Tension and Relaxation

In the early stages of my Zen training, I thought that the way to engage the hara was to purposely put tension in my lower abdomen.  This did not work; my breathing didn’t change.  After my initial “discovery” of my hara, I continued to emphasize tension.

In my last post, I described “ah um” breathing, which involves a somewhat exaggerated form of hara breathing.  It is a training exercise, meant to be practiced for short periods of time, yet I was trying to do it all the time.  After inhaling, I would bear down with my breath forcibly as I tried to put as much tension as I could in my lower abdomen. I often combined it with facial grimaces as I bore down with my breath.  One day my Zen teacher took me aside, shook his head, and asked my what on earth I was doing with my breath.  I told him, “I’m setting my hara”.  He went on to tell me that all I was accomplishing was looking “eccentric”.   The proper way to hara breathe, he explained, was by emphasizing relaxation — not tension

Inhale / Exhale DiaphragmOver the years, I have come to see that hara breathing involves a dynamic of tension and relaxation.    The major muscle of inhalation is the diaphragm, a dome shaped structure with muscle on the sides and cartilage on top.  It sits right below the thoracic cavity.  When the diaphragm contracts, it creates negative pressure in the thoracic cavity, drawing air into the lungs.   However, we have hardly any proprioception of the diaphragm.  We do have better sense of the other muscles involved in breathing.  Of these, the rectus abdominis is the probably the most significant in hara breathing.

Rectus Abdominus and ObliquesThe rectus abominis is the “six pack” muscle that extends roughly from the base of the sternum to the pubic bone.  In developing hara breathing, we learn to simultaneously tense and relax different parts of the rectus, as well as other core muscles, such as the obliques.  In my experience, the relaxation starts at the bottom and works its way up.  This relaxation allows gravity to pull the viscera (your “guts”) downward, enabling full range of motion of the diaphragm.

Since muscles can only contract, they have to be extended through the activity of other muscles.  For example, if you contract your biceps, your arm bends.  But the biceps can’t then push your arm back to an extend position; you have to contract your triceps order to straighten your arm and this motion lengthens your biceps in the process. In the same way, the diaphragm can’t push itself back up.  Instead, the contraction of the abdominal muscles puts pressure on the viscera, which push the diaphragm upward, ready to contract again for the next inhalation.  In hara breathing, the exhalation is driven by differential contractions and relaxation of the rectus abdominis.  The lower part of it remains largely relaxed, while the top part, right under the sternum, contracts, as if curling down and inwards.

My teacher used to stress that the top of the abdomen should become soft and somewhat indented.  As a result, air is expelled from the lungs, while the lower abdomen remains expanded.  With practice, one can inhale and exhale deeply, without putting undue tension in the abdomen.    Of course, there may be times when more abdominal tension is desirable, e.g. in exercises such as ah um breathing, chanting, or when power is needed for marital arts or lifting.  However, there will still be differential relaxation and tension of the abdominal core.

I recently had the opportunity to video record Honda Roshi playing the shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute), first with his gi (top) on, and then with it off.  With gi on, it looks like very little is going on in his lower abdomen.   However, as you will see in the second part, his lower abdomen remains expanded during inhalation and exhalation, while the top of it contracts and seems to curl in when he exhales. When he inhales, his upper abdomen relaxes but his lower abdomen remains expanded.  The video also illustrates the ideal length of inhalation and exhalation during zazen.  His breaths in are quick but deep, while his exhalations are steady and prolonged.

In earlier posts, I described the three levels of breathing: thoracic, abdominal, and hara.  In my experience, many people  (including teachers such as me) make the mistake of over emphasizing expansion of the lower abdomen during exhalation before learning an effective way to breathe abdominally.  That is, they emphasize the exhalation before they can take a deep, relaxed inhalation.   It is impossible to take a low, slow exhalation if you haven’t first taken a deep breath in.  So, a good way to practice in the early stages of hara development is to concentrate how to relax your lower abdomen on inhalation.   Following is an exercise that is particularly good for beginners:

  • Exhale completely. Simultaneously, contract your abdominal muscles as if you were bringing your naval to your spine.  You can do this either standing or seated.  If seated, try to maintain good posture as shown in the post on hara and zazen.
  • Continue to tense your abdominals as much as you can. After about 10 seconds, release the tension as you inhale.  It should feel like you are suddenly letting go of something clenched in your fist.  Pay attention to the sensation of relaxation spreading in your lower abdomen.  Experiment with a fast or slow release; determine which one better relaxes your lower abdomen.
  • You can repeat this sequence as much as you wish, as long as you take some normal breaths after each repetition. If you find yourself getting light headed, take a break.
  • Once you can feel your abdomen expanding when you inhale, see if you can increase its range of motion by relaxing your lower abdominal muscles even more. As you relax more, it should feel like the force of gravity is pulling your viscera downwards as you inhale and that this force is driving your inhalation.
  • The use of a HaraMeter® can be helpful because it can give you visual feedback on the range of motion of your lower abdomen.

