Developing Hara for Improved Karate Technique

The impact was immense.

That kick hit me right in the stomach, and as I crumpled up I had a sense I was about to vomit.

I’d just been hit by my sensei’s spinning ushiro geri (back kick) and was literally shocked by the impact.

From my hands and knees I tried desperately to regain my breath…

After class I wondered if I could have done anything to prevent being hit. Of course I shouldn’t have been there in the first place. That would have helped…

But you and I both know that sometimes you get hit.

It’s part of karate.

Period.

I heard someone say “More sit-ups for you mate!”, which kinda ticked me off. I trained hard. I did a ton of situps. So why did it hurt so badly when I got hit?

2 reasons.

First, my sensei’s technique was flawless.

Second, I hadn’t learned how to develop hara.

With plenty of hara that kick that dropped me to my knees probably still would have knocked me around in a big way, but perhaps the outcome wouldn’t have been so devastating.

And it wasn’t until many, many years later I truly understood what hara was in a karate sense, and how to develop and apply it.

This article  will shed some light on what exactly hara is, and help you develop yours more quickly than me. The result will be a tougher, stronger and more controlled you. Plus you’ll learn through proper application of hara, how to increase the effectiveness of your karate technique.

Read on for more…

So what is “hara” exactly?

 

haraIn simple western karate terms hara bascially means “abdominal tension”. It’s the tightening of your abdominal muscles.

However as you’re about to learn, hara to the Japanese has a far more in depth meaning in both Japanese culture and religion. This lends to a deeper understanding of hara for karate.

I’m sure you’ve heard of the Japanese suicide ritual, “hara-kiri” which literally translates as “abdomen cut”, or to disembowel oneself with a knife.

Hara-hachi-bun is another term used in Okinawa that basically means “eat until you’re 80% full” – again you can see the meaning and reference to the abdominal tension.

But at this point we’re really just touching the surface as far as understanding hara.

Hara in Japanese culture and religion

Hara can refer to many things associated with the abdominal area, such as abdominal tension, gut, belly, etc, but is also thought to be the center of one’s being, or the source of one’s vitality or energy. It also has the emotional attachment of courage, fortitude and even anger.

Have you ever felt sick in the stomach when you’ve become enraged? Or have you ever experienced that deep seeded emotion of determination that seems to extend from within?

That’s your hara at work. There’s more to it outside the scope of this article, but that should give you some idea of what hara is to the Japanese.

So why is hara important in karate?

Proper application of hara in karate not only toughens your body and makes it more resilient to impact, but it provides the connection between your upper and lower body.

It’s the link between stance and upper body.

We’ve all heard the saying, “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link”. In karate the lack of hara is often the weakest link, which in turn translates to ineffective technique and lack of impact.

Imagine having two pieces of wood connected by a piece of rope, hanging vertically. Now if you twist the top piece of wood the rope twists and then slowly under the force of the spring action the bottom piece of wood turns.

Now imagine replacing that rope with a piece of stiff but elastic rubber and again twisting the top object. The rubber due to its increased elastic property twists the lower object with more force, more quickly.

Consider a third scenario where the two pieces of wood are connected with a third piece of wood. Immediately as the top one is turned, the bottom piece turns with it because of the solid connection.

Of course in karate we’re not twisting from the top down, but from the bottom up. But the same principle applies.

If your abdominal muscles act like the rope, your upper body technique will be sloppy and lack impact. And if it acts like the all wood connection, everything turns at once and you’ll see only a small increase in effectiveness. But if t acts more like the rubber, then the force will be increased dramatically due to the ELASTIC properties of the rubber and the resulting spring action or “whip effect”.

Massive Hint to Improve the Effectiveness of Your Upper Body Technique

It’s not the “twisting of your hips” that has the biggest influence on developing technique effectiveness!

In fact the term “twisting your hips” really doesn’t make much sense and is often used poorly to describe what really should be happening. It’s the DRIVE from your legs to PROPEL your hip forward, the contraction of your abs (hara) and the resulting whip effect of your arm that creates the most kinetic energy. The amount kinetic energy is what gives the “knockout power” to a technique, not so much the force of the technique.

There MUST be separation between HIP and SHOULDER through proper application of HARA for maximum impact.

In other words, it’s all about the timing of your contraction of your abs to make the connection between upper and lower body. Just like the example above with the rubber connection, with the added improvement of being able to delay the “whip effect” for maximum spring tension (but not too much because we don’t want to stop momentum completely).

