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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
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…