This exercise can also be helpful for more advanced practitioners—those who already can do hara breathing.  They should concentrate on expanding the range of motion in the lower abdomen and on deepening their inhalation.  Again, I recommend experimenting with both short and long inhalations.   After a while, see if you can gently set your hara by curling in the top of your abdomen while keeping your lower abdomen expanded (as you can see Honda Roshi doing in the video).  Remember, the key to this exercise is relaxation, not tension.   With time, a long, relaxed inhalation should become second nature.

Hara and Martial Arts: Ah Um Breathing

In my last entry, I focused on zazen (seated Zen meditation) as one of the traditional ways of developing hara.   In this post, I will focus on another traditional way to train hara: martial arts.   Since “martial arts” is a very broad term, I will describe one particular technique that has tremendous importance in the Chozen-ji tradition: “Ah Um” breathing.

Many years ago, before I started Zen training, I studied karate.  There is a kata (standardized sequence) called “Sanshin”, in which you are supposed take very deep, audible, abdominal breaths, synchronized with foot and hand motions.  Like most of the students in the class, I became fairly adept at making a lot of noise when I performed this.  However, when I later started Zen training, I learned that what I thought deep and abdominal was really thoracic and shallow.  In fairness to karate, this probably says more about me and the early stage of my training than it does about karate.

Japan Pair of Wooden Temple Figures, Nio Wood 71 in. high Est. 1467-1652
Japan Pair of Wooden Temple Figures, Nio Wood 71 in. high Est. 1467-1652 (Heather James Fine Art)

The foundational martial art taught in the Chozen-ji tradition is a two-person sword form called the Hojo kata.  In it, deep, hara breathing is synchronized with movement.  The sounds the participants make are prescribed: “Ah” during inhalation and “Um” during exhalation.  So, too, are the facial expressions: the mouth opens wide during inhalations, and is shut tightly during exhalation. It said that the expressions actually resemble those of the two Nio, the traditional guardians of Buddhist temples often depicted in statues.

I started to learn the Hojo shortly after I started Zen training.  Since I already knew how to make a lot of noise when I was breathing, I felt somewhat at home with Ah Um breathing.  However, it was soon pointed out to me that I was not using my hara when I made the sounds; all I was doing was making facial grimaces and a lot of noise, while my lower abdomen remained flat.  However, once I made the initial “discovery” of my hara, I was able to make the vocalizations while keeping expansion on the lower abdomen, whether making the “ah” or the “um” sound.

Ah Um breathing is not identical to the type of breathing used in zazen.  In fact, it is an exaggeration of zazen breathing, which is much gentler.  Further, one breathes solely through the nose when doing zazen, as opposed to in through mouth and out through the nose in Ah Um breathing.

In my experience, “Ah Um” breathing became obvious to me after I made the initial “discovery” of my hara. I then found it a very helpful way to deepen that early sensation of hara.    But, in addition to deepening hara, I am convinced that the practice of Ah Um breathing can be helpful in achieving that initial discovery, particularly when practiced with a HaraMetertm.  In the beginning stages, you should emphasize the “Ah”, because if you can’t expand the lower abdomen when inhaling, you can’t maintain expansion when exhaling.  As you become more able to take a deep abdominal inhalation, you can work towards setting your hara and putting more emphasis into the “Um” as you exhale.

In this video, Alex Greene demonstrates an exercise based on Ah Um breathing.  The facial expressions facilitate the engagement of the hara, so it is important to try to mimic them when you practice the exercise.  The open mouth on inhalation fosters relaxation of the lower abdomen while the pursing of the lips facilitates the set of the hara on exhalation.

Remember, Ah Um breathing is an exercise, for discrete training periods.  You should not do it 24/7, unless you want to walk around sounding like Darth Vader.

Hara and Zazen

As I explained in earlier posts, the traditional ways to develop hara are training in zazen and training in the martial arts.  In this post, I will concentrate on aspects of zazen that can be helpful in developing hara whether or not someone wants to formally study zazen.