So as you can see the application of HARA involves not just simply contracting the abs, but the TIMING and method of abdominal contraction depending on what we’re doing. When receiving impact, simple “hunker down” contraction is what we’re doing. When punching HARA encompasses the timing, twisting and contraction of your DIFFERENT abdominal muscles.

How do you develop hara?

The short answer is through martial arts exercises that develop abdominal muscles. Remember you have 6 sets of abdominal muscles, not just one. Each are used when making tension in different ways, crunching, twisting, breathing, etc.

Situps, hip raises, core-strengthening exercises like bridging or planking, all develop abdominal strength, but remember it’s about HOW and WHEN you contract that’s really important for proper HARA.

Of course once you make the distinction between how your muscles are used for different movements, that’s when you start to understand how to apply hara correctly. Try to distinguish between the muscles you use for sit-ups, compared to the abdominal muscles you use for twisting, compared to the abs used when breathing, for posture, etc.

To the novice it might seem like one contraction does all. But for us we understand it’s far more involved than that.

There are specific kata that really focus on developing hara such as seienchin and sanchin, but if you don’t practice those specific kata, you’ll need to develop your understanding of hara in other ways.

Actively thinking about making hara is the first step to developing hara subconsciously. Think about it when making basic technique from yoi. Think about the muscles you use while making oi-zuki and gyaku-zuki. Think about how you use those muscles while making transitions from one stance to another. Become aware of your breathing and the role of hara while performing kata.

In Closing…

If you put hara at the top of your list of things to improve, you’ll see that your understanding of one of the most overlooked aspects of modern karate will make MASSIVE improvements to your technique. 

And once you couple the physical with the emotional part you’ll have a true sense of how powerful hara really can be…

 

10 thoughts on “Developing Hara for Improved Karate Technique

  1. Right on, Jason. Just like we in the budo forget that "kiai" isn't just something you yell — it's Ki-Ai — there's often not enough emphasis placed on the significance and proper conditioning of one's hara. You do us all great service by reminding. Bravo!

    Osu,

    -Bill

  2. Dear Mr. Stanley,

    Good evening to you. How are you this evening? Blessed I trust. Gichin Funakoshi wrote in his 20 precepts of Shotokan "Spirit First, Technique second." The hara is the core of the spirit. It is the breath or life in which we breathe. One shaolin principle simply says "breath" And so without that there is no proper power in Karate. So you are absolutely correct.

    However twisting the hips is important and should be paid attention to. The concept of twisting the hips came from Karate Master, Sokon Matsumura who was the founder of this concept. He was very fast in his techniques even though he was slender and wiry. The reason for this is because he invented twisting the hips with each punch or kick. He came up with the theory of "torque plus speed equals power" because he believed that twisting the hips brings more power. In actuality the spirit and the technique must be one. It brings strength into the abdomen therefore by giving more power. So twising the hips does have it's benefit.

    But you are very correct when you said that power comes from every movement and especially from the leg movement. From one waza to another waza.

    So the question you had how do you develop hara. Physically you had it correct by doing different exercises such as situps and pushups. I'm thinking right now how my sensei just this past weekend had me doing 100 situps in his Ab Lounge machine AT A SLOW PACE!! One of my favorite quotes that motivates me is by Bruce Lee who wrote that "If you don't have proper or strong abs, you have no business sparring." Just by reading your article on how you were hit in the stomach, I think you and all of us find that that out the hard way…Isn't that right Mr. Stanley?

    But you also develop them by practicing on your breathing. The first step is mental. Let your whole body relax while sitting in the taiza position. Let every part of you relax. That is the one thing my sensei emphasizes over and over again. Relax. That's why we have the cooldown at the end of class, because after we have practiced we are hyped and we don't want to go out and knock the daylights out of someone in our hyped state.

    Second state is to calmly tell yourself particularly your lower abdomen that "I am strong" "My lower body is strong.

    Third state is to breath. Inhaling deep and exhaling deep. ALWAYS keeping your navel pointed upward. If you practice this for a half an hour each day, your respiration will become better. I'm just giving you something I learned. We practice this in class but I will really start practicing it at home as well.

    So thank you so much for the article. I'm going to print this out if I may and give it to my sensei for us to read and discuss. Thank you so much.

    Thank you Mr. Stanley always, for the interesting articles. You are one of my favorite sites. May God bless you greatly and wonderfully!

