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Hara (Part II): Working From the Center

by Barry Kapke, A.C.S.T., C.I.

“Home is where we start from,” wrote T.S. Eliot. 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
towards 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 topheaviness that 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 towards cultivation of this consolidated
body center, as are internal development practices such as aikido, tai 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
“Hara II: Working From the Center,” Barry Kapke
page 2

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,
‘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 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.’
“Hara II: Working From the Center,” Barry Kapke
page 3

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 that one of
the best ways of increasing 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 noninvasive contact. Your own openness and clarity will invite their
body to openness and clarity.

These working principles 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 the 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 to 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 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.
“Hara II: Working From the Center,” Barry Kapke
page 4

DIRECT ENERGY FROM THE HARA. Maintain balance and control by directing the hara
between the two hands, or towards 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, Dürckhe im 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.

Footnotes
1
Shizuto Masunaga with Wataru Ohashi. Zen Shiatsu: How to Harmonize Yin and Yang for Better Health.
(Tokyo: Japan Publications, 1977), 50.
2
Karlfried Graf Dürckheim. Hara: The Vital Centre of Man. (London: Unwin Hyman Ltd, 1962), 23.
3
Dürckheim, 24.
4
Richard Strozzi Heckler. The Anatomy of Change: East/West Approaches to Body/Mind Therapy. (Boulder:
Shambhala, 1984), 79.
5
Wendy Palmer. The Intuitive Body: Aikido as a Clairsentient Practice. (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1994),
125.
6
Morehei Uyeshiba, cited in Heckler, 82.
7
Carola Beresford-Cooke. Shiatsu Theory and Practice. (Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone, 1996, 1998), 15.

Barry Kapke is the program director of Asian Bodyworks at San Francisco School of Massage and the founder of
Insight Bodywork™. He will be teaching a 7-day residential intensive at Heartwood Institute, September 29-Oct 5,
and an Insight Bodywork certification course begins in September at SFSM. He can be reached via e-mail at
insight@bodhiwork.org

Copyright © 2001, Associated Massage & Bodywork Professionals, Inc. All rights reserved.

This article is distributed, with permission of the author, for personal use only. It was published in
Massage & Bodywork Magazine (August/September 2001). For permission to reprint, please contact: Associated
Massage & Bodywork Professionals, Attn: Karrie Mowen, 1271 Sugarbush Drive, Evergreen CO 80439-9766.