Following are basic instructions for zazen.  Even if you are not interested or not ready to pursue formal Zen practice, there are many benefits to practicing zazen, including relaxation, increased concentration, improved health and vitality and, of course hara development. Those people interested in the fine points of zazen should read the instructions in the book  Introduction to Zen Training by Omori Sogen (the founder of Chozen-ji).

Zazen can be broken down into three distinct elements: breathing, posture and concentration.  The actual practice of zazen requires that these three elements be integrated seamlessly.  However, for teaching purposes each element can be described in isolation.

Posture

Zazen is traditionally practiced on cushions in cross-legged positions (half or full lotus).  However, other postures can be used for people who have difficulty sitting on the floor.  To this end, sitting in seiza or on a chair are both suitable alternatives. All three postures are explained in these videos:

Regardless of the posture used, the following principles apply:

  • Establish a firm base. Think of it as a triangle described by your knees (or feet, if sitting in a chair) and your coccyx (tail bone).
  • Your spine should be neither ramrod straight nor slouched. Establish the natural curves of your spine.
  • Your hips should be thrust forward slightly, so that your tanden (point approximately 1 inch below the navel) comes forward towards the center of the triangle.
  • Assume the hand position illustrated in the video for the posture in which you are sitting.
  • Tuck in your chin.
  • Slightly lift your head, from the nape of the neck (so the chin stays tucked), toward the ceiling.
  • Keep your eyes half-open.
  • Try to relax as much of your body as you can without losing the posture described above.

Breathing

  • Breathe slowly. The average person at rest will breathe between 12 and 18 times a minute.  Deliberately try to slow your breathing down.  However, don’t force it.  Your breathing should remain comfortable.
  • Breathe deeply. In the beginning stages, take deep inhalations.  The body has an elegant homeostatic mechanism based on the concentration of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream.  It the level of CO2 gets too high, one automatically breathes faster to take in more oxygen.  So, if you reduce the frequency of your breathing, you can keep your level of CO2 down by deepening your breathing [1].
  • Take longer exhalations than inhalations. Slowly try to lengthen your exhalations.  Work towards long exhalations and quick, deep inhalations.
  • Use the muscles of the lower abdomen (the hara) rather than those of the chest. Most people need to start with an abdominal pattern of breathing, in which the lower abdomen goes in and out like a bellows.
  • Once you develop good range of motion with the lower abdomen, see if you can keep the expansion whether you are inhaling or exhaling (these concepts are explained in this video which appeared in an earlier post). At this point, you are engaging in hara breathing.
  • Once you can maintain your set point, try to extend it as long as you can. Once again, don’t strain or force yourself to keep the expansion; the breathing should feel relaxed and natural.
  • A HaraMetertm can facilitate proper breathing, by giving you graphic feedback on the expansion and contraction of your lower abdomen. By looking at the meter, you can become aware of which muscles to relax and which to tense in order to expand and maintain the expansion of your lower abdomen.

Concentration

  • Count your breaths (exhalations only) to yourself. If you reach 10, go back to 1.  If you realize that you have lost your count, go back to 1.  If you are in doubt what to do, go back to 1.
  • The count should last the full length of your exhalation.
  • Throw all of your awareness into your count. Focus fully on it.
  • At some point, you may notice that the count seems to recede into the background but your mind feels clear. In this state you do not chase unnecessary thought.  Your vision becomes panoramic, and your other senses feel heightened.  This indicates that you are in samadhi. When you notice that you are distracted, you have lost samadhi.  Simply resume the count from 1.

The Integration of Posture, Breathing and Concentration

As I mentioned before, zazen is the integration of posture, breathing and concentration.  Because of that, each element affects the others.  That means that if one element deteriorates, you also need to correct the others.  So, if, for example,  you notice that you have lost the count, you also need to reset your breathing and posture. Like any exercise, zazen is best practiced regularly.  Twenty minutes a day is a good initial target; of course, more frequently and for longer periods of time would be better.

[1] There is research evidence that the practice of zazen leads to more efficient metabolism.  I became convinced of this some years ago when I was leading sesshin (intensive Zen training).    It ended on a Sunday morning.  A number of students and I got together that night for dinner.  One student worked on a fish farm.  One of his jobs there was to inspect the nets using scuba equipment.  He said that normally it would take him a full tank of air.  However, that morning, his customary inspection took only half a tank.

