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.