In 1978, I was a new Zen student struggling with zazen, sitting meditation, during my first training intensive in Chicago. I remember watching the jikijitsu [head monk] at the front of the zendo as he put his hands together and bowed. Rising from his cushion, he would pick up a flat wooden stick called a keisaku from the altar, then turn and inspect the trainees. I’d hear him walking slowly, circling the room. He would pause to bow in front of a student, and the student would bow in return, leaning forward to prepare for the keisaku. Whack—whack whack! And again: Whack—whack whack. He would hit the student three times on the muscles on each side of the spine to focus their attention and relieve tension in their shoulders and back, then walk on to the next student. I would sense him getting closer—his footsteps became louder, and I could hear the rustling of his robes. He’d stop in front of me, press his hands together and bow. Whack—whack, whack. And again: Whack—whack, whack. Then, almost inevitably, he’d lean over and say: “Breathe with your hara!” This happened many, many times over the following months.
I knew that hara was the Japanese word for the lower abdomen, and that it was regarded as the center of ki (chi), or vital energy. There was just one trouble: no one ever explained to me how to breathe with my hara. Try as I might, I couldn’t figure it out.
One evening, while changing clothes in preparation for zazen at our zendo in Ypsilanti, Michigan, I was telling my fellow students about an argument I had had with my boss earlier that day. The more I talked, the angrier I became. Suddenly it felt as if something popped, as the habitual tension I held in my lower abdomen released all at once. My stomach seemed to drop, and my breathing became deeper and more relaxed. I felt grounded; my center of gravity was lower. My body was brimming with energy; I felt supercharged. My mind cleared, and I stopped stewing about the events of the day. As I went to take my cushion in the meditation hall, it hit me: I had finally found my hara.
What Is Hara?
“Hara” is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese character fu, meaning abdomen. In Chozen-ji, the line of the Rinzai Zen tradition in which I teach, as well as in Japanese culture more generally, the term hara refers specifically to the lower abdomen. A related Japanese word is tanden, or dantian in Chinese. In Daoist thought there are three dantian; all of them are considered to be critical energy centers. The lowest of the three, the xia dantian, is situated about two inches below the navel and corresponds to the Japanese concept of tanden. While the words hara and tanden are sometimes used interchangeably, tanden is regarded as a single point, unlike hara, which encompasses the entire lower abdomen. Both are associated with the development of vital energy, which explains why I felt my body brimming with energy when I finally found my hara.
Beyond its location in the body, the hara has a dynamic, functional role in breathing. In chest (or thoracic) breathing, there is maximal engagement of chest and rib cage muscles and minimal engagement of the lower abdominal muscles. If you are breathing like this, your rib cage expands and contracts, and your shoulders move up and down. Diaphragmatic, or abdominal, breathing—now well-known in our culture because of its role in yoga—is often referred to as belly breathing. It engages the lower abdomen, which drives the breath like a bellows. When you breathe this way, your lower abdomen expands on inhalation and contracts on exhalation, with minimal motion in your upper body.
An old Zen saying is “You cannot wash off blood with blood,” meaning that it is difficult to control thoughts with just more thoughts.
Hara breathing, which is sometimes referred to as tanden breathing, has similarities to diaphragmatic breathing: in both types, the lower abdomen expands on inhalation. However, in hara breathing the lower abdomen remains expanded on exhalation. Once you are capable of hara breathing, your lower abdomen will expand on inhalation and remain expanded throughout the exhalation and into the next inhalation. It is as though the lower abdomen were a balloon that can remain inflated throughout the process of breathing; the balloon is supported by the engagement of the muscles of your lower back and pelvic floor.
The seminal Western book on hara, Karlfried Graf Dürckheim’s Hara: The Vital Center of Man, reveals the psychological dimensions of hara in the Japanese language. For example, in English we might say that someone has a big heart, meaning they are kind or compassionate. A Japanese equivalent would be to say that person has a “big hara” (hara no oki). In Japanese, saying that a person’s hara “rose” (ga tatsu) implies that they were swept away by anger, as we say in English that someone has lost their head. To say that someone has “accomplished or finished” developing their hara (no dekita hito) conveys that the person is a mature individual. A corollary statement says that one who has not developed their hara is not fit to lead.
