By Nathaniel Whitmore
To say, “take a deep breath,” is to tell someone to relax, center themselves, and be in the present moment. This is universally understood and can be comprehended in a moment. So, go ahead – take a deep breath. It relaxes the back and the rest of the body and centers the mind. The benefits are immediate. But, to make them lasting one must learn to breathe deeply throughout the day.
Watch an infant breathing and you can easily see that “belly” breathing, or breathing deeply, is our natural state. The infant’s belly rises and falls with respiration. It is later in life when we become anxious, wrapped up in our thoughts, and self-conscious about our bellies that we forget to breathe deeply and shallow breathing becomes the norm.
Japanese culture has particularly focused on the belly, or hara, as each person’s center. Belly breathing has been promoted as a cure-all as well as a meditation technique by Japanese figures like Okada Torajiro and Kaneko Shoseki. The seiza, or “natural sitting”, posture consists of a kneeling position with a straight back allowing the breath into the hara. This posture is the basis of Zen meditation. It is also at the core of Japanese martial arts, shiatsu (acupressure), and various ceremonial and everyday activities.
Likewise, in Japanese martial arts such as Karate-do and Aikido the hara is a center of focus throughout the training. Balance is maintained by recognizing the belly as the center of the body and movements originate from this center. This practice from the warrior culture of the ninja and the samurai nourished the awareness of hara in the healing arts and throughout the culture of the longest living people in the world. The practicality of hara breathing as proven in the martial arts spread to healing techniques like shiatsu (“finger pressure” / acupressure) in which it was realized that therapeutic effects are superior when the pressure generates from the hara.
The Japanese have also maintained a deep appreciation of nature, such as is witnessed in the art of bonsai. Bonsai has much to do with bringing the outside in (a main focus here at The Lodge at Woodloch). Also there is also a focus on bringing people outside for Shinrin-Yoku, or Forest Bathing – a practice we have taken up at The Lodge at Woodloch. Shinrin-Yoku is not “bathing in the forest” as in skinny dipping under waterfalls (though that is good too!), but as in soaking in the essence of the forest. (Like sun bathing means basking in the sun.)
Japanese tradition also has an interesting “education for pregnancy”, or Taikyo, which focuses on the healing benefits of nature. The idea is that a pregnant woman should spend some time every day in nature and in appreciation of the beauty and order of the natural world. This gives the mother-to-be a sense of faith, order, and beauty- all considered to be beneficial to the baby developing within as well as the mom who is carrying and will be giving birth to a new life. With the modern age being filled with advertisements, cell-phones, and infinite other distractions it is easy to forget that appreciating the order and beauty of the natural world was once a part of everyday life. The relationship between breath, health, and nature is expressed in the well-known expression, “Stop and smell the roses.”
In many ways, meditation is the practice of returning to normal – to our natural state of being. The mind in its pure state is calm, aware, and free from disturbing thoughts. Likewise, the natural breath is relaxed and deep. The benefits of Shinrin-Yoku are largely found in that the practice returns the participants to a natural condition being in the forest. Natural healing, disease prevention, and promotion of true health and happiness are largely rooted in the philosophy that it is normal to be healthy. The breath has been a hub of focus in many traditions to promote physical health, mental and emotional wellbeing, and even to cultivate spiritual enlightenment. Yet, the point has not been worn out – still, to become more ourselves we must learn to breathe!
In general the hara is the belly. Specifically, there is a point two finger widths below the navel and inside toward the spine that is a focus for belly breathing (the acupoint known as Conception Vessel 6, the “Sea of Ki”). The general practice is to fix your attention on this point and to allow the ki to accumulate there as the belly expands to receive the breath. This can be done anywhere, while sitting, standing, running, or lying down. It can also be practiced regularly while sitting in seiza or another natural, relaxed position with a straight back. By formally practicing breathing as sitting meditation as well as whenever you notice your breath is shallow, that you are holding your shoulders up by your earlobes, or that your mind is getting agitated, you will be able to slowly incorporate deep breathing into your everyday life.