Introducing the HaraMeter

In the first installment of this blog, I described my experiences trying to learn to hara breathe.  As should be clear to the reader, it was a long and frustrating experience.  Years later, after I started teaching Zen, I saw many of my students struggle in similar ways.  In fact, I have been struck by how few people can quickly learn to breathe from the hara.  I found this to be true even for people with extensive backgrounds in other forms of meditation, yoga, or the martial arts.  Practically the only people who have come to training with facility in hara breathing have been musicians, either classically trained singers or brass or woodwind players.

I attribute the difficulty most of us have with acquiring hara to the fact that we simply do not have much proprioception of what goes in our lower abdomens.  As a result, there are no simple instructions of how to engage the hara.   I tell students that I can easily give them instructions on how to do a pushup or sit up, and they’d be able to do one right away, but I can’t do the same for hara.  Most people will have to go through extensive trial and error.

There are two ways in which hara is acquired in my tradition of Zen.  The first is with prolonged practice of zazen (Zen meditation).   By intentionally slowing and deepening one’s breath while doing zazen, one develops increased proprioception in the lower abdomen.  Eventually, on learns how to differentially tense and relax core abdominal muscles.  Further, for most people zazen is uncomfortable, if not downright painful, if they sit for a long stretch of time (e.g., 45 minutes).  Because gross movement is not allowed during zazen, the student learns to manage the discomfort by relaxing unnecessary muscle tension.  This, too, fosters hara breathing.

A second way to acquire hara is through extensive practice of physical exercise.  To be effective, one must completely exhaust peripheral (non-core muscles).   Extensive sword cuts are a common way to have this experience.  Wearing out the muscles of the upper body though thousands of sword swings also allows the differential tension and relaxation of the key core abdominal muscles necessary for hara breathing.

There are also exercises, derived primarily from the martial arts, which can foster hara development.  In my experience, these are more most useful after someone has acquired facility with hara breathing.  I will be introducing some of these exercises in later posts

In my search for the best ways to teach hara to my students, I have found one device that is helpful for beginning, intermediate and advanced trainees: the HaraMeter™which I briefly introduced in an earlier post. The HaraMeter™is a biodfeedback instrument, based on a modified blood pressure cuff, which measures expansion of the lower abdomen.  This feedback is particularly helpful in speeding up the development of proprioception in the hara area.

HarameterI have used a HaraMeter™extensively in all stages of my own training.  As a teacher, I have been impressed both by how its use can accelerate the initial acquisition of hara in beginners and by how it can refine and deepen hara breathing in more advanced trainees.

Because of the importance of the HaraMeter™ in my own training and teaching, I wanted to make it available to others.  Over the last year, I have worked with professional designers and suppliers to create version we now have for sale.  I am very pleased with the outcome; I think that this version is superior to the ones I have used in the past.

I will write more on how to use the HaraMeter™in future posts.  If this biofeedback device intrigues you, information is now available regarding on HaraMeter pricing and shipping. I hope it helps you acquire hara sooner than I did.

In Search of Hara – Part 5

Part V: Hara from a Spiritual Perspective

Please excuse the long delay since the last post.  I was involved in other projects that required much more of my time than I had anticipated.  One of these is a review of the scientific evidence for the use of Zen in behavioral health.  This will appear as a chapter in a book on Zen and Behavioral Health edited by William O’Donahue and Akihiko Masuda, scheduled to be published in late 2016.  I will post more information about the book as its release date gets closer.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I view hara as the unification of  the physical, psychological and spiritual dimensions of the human experience.  I have already covered the first two in previous installments and will now focus on hara from a spiritual perspective.

By spiritual, I am referring to the significance of hara in Zen training.  As I have also mentioned in an earlier post, the tradition of Zen I practice puts great emphasis on the development of hara.  To understand why, it is important to understand term samadhiSamadhi is a Sanscrit word that has no direct English translation.  It is often translated as “intense concentration” or “relaxed concentration”.  A translation I prefer is “absorption”, as that implies a state of concentration in which one loses the distinction between oneself and the object of concentration.  Actually, it is helpful to view samadhi as a continuum, with shallower and deeper levels of concentration, with absorption being the deepest level.

Yet another way to describe samadhi is to view it as freedom from or, in Zen terms, lack of attachment to, unnecessary thought.  My teacher used to describe Samadhi as a state in which you see through your thoughts as if you were looking through a spinning propeller.  If you were to focus on an individual blade, your mind would be spinning around with it.  But, if you ignore the individual blades, you can look right through them.  Samadhi allows you to have a direct sensory experience of the world without the distraction of unnecessary mental chatter.  To be in samadhi is to be “in the moment”.

