

For example, the second point of the "Push Upwards (頂)" item from the "Xingyi Eight Characters Secret" (形意八字訣) reads as follows:

"If the palm of the hand is pushed outward, it has the skill of pushing mountains. The qi permeates the whole body and strength is extended to the four limbs."

The link between Dǐng (頂) and Strength (力) is not explicitly made in the texts, the key can be found in "The Posture of Meditation" by Will Johnson:

By aligning the body with the vertical flow of the force of gravity, we begin quite literally to experience the support of the larger universe of which we’re but a small part.

This is the basis for Wǔ Yǔxiāng (武禹襄) teaching in the Important Explanations for the Accomplishment of the Thirteen Postures (十三勢行功要解)

Power is emitted from the spine

Dǐng (頂) allows the vertical alignment with gravity and in order to use it not as a constraint, but as a source of support and power.


Will Johnson in his book "The Posture of Meditation" makes in my opinion the most complete link between uprightness, strength, awareness and quietness:

A balanced posture requires very little effort to sustain and allows the major muscles of the body to relax. This relatively small expenditure of energy, coupled with the phenomenon of relaxation, produces a distinct feeling tone of softness, ease, and vibratory flow. It also generates a natural condition of alert awareness. This dual condition of comfort in the body and relaxed alertness in the mind is the fruit of balance.
Verticality is the sweet spot that transforms gravity from a force against which you have to brace yourself into a force that buoys you up. If we can find this delicate spot in which the uprightness of the body comes into alignment with the verticality of gravitational energy, then we experience a natural quality of buoyancy and a feeling of being literally uplifted.

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