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.

The Aesthetics of Breathing

I recently came across a fascinating book chapter that I think has relevance to hara development. Its subject is Noh, a classical Japanese dance theater tradition.  Noh is characterized by slow, deliberate, highly stylized movement.   The actors wear masks, which cover their facial expressions.  While there are spoken words in Noh, emotions are also conveyed by the masks and by movements and bodily gestures.

Naohiko Umewaka

The chapter is entitled Noh Theater: the Aesthetics of Breathing.  Its author, Naohiko Umewaka, is a contemporary Noh master who comes from a long line of Noh masters.  He begins the chapter by saying, “it had always been in the breathing rhythm; this is where a weapon had been concealed. This concealed weapon could work dreadful impact. The Samurai always possessed these two entirely different implements of destruction. The visible and concealed weapon; these were the sword and breathing rhythm.”

Umewaka goes on the explain how the key to expressing emotion in Noh lies in the breath.  Noh performers realized centuries ago that they could convey emotional expression by altering their breathing rhythm and that subtle changes in breathing can have tremendous impact on the audience.

To illustrate this, he talks about the kamae (which he translates as “posture”) in Noh.  While the basic kamae is simply being  “motionless on stage”, the actor must convey specific emotions in that stillness.  Those emotions are created by internal changes—that is, by changes in breathing.  Further, he makes the case that although an amateur may be able to mimic the external form of a Noh gesture, he could not truly reproduce it because he would lack the proper internal control.

Umewaka does not use the word “hara” in his chapter.  Nor does he describe the types of training methods required to develop the type of breath control required for Noh, other than to say that it comes after “long years of aestheticism”.    However, I strongly suspect that hara breathing plays a significant role in Noh.   I base this largely on watching Umewaka in action as a performer.    A wonderful example of this is his TED talk in which he demonstrates some traditional Noh scenes.  If you watch carefully, you’ll see that his lower abdomen is expanded throughout the performances.  Further, his movement emanates from his lower abdomen. His movement is akin to that of a highly skilled Japanese martial artist with well-developed hara breathing.

Umewaka’s comment about an amateur not being able to reproduce a Noh kamae has implications for hara development.  Kamae play significant roles in Japanese martial arts.  While Umewaka defines the term as “posture”, the concept was originally described to me in karate as a “ready stance”.  My Zen teacher also used to speak of kamae in mind/body terms, including not only posture, but the mental state of relaxed alertness as well.  A proper kamae should be felt by an opponent.  But, for this to happen, the breathing must be correct.

Just as in Noh, it is possible for a martial artist to copy the superficial physical form of a kamae. I know this because that is what I did for many years. Now, I see it all the time in beginning students.  But, mimicking the external, physical aspects of a kamae does not have the same impact on others if the person is not breathing from the hara.

Kyudo Kamae

Let me give an example from kyudo, the “Zen Art of Archery”, an art I have studied for over 35 years.  I can easily explain to a beginner the form of the basic kamae; for example, the feet are about one and one half shoulder width apart, the bow rests on the left knee, the elbows are bent making a rounded shape (in Japanese this is referred to as “like grasping a tree trunk”).  And, it doesn’t take too long for him or her to mimic the stance.  But, it wouldn’t quite look right.  Typically, the beginner will look top-heavy due to unnecessary tension in their upper body.   More importantly, they will not have impact on people watching them.  In order to take the tension out of their upper bodies, they have to learn to breathe from the hara.  And, with that comes a transformation in the way they hold themselves.  The center of gravity drops, they appear firmly rooted.  The muscles in their upper bodies appear relaxed and alive.  And, they convey an air of relaxed alertness that spreads to other people watching them.  A kamae properly executed—both internally and externally—should put the viewers into samadhi.

Hara Development in the Media

I have once again been involved in other projects that have kept me from posting to the Hara Development. I plan to resume posting shortly.

I want to call your attention to several media events relating to hara development. First, I have an article entitled “Finding Hara” that will be published in the next issue of Tricycle Magazine. The hard copy will be available on the newsstands on November 12; the digital edition will go online on November 1 (https://tricycle.org).

I also recently recorded a podcast on hara development for Omni Athelete, a site run by the Sports, Energy and Consciousness Group. I don’t have a release date for the podcast, but I am told it will be “soon”. So, check https://theomniathlete.com in a bit if you are interested. Videos of past presentations on hara development that I have given can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pe_3GBSmne8&t=34s and https://vimeo.com/258113122.

And, to finish on the theme of hara development in the media, I would be happy to arrange a Skype or other videoconference with anyone who has questions about any of the exercises, the use of the HaraMeter and Hara Belt or Hara Development in general. You can write me directly via the “contact” link below.

Keep you hara set!

Ken Kushner
(contact)