The qualities of concentration in samadhi differ from the typical Western idea of concentration.  If you tell someone to concentrate on something, he or she will most likely think of narrowing his or her awareness to that object.  Samadhi involves seeing that object as well as expanding awareness to a broader field.  In Zen terms, we say that samadhi enables you to “see 1800”.  Samadhi opens up a panorama of vision as well as a heightening of other senses.

One of the most formative lessons I received about samadhi was in the context of learning kyudo, the “Zen art of archery”.  My teacher hold me repeatedly that, when aiming, I was not supposed to simply focus on the target but to see the target AND everything 1800 around it.  However, in my intent to hit the target, my vision continually became constricted, as I focused solely the target.  One day, he took me on hillside on the temple grounds and told me to gaze at a distant mountaintop (we were in Hawaii).  He then told me to look at it while breathing as in zazen.  After a while, my field of vision expanded.  I could not only see the mountaintop, but an entire panorama.  He then said, “There, that’s how you should look at the target”.   After that, I was increasingly able to recreate that experience when shooting.   Without using the term, he had taught me to enter samadhi in order to aim properly.

This brings me to the relationship between hara and samadhiSamadhi is not just a mental experience.   Rather, it is intimately connected to breathing and posture and, thus, to hara.  As I have written before, there is a saying in Zen, “You cannot wash off blood with blood”.   It refers to the fact that it is difficult to control one’s thoughts with other thoughts.  Rather, in our tradition of Zen, we learn to “see through the propeller”—that is to enter samadhi—through our bodies, specifically through hara breathing and the posture that fosters it.

While I understood intellectually that there was a close connection between hara and samadhi, I did not understand it on an experiential level until I had been training for a year or two.  It took place in the context of a sesshin, a several day intensive training retreat.  This was probably the first time I experienced deeper levels of samadhi.  As the sesshin progressed, I noticed that my samadhi waxed and waned with my breathing.  When my breathing was slow and my hara was set, I experienced what I had come to know as marker of samadhi: panoramic vision, a sense of brightness and clarity, restful alertness, and an ability to concentrate without distraction.  But, when I noticed my samadhi was weaker or absent, I observed that my breathing was faster and shallower; I had lost my hara.  I then noticed that I could regain my samadhi by setting my hara, slowing my breathing and adjusting my posture.

As desirable as samadhi might be, it is not itself the goal of Zen.  Rather, Zen enables a person to resolve basic existential questions.  There is an old saying that it takes 3 things to successfully train in Zen: Great doubt, great faith and great will.  The “great doubt” is the existential question.  In the case of the story of the historic Buddha, his doubt was to understand how to face suffering.  “Great faith” refers to trust that the method of Zen will help resolve the doubt.   Once the decision is made to resolve the doubt through Zen training, it takes “Great will” to see the training through.  Resolution of the doubt comes as sudden flash of insight; in Zen terminology this referred to as kensho—seeing into one’s true nature. One of my teachers used to say that the depth of one’s kensho is in direct proportion to the quality of one’s breathing.  The deeper and more refined ones breathing—in other words the depth of hara—the deeper the samadhi and, thus, the deeper the Zen realization.

It may seem strange to people steeped in Western culture that spirituality lies in breathing, posture.  Yet, this is fundamental to Zen, as I understand it.  The canon of Chozen-ji, the lineage of Zen I practice, begins by stating “Zen is to transcend life and death (all dualism), to truly realize that the entire universe is the ‘True Human Body’, through the discipline of mind and body in oneness.”  And, in our tradition, hara is the key to the unification of mind and body.

In Search of Hara – Part 4

Part IV: Hara from the Psychological Perspective

Now that we looked at it from a purely physical perspective, I would like to focus on hara from a psychological standpoint.  In so doing, I want to shift from what hara is to why it is worthwhile to develop it in the first place.   To begin this discussion, it is helpful to look at the importance of the term in Japanese language and culture.

Von Durckheim, Hara: The Vital Centre of Man
Von Durckheim, Hara: The Vital Centre of Man

The seminal work on hara in English, and, probably anywhere in the West, is the book, Hara: The Vital Centre of Man, by Karlfried Graf Von Durckheim, which I mentioned in passing in an earlier post.  Von Durkheim was a German psychologist who became fascinated with the subject while living in Japan.  The book was first published in German in 1956; the English translation in 1962. It has a remarkable chapter on the uses of hara in the Japanese language.  In it, he discusses sayings that involve hara. At least some of these have been quoted in virtually every book on hara that has since appeared in English.  The sayings provide excellent windows into the psychological significance of hara.  While I describe some below, I strongly suggest reading the book.