When I first heard of these sayings, I assumed that they were metaphoric, much as saying that someone lost their head is metaphoric. However, as I progressed in my Zen training, I realized that they are literal: for example, when someone is swept away by anger, their hara breathing is lost and with that their ability to “settle down.” With one’s development of the physical aspects of hara come profound psychological changes, something I have observed over years of watching my Zen students. As they develop hara physically, they acquire composure, equanimity, and a gravitas that were not there before.
An old Zen saying is “You cannot wash off blood with blood,” meaning that it is difficult to control thoughts with just more thoughts. Another saying that is highly valued in Rinzai Zen in particular is “Enter the mind through body.” These sayings underscore the fact that the keys to the highly valued mental states associated with Zen—particularly the deep concentration of samadhi, in which the delusion of separateness falls away—are physical in nature and physically trainable. As the writer and lay Soto Zen teacher Katsuki Sekida wrote in his guide Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy, “It is the correct manipulation of the lower abdomen, as we sit and breathe, that enables us to control the activity of our mind.” In other words, hara breathing is a gateway to samadhi.
In my tradition, we continually deepen and refine hara breathing through long, slow exhalations, and natural, quick but expansive, inhalations. At first this needs to be done deliberately; over time it becomes second nature. One of my teachers used to say that the depth of samadhi is in direct proportion to the quality of hara breathing. In turn, samadhi enables kensho, the “seeing into one’s true nature” that is fundamental to Zen realization. In this way, the depth of one’s Zen experience is tied to the quality of one’s breathing. Hence the recurrent admonition I received early in my training: “Breathe with your hara!”
Throughout my years as a Zen teacher, I have been struck by how many people experience the same difficulty I once had in finding hara. Even those who have had extensive experience in other traditions of meditation or have trained in yoga or marital arts struggle with this. The only people who seem to find hara quickly are singers and wind instrument players—people who are already well practiced in taking long, deep inhalations.
For everyone else, learning hara breathing can be a surprisingly difficult, complex skill. It involves differentially tensing and relaxing various abdominal muscles at different stages of the respiratory cycle. In addition, you have to learn to regulate the musculature of the pelvic floor and the body’s overall posture in ways that facilitate this type of breathing. It is difficult, in fact, to give specific instructions on how to do hara breathing. That’s because most people start out with poor proprioception, and so they have trouble locating the specific body parts required for hara breathing.
There are two ways to acquire hara breathing in the Rinzai Zen tradition. The first is through prolonged zazen practice. By intentionally slowing and deepening one’s breath while engaged in seated meditation, one develops increased proprioception of the lower abdomen. Eventually, you begin to learn the proper balance of tension and relaxation in the abdominal muscles.
The second way to find hara breathing is through intense physical practice, such as that involved in martial arts or while engaged in heavy manual labor. Exhausting the muscles of the upper body through, say, swinging a sword thousands of times or moving hundreds of boulders, eventually helps you develop the differential tension and relaxation of the key abdominal muscles necessary for hara breathing.
Neither of these methods is easy. Though most Zen trainees find their hara more gradually (and less dramatically) than I did, it is in any case a long and frustrating experience for many. For that reason, I have undertaken a quest to make finding hara a more efficient experience for students today, and I have developed a set of exercises to help students begin training in hara breathing. Here I have included two of my favorites. Those already proficient in hara breathing may find that these exercises can help them deepen and refine their breath.
For me, the deepening and refining of hara breathing has come to represent the essence of Zen training itself. Sometimes the changes are sudden, sometimes more gradual, but as my hara breathing has become deeper and more relaxed, I have felt calmer overall and less worried. I am more connected to the world and to other people. My senses are heightened; things look clear and bright. After years of practice, hara breathing has become more and more automatic for me, and today I strive to maintain my hara breathing in all circumstances—not just on the zazen cushion. Those of us who have been at this for a while know that hara development is a lifelong journey, one that makes this life ever richer.
In general, 5 to 10 minutes once a day is appropriate for most people at the beginning stages; you can add extra time once you get the hang of the exercises. You can practice anywhere—in a quiet room at home, in an exercise studio, or at a park. You can also do the exercises any time of day, though I like to do them early in the morning because I find them energizing: they clear my mind for the day ahead. (I also practice during breaks at work; if you don’t have private space, however, this might be a challenge.) Some find it helpful to practice the exercises before sitting zazen or engaging in martial arts practice.
