“Belly in, chest up, shoulders back.” This, we are told, represents good posture and good looks. America wants to “tighten its gut” because the flat, hard stomach is considered one of the cornerstones of physical fitness. To have any sign of a belly protruding makes us fat and lazy, in need of doing sit-ups and leg raisers to “tone” those lazy stomach muscles. The man with the fifty-inch chest and thirty inch waist becomes Mr. America and represents the body beautiful. With a round, full belly we are considered to be either pregnant or heavy beer drinkers. How many articles in magazines and books have we seen with the title “How to Flatten Your Stomach”?
Yet much of the world disagrees. The Japanese word hara literally means belly. Hara Kiri means belly splitting, the warrior’s style of suicide where the abdomen is cut and the viscera spill out. To the Japanese, cutting the hara is attacking life at its source, the belly.
Karlfried Durkheim’s book Hara, The Vital Centre of Man is a serious and scholarly look at the whole range of the hara concept in the culture of Japan. “Hara”, he writes, “implies for the Japanese all that he considers essential to man’s character and destiny. Hara is the centre of the human body. lt is at the same time the centre in a spiritual sense or, to be more accurate, a nature given spiritual sense.” 1
The man with belly is centered, tranquil, balanced. He is “large minded, one who is magnanimous and warm hearted.” 2
Conversely, the man without a belly lacks calm judgement. He reacts haphazardly and capriciously.
He is easily startled and nervous … he lacks that inner axis which would prevent his being thrown off center. “The man with no belly is in every respect a picture of immaturity.” 3
Traditionally then for the Japanese, hara, the belly, has meant strength, maturity and a tranquil mind.
With our prejudice against the belly we tend to see strength in big arms and broad shoulders. We feel a belly detracts from this image of strength. Mental power derives from our head, our brain specifically. We locate physical and mental power well above our navels.
AI Huang in the book Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain describes the difference between the Oriental and the Western man:
“The Oriental man is very empty and light up here in the head and very heavy down here in the belly and he feels very secure. The Western man is light in the belly and very heavy up here in the head, so he topples over.” 4
In T’ai Chi and other eastern martial arts the center of gravity is located in the lower belly and the reservoir of Life Energy or Breath Energy is also in the lower belly. From this “single spot in the lower abdomen” 5 movement begins and energy is made. This spot is revered as the source of life in man. In Chinese yoga it is pictured as a burning cauldron producing the energy needed to open up and liberate the rest of the body.
The anatomical facts give support to the Oriental viewpoint. The diaphragm is a broad, flat, dome shaped muscle that separates the thoracic (chest) cavity from the abdominal cavity. The diaphragm is our principle breathing muscle; its use is crucial for breathing deeply. Unfortunately, in the majority of people, tension in and around the abdominal region, and in the diaphragm itself, so restricts diaphragmatic breathing that the resulting capacity to breathe is possibly one-third to one-quarter of what it should be.
When used, this dome-shaped muscle contracts and flattens out, pushing down upon the contents of the abdomen. With this pressure exerted from above by the action of the diaphragm, the abdominal region, particularly the soft front wall, expands. This ability to expand or blow up the belly with an inhalation is the outward sign that the diaphragm is functioning.
Very simply, the body must be able to expand and contract to breathe. Limitations on our ability to do this restricts our capacity to breathe. Using the belly is not in itself a full breath. The flexibility and action available in the rib cage further increases the breath capacity. The total and complete breath first appears to fill up the abdomen; the belly noticeably expands like a balloon. Finally the expanding impulse moves through the entire rib cage to the top of the chest. The action is fluid and wave-like, beginning low in the belly and rising to the top of the chest. In the process, the entire trunk of the body expands. A full exhalation involves the lowering of the chest and a contraction of the belly.
Anyone familiar with the experience of complete breathing knows that it is predominently a sensation of filling and blowing up the abdomen. Here in the soft and flexible abdominal wall, the body has its greatest potential to expand. The ribs themselves offer limited movement. The belly is really the bellows that fills us up.