Hara no okii hito
This expression literally means “The person with a big hara”.  In Von Durkheim’s words, it conveys that that he or she is “generous, magnanimous and warm-hearted without any implication of weakness or indulgence.”   It is similar to saying English that someone has a “big heart”, except the locus of the generosity, obviously, is seen as emanating from a different part of the body.

Hara ga tatsu
While in English we might say that a person “lost his head”, a Japanese would say “hara ga tatsu”, the hara “rose”.  According to Von Durkheim, this saying describes a person who “flares up, gets angry, in the same way as we say a sedate person is not easily roused.”  The opposite is conveyed in the expression “hara ga suwatte iru”, the hara “sits”.  This refers to a person who is sedate, relaxed, unflappable.  But it is an alert type of relaxation, in Von Durkheim’s words, “The imperturbability of the sedate man implies the steadiness of tranquil mind prepared for anything.  He is able to react in any situation and nothing throws him off balance.”

Hara no dekita hito
This expression means that a person has “finished” or “accomplished” his or her hara.  It connotes maturity; a maturity that comes from years of training.  A related saying, hara no dekita inai hito wa hito no ue ni tatsu koto ga dekinai, is translated by Von Durkheim as “the man who has not finished his belly cannot stand above others (is not fit for leadership).”   On the other hand, the saying hara no dekita inai hito refers to the person who has not finished his hara training; it conveys the idea that he or she is not developed or immature.

I first read Von Durkheim’s book shortly after I began my Zen training in 1977.  This was before I had the initial discovery of my hara, which I wrote about in the first post.  As a psychologist, I found it interesting that another culture viewed emotions, emotional control and maturity as emanating from different parts of the body than we do in the West (the head and/or the heart).  But I viewed these sayings as being metaphoric.  Just as we in the West don’t really think someone actually “loses” his or head when they get angry, I assumed that the Japanese were not really saying that someone’s belly really changes when they lose their temper.  However, as I progressed in my Zen training I began to understand that these sayings should be taken literally, that with the development of the physical aspects of hara comes profound psychological changes.  This was most clear to me as I observed my Zen students, particularly those who started training around the same time as I.   As they developed hara physically, they acquired composure, equanimity and a sense of gravitas that had not been there before.

And, I learned that one’s hara does actually rise when they “lose it”.   Two related incidents from my past made this clear to me.  Early in my career as a psychologist—and early in my Zen training– I had to testify in court as an expert witness regarding an evaluation I had conducted.  This was my first time in court and I had considerable anxiety about it.  But, as a Zen student, I thought that I would be able to control it if I just kept my hara set while on the witness stand.   It turned out that the opposing attorney came out swinging.  He first attempted to impeach my credentials, almost yelling that I was not experienced enough to testify. Immediately, my hara “rose”. He then proceeded to rake me over the coals for what seemed like hours.  No matter how hard I tried, I could not set my hara.  My breathing was labored and stayed in my chest.  I became flustered; sweat beaded on my forehead.   And the harder I tried to set my hara the worse I became.  I left the courtroom vowing that I would never testify again unless ordered to by a judge.  And I felt discouraged that my Zen training did not allow me to retain better composure.  I did not keep my vow to never testify again and, some years later, I found myself on the stand facing a hostile attorney.  This time, I was able to keep my hara set.  No matter what the attorney threw at me, it remained set and my breath stayed slow and deep.  And, there was a noticeable change in composure; I remained calm and focused throughout.  I am convinced that it was control of my breathing and posture that allowed that to happen.

Hotei
Hotei

Many Westerners are probably familiar with statues of Hotei (Budai in Chinese).  He is a bald headed, robed monk with an enormous, exposed belly, carrying a sack in one hand and jizu (beads) in the other.    There are often statues of him in restaurants and people sometimes rub his belly for good luck (or maybe just for the tactile pleasure of it). Sometimes called the “Laughing Buddha”, Hotei is seen as figure of abundance, a person who brings bounty and joy to all.  In Zen training, we will sometimes refer to someone with overflowing generosity and good cheer as a “real Hotei”.  It is no coincidence that Hotei is depicted as having an exaggerated hara, as Japanese implicitly understand that that his bountiful personality and infectious good cheer comes from his hara.  And, no, you don’t have to look like you have a beer belly to have hara.  His lower abdomen is prominent not from fat, but from the development of his hara.

While in the West we clearly have the concept of character development, it tends to be disembodied.  The lesson I have learned from Zen training is that there is a physical dimension to character development that is intimately bound to breathing and posture, in other words, to hara development and, I believe, this idea is sorely lacking in our culture.

