Excerpts 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.
What is the Hara?
Hara is a Japanese word meaning “belly”. But its cultural connotations go far beyond a mere anatomical location. Hara is our centre. To have “hara” or to act with “hara” has the implication of strength, purpose, groundedness and presence. All oriental arts from martial arts to calligraphy, from the tea ceremony to flower arranging lay great emphasis of being in the “hara”.
In Japanese medicine hara is central to health. Most schools of healing in Japan believe that the hara is a mirror of a person’s overal constitution and state of health. The hara influences every aspect of a person’s being. The hara is our centre of gravity and its muscular walls are literally pivotal to good posture and strong graceful movement. The motility of the hara is critical to healthy diaphramatic breathing, The major blood including the Aorta and Vena Cava pass through the hara, The hara is obviously the seat of the digestive, reproductive and sexual organs. At an emotional level, the hara is the location where much of our deepest emotional armouring is found.
Energetically, the hara is the site of the lower dan tien, the storage point of yuan qi and jing which in Taoist thought are the root energies of our being and the power cell of our entire system. In Tantra, the lower three Chakras are all within the hara.
The History of Hara Massage
Hara massage has probably been practiced by most traditional cultures since ancient times.
In the East, Japanese Ampuku (literally: palapting the stomach) evolved into a sophisticated healing art originating with Shinsai Ota in the 17th Century. Ota treated all diseases through the hara regardless of where they manifest in the body and focused on sensing and treating five hara signs: fullness, emptiness, pulsing, tension and lumps. Ampuku is still practiced in Japan although skilled teachers and therapists are hard to find.
Chi Nei tsang (internal organ chi massage) is a Taoist approach to hara massage introduced to the West by Master Mantak Chia. Chi Nei Tsang emphasises sensing and treating qi or energy imbalances in the hara, particularly the elimination of negative “winds”. Karsai Nei Tsang is closely related to Chi Nei Tsang and focuses on clearing stagnant blood from the genital area.
Another style of hara massage is Mayan abdominal massage (Arvigo), which originates from traditional South American Indian healing and has been popularized by Rosita Arvigo. Mayan abdominal massage is best known for helping with issues of the reproductive system, particularly malposition of the uterus.
The West has its own traditions of hara work. John Harvey Kellogg MD included comprehensive and sophisticated treatments for the internal organs in his book The Art of Massage, published in 1895. Sadly much of this knowledge was lost as massage fell from favor during the pharmaceutical drug revolution of the twentieth century.
More recently Wurn Technique practiced at the Clear Passage Clinic in America has produced encouraging research evidence for the manual release of abdominal and pelvic adhesion’s in the treatment of a wide range of reproductive and urogenital problems.
The Osteopathic tradition also works with the hara. Jean Pierre Barral’s Visceral Manipulation uses light touch and principles from cranial osteopathy to work directly with the internal organs.
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.”
The composure of the Japanese way of sitting is “as if he were resting in himself rather than on the furniture,” writer Karlfried DÃrckheim 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.” 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.”
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.” 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.”
Working from Hara
“A strong hara confers not only physical stamina, but also the ability to sense and transmit ki,”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.
Hara massage may be used therapeutically at three levels:
1) As part of a general restorative massage approach to maintain health and well being. Hara massage techniques can be included in full body relaxation and therapeutic massage to deepen and expand the scope of the treatment.
2) As a specific treatment protocol for a wide range of health issues that relate to the abdomen and pelvis. Hara massage is indicated in conditions described in oriental medicine as excess, that is involving, congestion, accumulation and adhesion. It is also indicated for deficient conditions characterised by poor micro circulation, weakness prolapse and atrophy. Hara massage has been used with apparent good results in the treatment of the following conditions:
- Respiratory: asthma, paradoxical breathing, chronic bronchitis
- Digestive: IBS, constipation, inflamatory bowel disorder, sluggish hepatic and bilary function, gastroptosis, gastritis. Indigestion, poor assimilation.
