Isometric Hara Development Exercises – Part 1

I would like to share with you some new exercises that I recently developed. They have become the foundation of my hara development instruction.   All of these exercises are variations on principles borrowed from progressive muscle relaxation (PMR).  PMR was developed in the 1920’s by Edmond Jacobson, an American physician, and is still widely used clinically as a relaxation exercise.

In PMR, a person is taught to selectively tense and relax muscle groups, usually starting with those at the periphery, e.g. the hands.  Muscles group are added sequentially until the practitioner tenses and relaxes as much of the body as possible.   Often this is taught over the course of multiple sessions, with new muscle groups being added over time.   One key to PMR is to tense the muscle groups as tightly as possible for a brief period of time and then to let go of the tension suddenly.  For example, if asked to tense the hand, one would make as tight a fist as possible.   They would squeeze it continuously for ten seconds and then release the tension suddenly.  Another key element of PMR is to consciously focus on the sensations of tension and relaxation.   This helps one to develop better awareness of when one is tensed and when relaxed.   Often people will describe a sensation of warmth on the release, which may spread to adjoining muscle groups.  PMR is a type of isometric exercise and I often refer to the PMR-based exercises simply as “isometrics.”

Over the next few posts I will introduce several exercises based on PMR.  The first exercise, described below, teaches how to inflate the lower abdomen by taking a relaxed inhalation.   I have discussed the importance of a relaxed inhalation in hara breathing in a previous post.  You might want to review that before proceeding with this exercise.    I have also included an instructional video of the exercise in this post.  It is important to remember that hara breathing is a skill that must be developed through practice.  So, like other skills, you will get more out of this exercise if you practice it regularly.

2017 HaraZen WorkshopAdditionally, I would like to call your attention to a hara development workshop that Alex Greene (featured in the video) and I will be conducting March 2-5 at the Spring Green (Wisconsin) Dojo.  You can find more information about it at:  http://institutezenleadership.org/portfolio/hara-zen/.

Basic Hara Development Exercises
Variation #1, relaxed inhalation

  1. Start by taking a deep inhalation. Inflate your chest as much as possible.
  2. Exhale as much of the air as you can. As you exhale, contract your abdominal muscles as much as you can.  It should feel like you are trying to bring your navel to your spine.
  3. Without inhaling, continue to isometrically contract your abdominal muscles (navel to spine) as much as you can. Keep this tension for 10 seconds or longer. Even better, wait until you feel you simply must take a breath in.
  4. Suddenly, release the tension in your abdomen. Relaxing it slowly will defeat the purpose of the exercise.
  5. Focus on the sensation of relaxation in your lower abdomen. It should feel as though the relaxation effortlessly drives the inhalation.  It may also feel like gravity helps you expand your lower abdomen.
  6. Go back to your normal breathing rhythm. See if you can maintain the sense of relaxation in your lower abdomen as you are breathing normally.
  7. After a brief period of normal breathing, repeat steps 1-6. The amount of time you wait will vary from person to person.  Do NOT attempt this exercise on consecutive breaths.

Notes

  • You can do this exercise either standing or sitting. However, maintain good posture either way.  You may check out my earlier post on sitting postures.
  • Discontinue the exercise if you feel lightheaded. Resume only when you no longer feel light headed. Hold your breath for shorter periods of time when you resume.  If the lightheaded sensation continues, contact me.
  • Pregnant women should not attempt this exercise without consulting a physician.
  • If the exercise causes abdominal or other physical distress, consult your physician.
  • Feel free to contact me if you any questions about this exercise. I would be happy to arrange a Skype session.

 

Tension or Relaxation Redux

A reader of this blog, who is an experienced Zen priest, recently wrote me the following e-mail:

I read Omori Sogen Roshi’s two books with great interest. Both books resonated strongly.  Simple and elegant. He discusses having no “tension” in the stomach muscles, which I understand. However, for the HaraMeter to be effective, to some extent one needs to “set the hara” so as to maintain the valve pressure so to speak. Correct?

This is a great question and I will do my best to answer it.  But first, some background.  Omori Sogen was the founder of Chozen-ji and my teacher’s teacher.  The two books the reader mentions are Introduction to Zen Training and The Art of a Zen Master. The former was written by Omori Roshi, the latter is a biography of him.  I highly recommend both books for anyone interested in our tradition of Zen.

The passage he mentions comes from a section on how to practice zazen (Zen meditation) in Introduction to Zen Training.  The question of how much tension to put in the abdominal muscles—especially when exhaling–is pertinent whether or not you are using a HaraMeter®. While I tried to address this question in an earlier blog post (“Tension or Relaxation”), I fear I might not have done so clearly.  Further, since the issue of the balance between tension and relaxation is so important in hara breathing, I want to return to it.  Before proceeding, I suggest you re-read that earlier post.