In the next post, I will continue to discuss the why of hara development by discussing hara from the spiritual perspective.

In Search of Hara – Part 3

Part III: Hara from a Physical Perspective (Cont.)

In my last blog post, I described hara from a purely physical point of view.  My original intent was to follow that with a post focusing on hara from a psychological perspective and, in so doing, go from what hara is to why one would want to develop his or her hara in the first place.  However, due to comments and questions from readers and others, I have decided to extend the discussion of the physical dimensions of hara.

I was particularly motivated by a question from reader who pointed out that I used the same photograph to illustrate the HaraMetertm dial for both the inhalation and exhalation in hara breathing.  He questioned whether the needle should remain in the exact position throughout the respiration cycle.  The answer is, no, it does not have to remain exactly the same.   To illustrate this, I would like to introduce the idea of the “set” in hara breathing.

If you purposefully contract the muscles of your lower abdomen (“suck in your gut”), you will find you lose most, if not all, expansion in that area (you’ll have flattened your stomach).  If you were wearing the HaraMetertm, the dial would be very low.

Flattened Lower Abdomen
Flattened Lower Abdomen

If you then take a deep inhalation so that your lower abdomen expands fully, the dial should increase. At the end of your inhalation, bear down very slightly with your lower abdominal muscles; this bearing is what we refer to as “setting” you hara.  When you set, the needle should rise slightly or stay at the roughly the same point that it was at the end of your exhalation.  We can call that spot of the dial your “set point.”  From then on, the needle should hover roughly at that point, whether you are inhaling or exhaling.  It is OK if it dips or raises somewhat.  In fact, in martial arts the expansion of the hara will often increase beyond the set point during movements requiring power.  But, the needle should not dip substantially below the set point.  If it does, that should be a cue to reset your hara.

The End of the Inhalation and the Set Point
The End of the Inhalation and the Set Point

Because hara breathing is a dynamic process, still photographs are not the best way to illustrate it.  For that reason, Alex Greene and I shot a video that better illustrates this dynamism.  But, before we get to it, I would like to address a few other questions that were raised in response to the last post.

The first is whether there are values on the HaraMetertm that indicates optimal hara.  The answer is no.  The dial shows the pressure in millimeters of mercury (MmHg).  Unlike blood pressure, for which there are healthy and unhealthy measurements, there is no correspondence between specific numbers on the dial and the quality of hara breathing (although, generally speaking, the higher the better—as long as you are not straining).

The HaraMetertm simply measures the amount of pressure exerted on the meter’s belt.  While we primarily want to measure the pressure on the belt from the expansion of the lower abdomen, there are other factors that affect this pressure (and, hence the position on the dial).  These include how tightly one ties the belt and how much one inflates the bladder.  As a result, the salient measurements are the differential between an intentionally flat lower abdomen (as I described above) and the end of the inhalation (generally speaking, the more range, the better) and whether the needle hovers roughly around the set point in subsequent inhalations and exhalations.  And, there is no optimal absolute value on the meter for the set point.

Yet another question is “where can I buy a HaraMetertm?”  We plan on having them available for sale within a few months.  So, please check back.

And now: the video.  The next post will be on hara from a psychological perspective.   And keep the comments coming.

– Ken Kushner
(contact)

In Search of Hara – Part 2

Part II: Hara from a Physical Perspective

In my previous post, I explained that hara involves the intersection of physical, psychological, and spiritual elements. Perhaps a better way to express this is that hara is unification of those three elements. As such, hara is an organic whole, in which these three dimensions are interrelated. However, it is still helpful, for the sake of explanation, to consider these three elements separately. In this post, I will examine hara from a purely physical perspective.

Fig 1: The Three Dantien
Fig 1: The Three Dantien

Hara is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese character fu (腹) meaning abdomen. However, in our tradition of Zen, we use the term more restrictively to refer to the lower abdomen. A related term is tanden (丹田), the Chinese pronunciation of which is dantien . There are actually three dantien in Daoist thought, all of which are considered to be critical energy centers. The lowest of the three, the Xia Dantien (下丹田—Fig 1), which is situated roughly 2 inches below the navel, corresponds to the Japanese concept of tanden. (It is misleading to think of the tanden as one dimensional spot on the skin. The actual location is within the abdominal cavity). While tanden and hara are sometimes used interchangeably, the former is best thought of as a single point, whereas the latter refers to the entire lower soft abdomen, from the base of the sternum to the peritoneum. The tanden, then, is located within the hara. The tanden plays a significant role in traditional Chinese medicine, which was adopted by the Japanese centuries ago. There is a longstanding tradition of diagnosis based on the palpation of the lower abdomen as well as treatment consisting of massage of that area in traditional Japanese medicine (see Hara Diagnosis: Reflections on the Sea, by K. Matsumoto and S. Birch and Connecting to the Centre: Healing Begins in the Hara by E. Stropp).

