By Barry Kapke, A.C.S.T., C.I.
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, August/September 2001.
We recognize the importance of good beginnings and a solid ground. To ensure the best results, it is always worthwhile to establish a firm and developed foundation. Without deep, well-established roots, a plant is weak and growth will be stunted. In the human body, the hara is our home. Home is a reference point.
Our abdominal center, which the Japanese call hara, is quite literally our physical and energetic core. Energetically, our first three chakras reside here, focusing on grounding, physical embodiment, basic needs and drives, and directed action. Physically, it is the locus of our power, gravity and bodily organs. Our legs extend the hara in connection with the earth, establishing rootedness as well as enabling mobility. Further, hara is understood as our life source and spiritual umbilicus, and through its cultivation comes mastery, strength, wisdom and tranquility.
Children quite naturally are connected with their haras. Their bellies are relaxed and their breath is deep. They glow with an abundance of vitality, spontaneity and playful curiosity. As we move toward adulthood, we learn to distrust and to distance ourselves from the lower body, and we are taught to privilege and develop the mind. Western culture equates a tight “six-pack” abdomen with vigor and health, and a soft belly with laziness. The adult belly must be disciplined and constrained. “Chest out, belly in.”
Culturally, we are taught to think of strength and power positioned well above the navel — in our arms and shoulders, and in our brains. In the Asian view, it is the opposite. Taoist yoga often represents the lower abdomen as a fiery cauldron which cooks up the energy needed to open and liberate the rest of the body. Kundalini, the coiled serpent at the base of the spine, is potential energy awaiting stimulation to rise up and energize the upwardly cascading power centers. The root chakra, at the perineum, functions much like a pilot light for the other chakras and when its energy is weak or blocked, the energy of all the other chakras is correspondingly weakened. Westerners tend to be rigid, tense and overactive in the upper body and empty in the lower body, resulting in a top-heaviness which throws them off balance.
The Hara Attitude
There is much benefit to reconnecting with the simplicity and directness of the hara. To begin to develop our center, it is essential to first find it. Asian bodyworks, such as Shiatsu, Thai massage and Insight Bodywork™, are strongly oriented toward cultivation of this consolidated body center, as are internal development practices such as aikido, t’ai chi, qigong, yoga and various types of meditation. “Concentration from hara and relaxation of the whole body is natural,” according to Shizuto Masunaga, the originator of Zen Shiatsu. “All Japanese culture,” he says, “is based on this principle. If you tighten your shoulders or extremities, your movement becomes clumsy and awkward. Training in the arts is simply how to eliminate this distorted tension.”1
The composure of the Japanese way of sitting is “as if he were resting in himself rather than on the furniture,”2 writer Karlfried Dürckheim observes. He goes on to say: “The bodily center of gravity is not drawn upward but held firmly in the middle, in the region of the navel. And that is the point. The belly is not pulled in but free — and yet slightly tensed. The shoulder region instead of being tense is relaxed but the trunk is firm. The upright bearing is not a pulling upwards but is the manifestation of an axis which stands firmly on a reliable base and which by its own strength maintains its uprightness.”3 Upright, firm and collected signify the presence of hara.
Sitting meditation is one way to drop down from the rooftop chatter of the mind to the embodied center of the belly. By bringing the focus of the mind to the breath and allowing the breath to descend deep into the lower abdomen, and feeling the weight of the body, the mind becomes calm and there is a relaxed (that is, not forced) concentration. In these moments we are unified; the split between body (hara), feeling (heart) and thinking (mind) dissolves. In these moments, there is no conflict; nothing is lacking. We are aware of breath and of feelings of weight, softness and alertness in our bodies, and there is an internal sense of focus, clarity and ease. Sometimes we quite naturally drop into this “attentional” state, such as when we give or receive a massage.
When we shift from the mind-centered experience to one where we start to feel our bodies and our wholeness, it is not at all uncommon to experience a deep joy and at the same time a profound sadness. It is the recognition of our split, the realization of how far away we have been from our bodies. In the Persian language, this ennui of recognition is called durie, or homesickness. In the hara, we come home to our unity.