As I mentioned in the earlier post, I believe that the key to hara breathing is learning how to differentially tense and relax different areas of the core muscles—particularly the rectus abdominus (the “six pack muscle”)– over the course of the breathing cycle (inhalation and exhalation).  I know that this seems to contradict Omori Roshi’s dictum that there should be “no tension” in the abdominals and I’ll be the first to admit that it is possible I have not developed my breathing to an extent that allows no tension at all.  However, I am wondering if a better way to say it is that there should be no unnecessary tension when breathing.  From that perspective, there is some tension, but it is subtle and efficient.

I think that it is much easier to experience the role of relaxation in the inhalation.  Relaxing the core muscles allows the lower abdomen to expand.  The pull of gravity allows the viscera to sink, permitting maximal contraction of the diaphragm, which enables an effortless deep breath.  That was the point of the “isometric” exercise I introduced in my last post.  By tiring out the core muscles through exaggerated tension, it is possible to learn greater relaxation of the lower abdomen.

But what about the exhalation?  What drives that?  The elasticity of the muscles on the sides of the diaphragm will naturally allow it to ascend towards the rib cage; in much the same way as a rubber band will return to its original form after you stretch it.  This creates positive pressure in the thoracic cavity, which forces air out of the lungs.  But, to maintain a slow, deep exhalation, it is necessary to assist this process.  That is where the differential tension and relaxation of the core muscles comes into play.

One reason why abdominal breathing is so much easier for most people than hara breathing is that the lower abdominal muscles have a natural tendency to contract after a deep, abdominal inhalation.  I suspect that this is caused, at least in part, by the elasticity of those muscles; again, just as a rubber band returns to its original shape.  So, the first step is to learn to keep the lower abdominal muscles relaxed immediately after the completion of the inhalation and through the beginning of the exhalation.  This is facilitated by a very subtle contraction of the muscles at the very top of the abdomen, right below the solar plexus.  Contraction might be too strong a word; it feels more like putting a little more muscle tone in that area.  The combination of the relaxation of the lower abdomen and the increased tone below the ribcage is what we referred to as the “set” of the hara.  It is what prevents the lower abdomen from contracting when the exhalation begins.  As the exhalation continues, the lower abdomen remains relaxed and expanded while there is increased tone below the ribcage, allowing the top of the abdomen to scoop or fold in.  This is demonstrated nicely in the video clip of Honda Roshi playing the shakuhachi with his shirt off. You can also see that he simply relaxes the muscles under his ribcage (the ones that folded in); this drives his next inhalation.

There are three factors that facilitate the ability to use minimal muscular tension when hara breathing.  The first is the feeling of gravity.  It should feel like the pull of gravity against the lower abdomen drives both the inhalation and the exhalation.  Second, you should have muscle tone in your pelvic floor.  You can do this by putting slight tension in your anal sphincter. When done properly, it feels like it sets up a platform for your breath.  Finally, it is important to maintain proper posture.  As your breath goes down, you should extend the nape of your neck.

There are times when more tension is called for.  A good example is power moves in martial arts: a sword cut, a judo throw, pulling the arrow in archery.  These moves are marked by increased contraction of the muscles at the top of the abdomen and in the pelvic floor; the lower abdomen remains relaxed and extended.

While the HaraMeter® can be a very useful tool in learning and refining hara breathing, many people have the tendency to exaggerate the amount of tension required when using it.  I think the dial brings out our natural sense of competitiveness, as we want to get the needle as high as possible.   So, if you are using a HaraMeter® , try backing off on the amount of muscular tension.  Pay more attention to relaxation and the pull of gravity.

The reader’s question provides a segue into the second isometric hara development exercise.  The first one—in my last blog post–focused solely on the inhalation.  This next one continues on to the exhalation.   Please note that in it I stress the feeling of gravity at the beginning of the exhalation.  Once you feel that, you can add the very slight contraction of the muscles right below your sternum as you continue the exhalation while keeping your lower abdomen relaxed.   While that is not shown in this video, you can see it in the video of Honda Roshi.  Since it is not possible to exhale properly if you don’t inhale properly, I suggest practicing the first exercise until you feel you are able to take a deep, relaxed inhalation.  Once you can do that reliably, go on the to the second inhalation.