    Sincerely Yours,

    Blanton P. Hardy

  3. First off thank you all for your comments…

    I'm generally happy with this article as an [u]overview and intro to the importance of hara[/u] and some tips of how to develop it through core strengthening exercises and the practice of kata that really focus on hara development like Sanchin and Seienchin.

    Blanton, you have expanded on and explained in more detail some breathing methods (present in kata which I didn't go into) to help develop muscular control and the mental and emotional connection to hara. Thank you for your input… I think you may have inspired me to write a sequel to this article.

    =)

    One thing I did want to be clear on is the whole [i]"twist the hips"[/i] thing. What I'm attempting to convey is that (in my opinion) that most people simply think [i]"twist the hips"[/i] is where the power comes from, which isn't accurate. But I'm not discounting the hip must move – it ABSOLUTELY must – but it's HOW you [u]make hip movement[/u] through using the big muscles of the legs and buttox to DRIVE the hip movement (or "twist" as it's often said).

    The problem with teaching and thinking [i]"twist the hips"[/i] without further explanation leaves many students unsure of the HOW. Many think that the motion should start ABOVE the hips, when really for maximum torque as you say starts BELOW the hips with the contraction of the leg muscles to move the pelvis. That action propels hip movement and when coupled with the correct application of hara, torque is developed and the potential energy in the upper body is released (converted to kinetic energy) and the resulting impact observed.

    However if the twisting motion begins ABOVE the hips then the body turns as one just like in the [i]"all wood example"[/i] explained in the article, and there will be no separation between HIP and SHOULDER in terms of timing. The result is weak and ineffective technique.

    I know there was more I wanted to say, but it's slipped my mind for now… If I think of it I'll post it.

    And yes, I did learn the hard way… but as they say, [i]"Pain is often the best teacher"[/i].

    =)

  4. Thank you very much for this article.
    Even though it is alway hard to explain every details in a single text, I think you brought something very important to light.
    I'm teaching children and some adult beginners, and this element (with the common "Yell-Kiaï" problem) is what always pop to my eyes…
    Because not only an improper "twist" from the hip is inefficient, but it could also be dangerous, inducing back damages.

    And I realize that most of these problems come from an element that is often neglected during group teaching, which is profound explanations. On one side, maybe the teacher should explain more. And on the other, dedicated students should ask and read more. But as we all know, it is not easy at all, especially with larger groups.
    Because a better understanding of human anatomy, even if reduced to the main muscles used in karate, could easily help many students to understand what they are doing. In fact, it is all about understanding instead of only copying the movements of the higher belts.

    Oh, there is so much to talk about, hehehe.
    I'm glad you take the time to write theses articles and share your knowledge and thoughts, it all brings to light things we all think inside.

    I think I will start adding a couple of minutes of discussions at the end of classes 😉

  5. The timing of some events is quite interesting. I am currently reading the book "Bruce Lee – The Art of Expressing the Human Body". It basically covers the many evolutions and routines that Bruce went through to create the body that is so highly respected. Though he crafted his entire body to near perfection, he spent a great amount of time on his abs, training them daily. In the book, Bruce is quoted as saying,

    "The abdominal and waist region coordinate all parts of the body and act as the center or generator. Therefore, you can promote the ability to control the body's actions and master your will more easily."

    This quote "indeed, the entire book" has proved to be a great inspiration. In fact, I will begin incorporating some of his abdominal workouts, as well as his first recorded weight lifting routine, into my own training. My intent is to record my progress via my blog, DojoTalk.com and compare that against his (a 44 day time period using this routine is one of the only records of his specific routine and improvements in muscle size). I'm extremely interested to see how the experience benefits me as a whole, but particularly in how control of the abdomen, Hara, as you have explained, improves my power, speed, etc.

    Terry
    DojoTalk.com

  6. Another outstanding article, Jason. You explain everything in brilliant detail. I was recently wondering if you could post a small article on techniques that can knock people out. If you can’t that’s perfectly fine, it would just be great if you did.

  7. Thank you all for your comments.
    The sound Hara-kara is a mantra used to further 6th sense perception during meditation. Breathing consciously is of the utmost importance for us to feel the flow of hara, finger-printing pranic force in our souls. Hara simply got lost in translation.
    again, thanks for sharing.

  8. im in karate im 13 im still having trouble i need to learn how to tighten my stomach muscles and say kia using my hara i cant do it

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