- Gynaecological: period pain, irregular periods, endometriosis, vulva pain, blocked fallopian tubes, prolapsed or retroflexed uterus, infertility without known cause, female sexual dysfunction, post partum problems.
- Urogenital: chronic prostatitis, male sexual dysfunction, irritable bladder syndrome, interstitial cystitis, prolapsed bladder, mild to moderate incontinence.
- General: pelvic, perineal and genital pain. Back pain related to psoas imbalances, post surgical and other scarring and adhesions.
3) As a deep, holistic energy treatment. Treatments known in oriental medicine as root treatments focus on the patient’s constitution and underlying energy imbalances. Working at core of a person’s being, hara massage is a powerful root treatment which can unblock the flow of energy, particularly at an emotional level.
Hara massage has few absolute contraindications and can be adapted by a skilled practitioner to the specific needs and limitations of each client.
Hara Massage within Integrated Tissue Release
Hara massage is a cornerstone of Integrated Tissue Release (ITR) . ITR has been described as bringing together the power of Tuina, the presence of Zen Shiatsu and the flow of Lomi Lomi with the precision of neuro-muscular technique and fascial release and the sensitivity of cranial work.
ITR hara massage integrates principles from oriental tradition and western practice. Its aim is to find and release areas of kori: areas of tight, congested, immobile or painful tissue within the hara. In ITR philosophy these lesions are the result of the body becoming locked into a defensive adaptive response to trauma or stress at a structural, physiological or emotional level. ITR seeks to release these areas of kori and guide the body towards a healing adaptive response.
ITR hara massage works with releases at three levels:
Myofascial – through the direct release of adhesions and beneficial thixotropic change in the facial matrix.
Circulatory-physiological – through the enhancement of micro circulation and the stimulation of hormonal and metabolic processes.
Neuro-muscular – through the stimulation of points that mediate autonomic and higher neurological function.
These three levels correspond broadly with the Three Treasures of Oriental Medicine: Jing (physical substance) Qi: (life force) and Shen (conciousness).
Within these set patterns, practitioners learn the fundamental principle of ITR, the unity of diagnosis and treatment, discovering how to sense the presence of blocked, congested or immobilized tissue and apply appropriate pressure, angle, rhythm and mode of touch to initiate a release.ITR hara massage techniques employ combinations of pressure, stretch, mobilization and stroking in which typically the two hands work together to generate infinitely variable shades of touch. As the practitioner’s skill develops, treatment flows in interwoven cycles of sensing, release and integration which respond spontaneously and intuitively to the “in the moment” state of the tissues.
ITR hara massage recognizes that blockages felt physically within the tissues will often have a component of emotional holding or body armoring. The treatment does not work only with the physical tissues, but guides the receiver’s awareness into parts of their body they have become cut off from. Sensing this dimension and dealing sensitively with emotional release, particularly where it relates to sexual trauma, is an important aspect of the practitioner’s learning.
ITR hara massage encourages practitioners to develop heightened palpatory skill, to be fully present in what they are doing and to work from a place where intuition and rational analysis are balanced.
From a practical point of view, ITR offers a practitioner a skill set that allows them to treat a wide variety of structural, respiratory, digestive, reproductive, urogenital, emotional and pychosexual issues.
Bodyworkers are often nervous working with the hara, because this area of the body is seldom covered in the depth it deserves on massage training programes. ITR hara massage opens the door to working powerfully and with full confidence with this vital aspect of their client’s.
Oriental medicine practitioners and acupuncturists find that ITR hara massage as an oriental healing discipline, integrates naturally with their skill and knowledge base while allowing them to extend the scope of their work.
The Fruition of Hara
In Japanese culture, DÃrckheim 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.
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 DÃrckheim. Hara: The Vital Centre of Man. (London: Unwin Hyman Ltd, 1962), 23.
3. Ibid, 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