Notes on the Exercise

  • You can do this exercise either standing or sitting. However, maintain good posture either way.  You may check out my earlier post on sitting postures.
  • Discontinue the exercise if you feel lightheaded. Resume only when you no longer feel light headed. Hold your breath for shorter periods of time when you resume.  If the lightheaded sensation continues, contact me.
  • Pregnant women should not attempt this exercise without consulting a physician.
  • If the exercise causes abdominal or other physical distress, consult your physician.
  • Feel free to contact me if you any questions about this exercise. I would be happy to arrange a Skype session.

The “Pocket Bible of Zen”

Anyone who has studied Japanese martial arts—or who has at least watched any of the Karate Kid movies—is familiar with the black belt.  Known in Japanese as a kuro obi (kuro=black, obi=belt); it is a sought after sign of proficiency in an art.   Typically, it is given when a student attains a shodan, sometimes referred to as “first degree” black belt.  What is obscure to some in the West is that dan actually means step or stage and that, rather than a sign of mastery, a newly award black belt means that the student has taken the first step in a 10 stage ranking system.

But, why a belt?  Why is this accessory so important in a martial arts uniform?  Well, there is the obvious reason that it keeps the keeps the hara (top) tied together.  But, it certainly would have been possible to design an outfit with ties on the top, which would not require a belt.  I am convinced that the belt, regardless of color, has another, ultimately more important function: it facilitates hara breathing.

Gi and Hakama

In my tradition of Zen, we typically practice zazen wearing a hara and a hakama.  The latter is a skirt-like bottom.  Between the hara and the hakama we wear a wide belt—actually a sash—that is tied relatively tightly around the waist and which we call an obi.   In my experience, this is the best attire, not only for zazen, but also for most any hara development  exercise.  My teacher viewed the obi as so important to our training that he referred to the “the pocket bible of Zen.”

I remember feeling amazed when I put on my first wide obi.  It gave me better awareness of the sensations in my lower abdomen.  When tied properly, its snugness gave me a feeling that there was something to push against when I breathed.   The tightness of the obi allowed also me to better relax my upper body as I expanded my lower abdomen.   Further, the obi seemed to protect my lumbar spine in much the same way as a back brace does for someone with low back pain.  When I later took the practice of kyudo (“Zen Archery”), I found that the obi allowed me to better use the power of my hara when lifting and drawing the bow.  And, I soon found that I hated practicing without my obi; I simply could not engage my hara to the same degree without it.   If I forgot or for some reason did not have my obi, I would not sit zazen nor practice martial arts.

I discovered that there is an art to tying an obi.  If I tied it too tightly, it constricted the expansion of my lower abdomen and stifled hara breathing.  Tied too loosely, it did not give enough support or resistance in my lower abdomen; this also inhibited hara breathing.  I found that there is a sweet spot between tying it too tightly and too loosely.  With time, I could hit that spot without thinking.

Patterned Wide Obi
(under Hakama)

I was so impressed with the difference an obi made that I went on a quest, of sorts, to find the perfect one.  At times, I felt like an obi savant.  I tried a standard karate uniform belt.  While it was better than nothing, it didn’t work as well as the wider one.  I tried weight lifting belts.  While they certainly support the lumbar spine, they cinch up too tightly.  They made me appreciate the way traditional obis give and take slightly as I inhale and exhale.   The weight lifting belt was simply too rigid, too static.  The worst was a standard leather belt, the kind we usually use to keep our pants up.  Not only are they narrow, like a karate gi belt, but they are also static, like the weight lifter’s belt.  So I settled on the wide obi shown in photo.   I tried different obis of different fabrics: cotton, wool and synthetic.  I found that the natural ones work best.  They are cooler in hot weather because they breathe and there is more the give and take than with the synthetic fabrics.

While I prefer the traditional wide obi for zazen, kyudo or and most hara development exercises, it has two limitations.  First, because it ties in the back, it becomes uncomfortable when you lie on the floor on your back or when doing rolling activities, such as in aikido.  The second limitation is that it is too bulky to wear under everyday clothing.  Of course, it is possible to wear it over your clothing, but that is rather conspicuous and you might run the risk of looking eccentric.

Velcro Obi

I have found that a good alternative to traditional obi is a thick one made of natural fabric that is secured with Velcro.  The Velcro makes it easier to hit the sweet spot between too tight and too loose.  Since it is made of natural fabric, it gives and takes with the breath.  Because it does not tie, it is fine for floor and rolling exercises.  Finally, you can wear it unobtrusively under everyday clothing; it can become your secret weapon at work or when you are doing intense, physical activity.   This will allow you to better practice your hara breathing in everyday life.

We now have Velcro obi available for sale.  If you are interested, click here.