Of course, air does not fill up the belly. The abdominal contents are merely responding to a downward physical pressure exerted by the diaphragm muscle. This creates a partial vacuum in the lungs which draws air in from the outside.
Now if the muscles of the body, particularly those surrounding the abdominal region, are held too tightly, a deep breath will be impossible, and yet, inelastic, hard muscles in the abdomen are the kind of muscles most stomach exercises are designed to create.
A healthy mid-section is surprisingly soft and flexible. It gives easily during breathing and allows the internal organs of digestion and elimination the space they need to function properly. Maintain a constriction in the abdominal muscles and not only do you choke off breathing but the vital internal organs are compressed and distorted. Life is literally strangled.
Little has been said or written on the energy and endurance produced by simply opening up the breathing. Much has appeared on how running or swimming eventually improves physical endurance but the real key to physical power is not how many miles you run in a day, but how well you breathe. Learn to breathe fully and endurance is yours forever, whenever you want it.
Beyond the endurance that comes with opened breathing is an impetus towards personal evolution. Though shrouded in mystery and myth, Chinese and Indian yoga point towards a real process that alters the basic structure of our bodies and our minds. In Indian yoga this evolutionary power or impulse is called prana; in China, chi; in Japan, ki. Here is an energy that streams though the body and on which our health depends. Block this energy and we become ill.
In every case this internal force is related to breathing. Open the breathing up, especially deep into the belly, and the body becomes charged with energy. This is an energy, that when free and unblocked, gives a greater sense of ease, power, health, and vitality. In a very real sense, an opened capacity to breathe is only one of the first steps in the evolution to which the various practices refer. Breathing fully helps create the awareness, the force, and the drive out of which comes the earnest practice of yoga.
As the breathing deepens and the body learns to relax, the awareness is increasingly drawn to a point down in the pit of the belly. With relaxation consciousness spends less time in the head and more time just naturally attracted to the heart area or to the pit of the belly. This spot in the pit of the belly is not just some abstract point in space but the charged and energized center of the human being. Here lies the source of sexual energy and excitement but also a potential impulse towards health, openness and freedom.
Learn to let go and relax and the mind is drawn to the source of life. Consciousness and the Life Force are united in the pit of the belly.
THE NATURAL CHILD
In our midst are people who are living and shining examples of what a relaxed belly and a capacity to fully breathe can mean. These people are our children. The bellies of our two and three year olds are not flat or hard yet. The power of their naturalness has not been seriously restrained so their bellies bulge and they breathe well.
Young children glow and overflow with energy. They delight us with their spontaneity and playfulness. They usually seem happy or at least have a tremendous capacity for pleasure and enjoyment. We either ignore their curious physical condition (those ballooning bellies) or explain it as immature structure that will change.
Western civilization has pictured man as flat bellied for thousands of years. We have used our heads and our hands to create science, technology, and great material comfort and wealth. The time may be nearing when we will need to loosen our bellies, breathe easily again, and so enjoy what we have created.
1. HARA, THE VITAL CENTRE OF MAN, Karlfried Durkheim, Samuel Weiser Inc., first English publication 1962.
2. IBID. 3. IBID. 4. EMBRACE TIGER RETURN TO MOUNTAIN, AI Huang, Real People Press, 1973.5. AIKIDO IN DAILY LIFE, Koichi Tohei, Rikugei Publishing House, 1966.
SUGGESTED FURTHER READING
1. BODYMIND, Ken Dychtwald, Pantheon, 1977.
2. THE BODY HAS ITS REASONS, Therese Bertherat and Carol Bernstein, Pantheon, 1977.
3. DO-IT-YOURSELF SHIATSU (section on Ampuku Therapy), Wataru Ohashi, E.P. Dutton and Co., 1976.
4. THE BODY REVEALS, Ron Kurtz and Hector Prestera M.D., Bantam Books, 1977.
5. THE SECRET OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER, (especially section: The Book of Consciousness and Life), Translated by Richard Wilhelm, Harvest Book, 1962.