Grounding (The Balance of Center)
From our hara, we find our center. To be centered is to be fully in the body, fully in the moment. “Center is a basic bodily presence,” writes bodyworker and psychotherapist Richard Strozzi Heckler, “and it is on this presence that the other bodily states are built. It is a bodily and energetic base camp.”4
The hara is a place of action where we manifest desire or thought, but it is also a place of stillness and depth, simply being with what is. It contains both these masculine (yang) and feminine (yin) aspects. From the belly, we move with confidence. Our body wisdom guides us. There is no need to think about what to do or to comprehend what is to be done. We just do it — awake, moment by moment. Action executes itself, with no doer to get in the way. “Doing” arises from the fertile ground of being and the emptiness of no thought. The power of the feminine aspect is to simply hold space, to be, to not do. Without the judgmental mind to intervene, the feminine aspect of hara accepts how things are, not wanting them to be different, not interfering to fix or change them. Aikido master Wendy Palmer points out that it “takes training, courage and concentration to stay right in the middle of the present unfolding moment. Instead, what frequently occurs is that we try to take back control of the situation and shift our attention into the future.”5 Cultivation of the hara develops the depth to include and integrate both the mastery of the masculine and the mystery of the feminine in the embodied “now.”
The founder of aikido, Morihei Uyeshiba, when asked if he ever lost his balance, responded, “Yes, all the time, but I regain it so fast that you do not see me lose it.”6
Working from Hara
“A strong hara confers not only physical stamina, but also the ability to sense and transmit ki,”7 says Shiatsu practitioner and author Carola Beresford-Cooke. She goes on to suggest one of the best ways to increase the energetic abilities of any part of the body is by simply bringing attention there, since awareness is a form of energy. Where thought goes, energy will follow.
Working from the hara, leaning rather than pushing, ensures maximum longevity and vitality for the practitioner, as minimal energy is being expended and there is no application of force. Rather, the practitioner will often find an enhanced sense of vitality and aliveness after working in this way. At the same time, recipients will experience the safety and security to surrender to your deeply penetrating, but non-invasive contact. Your own openness and clarity will invite their body to openness and clarity.
The hara-based principles listed below are intended for floor-based bodywork, such as Shiatsu, Thai massage or Insight Bodywork, but certainly are applicable to table work as well.
• Be Attentive to Feeling. Feeling is always in the present. Thoughts, memories, comparisons and judgments take you out of the body and out of the moment. Stay with what you feel. Register the breath, register the feeling of weight, notice sensations as they arise. Maintain deep, natural breathing. Grounded in your own experience, awareness can expand to include the client, or other stimuli, without losing your center.
• Relax — Be Comfortable. It is essential to be relaxed and comfortable. If you are tense, your energy is not flowing and you are not going to be of help to your client, or yourself. Take the time to find a comfortable posture. Tension and relaxation are both contagious.
• Use Your Whole Body. Tension and effort occurs as the body is fractionalized into parts. Moving from your hara will involve moving the whole body. Relax into the ‘shape’ you are holding and initiate movement from your belly.
• Don’t Force, Don’t Hold Back. Lean with relaxed weight. The amount of weight is less important than the quality of the contact. Allow your partner’s body to support you. Mutual support is a mutual benefit.
• Have a Solid Base. The lower body needs to be open, flexible and wider than the upper body. When kneeling, keep the knees apart and the groin open. Make full use of the ground for support. Always maintain at least two points of contact with the body of the recipient.
• Feel Connected to the Ground. Establish deep roots into the earth. Stand, or move, with confidence. If you lose a sense of groundedness, stop and breath into the hara; feel your weight.
• Direct Energy From the Hara. Maintain balance and control by directing the hara between the two hands, or toward the area on which you are working. Imagine the hara moving you, rather than you moving the hara. Feel hara moving through stable hands and thumbs, rather than focusing on hands and thumbs as points of pressure.
• Get Out of Your Way. Trust the instinctive wisdom of the body. Keep it simple. Be guided by intuition, which is limitless, as opposed to intellect, which is limited.
The Fruition of Hara
In Japanese culture, Dürckheim points out, one who has cultivated hara is the measure of inner maturity and accomplishment. Hara no aru hito literally means a man with “center” or a man with belly. Such a person is always balanced, tranquil, magnanimous and warm-hearted. With calm, unprejudiced judgment, he knows what is important. He accepts things as they are and maintains a balanced sense of proportion. He is ready for whatever comes his way. When, through persistent discipline and practice, such a man reaches maturity, like a tree that bears ripe fruit effortlessly, he is said to be hara no dekita hito, the man who has finished his belly.
It is no coincidence that Buddha statues typically represent a soft, relaxed belly and solid foundation in the lower body. The imagery of the Buddha represents the total achievement of what is possible for everyone — to be awake. To awaken is to come home. Home is where we start from.