Be sure to stop the exercises if you feel lightheaded. Resume them only when you no longer feel lightheaded, and hold your breath for shorter periods of time when you resume. Pregnant women should not attempt this exercise without consulting a physician. If the exercise causes abdominal or other physical distress, consult your physician.
Deep Inhalation Exercise
Remember that in order to be able to keep the expansion in the lower abdomen when exhaling, you first must be able to expand it when taking a deep inhalation. In other words, you must be able to do diaphragmatic breathing before you can do hara breathing. This exercise helps to develop a deep, relaxed diaphragmatic inhalation.
1. From a standing position, start by inhaling deeply. Inflate your abdomen and then your chest as much as possible.
2. Exhale through the nose as much of the air as you can. As you exhale, contract your abdominal muscles as much as you can. Feel your navel move toward your spine.
3. Without inhaling, continue to contract your abdominal muscles (navel to spine) as much as you can. Hold this tension for 5 seconds or until you feel you simply must take a breath in.
4. Release the tension in your abdomen as quickly as possible, and allow a deep inhalation. Focus on the sensation of relaxation in your lower abdomen, and allow yourself to inhale through the nose once again. It should feel as though the relaxation effortlessly drives the inhalation. Feel your lower abdomen expand. You may feel that gravity is helping to expand your lower abdomen.
5. Go back to your normal breathing rhythm. See if you can maintain the sense of relaxation in your lower abdomen as you breathe normally.
6. After a brief period of normal breathing, repeat steps 1 through 5. The amount of time you wait will vary from person to person. In order to avoid getting short of breath, do not attempt this exercise on consecutive breaths.
Relaxed Exhalation Exercise
This exercise helps to develop relaxed expansion in the lower abdomen during exhalation. This is the distinguishing feature of hara breathing. I generally introduce this exercise after someone is able to take a relaxed, expansive inhalation, as taught in the Deep Inhalation Exercise.
Follow steps 1 through 5 of the Deep Inhalation Exercise. This time, before you begin, place one hand right below your navel, the other hand right below your sternum. Both hands will move outward as your abdomen expands on inhalation. Ideally, the lower hand will visibly move more.
For me, the deepening and refining of hara breathing has come to represent the essence of Zen training itself.
Following the inhalation at the end of step 4 of the previous exercise (immediately after you release the tension) and before you start exhaling, begin the next exhalation by very slightly contracting the muscles under your upper hand. Think of it as putting a little pressure on the top of an air-filled balloon (but don’t push with your hand). You will feel a slight “scooping” sensation in the muscles below the sternum. Simultaneously relax the muscles of your lower abdomen while you gently grip the floor with your big toes. This puts tone in your pelvic floor. Sense the weight of gravity pulling your lower abdomen downward.
Use the scooping feeling below your sternum and the weight of the lower abdomen to continue the exhalation. Continue to grip with your big toes. Keep your lower abdomen relaxed and expanded for as long as you can. Ideally, your lower abdomen will remain relaxed and your lower hand will not move. The upper hand will move inward slightly.
It’s OK if at first you can’t maintain the scooping sensation in the upper abdomen or the relaxation in the lower abdomen to the end of your exhalation. Never strain to force the exhalation. The key to this exercise—and hara breathing—is relaxation, even on exhalation.
Inhale when you reach a comfortable end to your exhalation. Once again initiate the inhalation by simply relaxing the muscles of your lower abdomen. Release the grip of your big toes before you inhale.
After a brief period of normal breathing, repeat the exercise. The amount of time you wait will vary from person to person. Again, do not attempt this exercise on consecutive breaths. Once you can maintain the expansion of your lower abdomen when you start the exhalation, work toward maintaining it throughout the entire exhalation.
This article is a part of the special section “Meditations Off the Beaten Path” in Tricycle’s Winter 2018 issue. The other articles in this section are:
“Listening to Silence,”
by Dharma Master Hsin Tao
“The Elemental Self,”
by Ayya Khema
“Pure and Simple Practice,”
by Dharmavidya David Brazier