Zen conceives of the human system as being based in vitality or energy. When the energy builds up in a particular area, the consequence is heat as well as power. Traditionally this heat and power is built in the abdomen. In the winter we can experience for ourselves what the saying “fire in the belly” actually means. I’ve practiced in an unheated Zen temple where they only allow socks to be worn on three days of the year - new year’s day and the two days following. Under these conditions cultivating the body’s vitality in the belly and benefitting from the generated heat becomes a matter of survival. The following practice, if done every day will give you noticeably more heat and power to get through the winter…
BUILDING YOUR HARA
- Start in standing position with your feet hip-width apart. Make sure your knees are soft and your pelvis is aligned.
- In this breathing exercise we’re going to make an ‘ah’ sound with the in-breath and ‘un’ sound with the out-breath. Let’s practise making the sounds.
- Imagine you’ve just been shocked and take a rapid breath in – ‘ahhh!’ You’ll make the correct sound almost automatically.
- Now, to make the ‘ah’ sound in the practice, open your mouth. As the air flows in, create a light resistance in the back of your throat, to produce a fairly high-pitched sound. Take the air in as deep as you can.
- Now let’s examine the ‘un’ sound. This is on the exhalation. Close your mouth, and as you breathe out through your nose, make a deep ‘unnn’ sound, like a contented, purring lion. Feel the pressure building in your belly as you breathe all the way out.
- Now you are going to use this breathing to energise the hara. Do a few gentle breaths into the belly. Allow the area to soften and release. Have your hands resting on your belly and let them move in and out.
- Take an ‘ah’ breath in. At the peak of the ‘ah’, before you begin exhaling, take a little saliva and swallow. Let the energy and any tension in your head or chest drop into your belly. As you do this, lift your perineum (pelvic floor). Exhale through your nose with a deep, long ‘un’. Feel the energy enter your belly. Feel your belly pressure increase beneath your hands. Release in your pelvic floor.
- Repeat this strong breathing three times, keeping your attention in the belly.
- Now move your attention to your sides. Repeat the breathing three times. Then move your awareness to your lower back and repeat another three times.
- Now relax your breathing and just stand, paying attention to any sensations you may feel, particularly in your hara.
- I recommend finishing off with a few minutes of slow walking meditation, gently resting your attention on your breath to allow everything to settle and integrate.
Julian Daizan Skinner is London’s leading meditation teacher, founder of Zenways and co-author of new book Rough Waking, which is out now. All profits from the book are donated to Zenways’ charity work with St Giles Trust.