In addition to its static location, the hara can be viewed in dynamic terms through its activity in breathing. In our lineage of Zen, we strive to develop what we refer to interchangeably as “hara” or “tanden” breathing. To understand this, it is helpful to consider three different types of breathing. The first is called thoracic, chest or costal breathing. This is characterized by the engagement of the muscles of the chest and upper body and the relatively lack of engagement of muscles of the lower abdomen. The second type of breathing is called abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing. It relies more on the muscles of the lower abdomen than on those of the upper body. In this type of breathing, the lower abdomen works like a bellows; it expands on inhalation and contracts on exhalation. In my understanding, diaphragmatic breathing is common in a variety of meditative disciplines. It is also used in medical and psychological treatments as well as in relaxation training and stress management. In hara breathing, which challenged me so much in the beginning of my training, the abdomen expands on inhalation, much like in diaphragmatic breathing. However, it remains expanded during exhalation. In other words, the lower abdomen remains expanded throughout the breathing cycle. Again, in my experience, this type of breathing is uncommon in the realm of meditative disciplines, outside of some schools of Japanese Rinzai Zen and the Japanese martial arts.

Fig. 1: The HaraMeter
Fig. 2: The HaraMeter

The differences between the three types of breathing can be seen graphically by means of a standard blood pressure cuff modified so it will fit around the lower abdomen. We call this device the HaraMeter™; it measures expansion of the lower abdomen (see Figure 2).

Figures 3a and 3b illustrate the expansion and contraction of the lower abdomen in thoracic breathing. As can be seen, there is no expansion in the lower abdomen during either inhalation or exhalation.

Fig. 2a: Thoracic Breathing, Inhalation
Fig. 3a: Thoracic Breathing, Inhalation

Fig. 2b: Thoracic Breathing, Exhalation
Fig. 3b: Thoracic Breathing, Exhalation

In diaphragmatic breathing, as seen in Figures 4a and 4b, the dial goes up on inhalation and then back down on exhalation, as the abdomen expands and contracts.

Fig. 3a: Diaphragmatic Breathing, Inhalation
Fig. 4a: Diaphragmatic Breathing, Inhalation

Fig. 3b: Diaphragmatic Breathing, Exhalation
Fig. 4b: Diaphragmatic Breathing, Exhalation

Finally, in hara breathing (Figures 5a and 5b), the dial remains elevated on both inhalation and exhalation.

Fig. 4a: Hara Breathing, Inhalation
Fig. 4a: Hara Breathing, Inhalation

Fig. 4b: Hara Breathing, Exhalation
Fig. 4b: Hara Breathing, Exhalation

Unfortunately, there has been no simple way to teach someone how do hara breathing. One reason for this is that most of people don’t have adequate proprioception in their lower abdomens to maintain expansion throughout the breathing cycle. The traditional ways to develop hara have been zazen (Zen meditation) and training in the martial arts. There are also exercises which we feel can both accelerate the development of hara and deepen and strengthen it for those who are already acquired a modicum of hara. We will present some of these exercises in future posts.

– Ken Kushner
(contact)

In Search of Hara – Part 1

When I began my Zen training in 1977, I was given basic instruction in zazen (Zen meditation, literally “seated Zen”). In addition to being taught how to establish my posture and concentration, I was told to breathe with my hara, not with my chest. My teachers explained further that hara is a Japanese word that refers to the lower abdomen and that I should always feel pressure in that area. Try as I might, I could not breathe with my lower abdomen, let alone keep pressure on it whether I was inhaling or exhaling. During formal zazen (seated Zen, “Zen meditation) periods, I was constantly corrected by the jikijitsu (the person in charge of the sitting), being told to “breathe with your hara!” or “set your hara!” But to no avail, my breath remained high in my chest and I had no clue how to lower it. When I asked for guidance, I was told to sit longer, or harder or longer and harder. I eventually came to think that the whole concept of hara was a hoax. In spite of this, I kept sitting zazen and, in spite of my skepticism, trying to find my hara.

Continue reading In Search of Hara – Part 1