Less abs, more hara

We’ve overdone it in our obsession with chiseled abs. Yeah they’re nice. No, having abs doesn’t automatically mean you’re healthy, nor particularly resilient.


I admit I’d be tempted to trade it all in for a nice 8-pack. But there are good reasons to stop aiming for extreme slenderness in the abdomen as the primary goal of a health and fitness program. This includes an obsession with “core strength” which is often just a code phrase for beautiful rock-hard abs. 


“Hara” is the Japanese word for belly, and in Japan it’s also used to describe fortitude, wisdom and our birthright source of energy.

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We’re connected to our mothers via our hara. We grow our first 9 months in our mother’s hara. If our mom had rock hard abs and super low body fat, there would have been less energy and nourishment for us. This experience would have taught us that food was scarce and we were about to enter a hostile world.


Since we receive our earliest nourishment through the hara, it remains our center of empathy and our primary channel for giving and receiving. It’s what connects us to our fellow humans. As a bodyworker, once in a while I catch myself feeling a lack of connection to the person I’m treating. If that happens, what helps me most is to take a deep breath and reconnect with the person’s hara. I like to imagine a piece of wool string running from my belly to the receiver’s belly.


Our hara is the place where we keep sun and moon in balance — masculine yang energy coming down from the sky mixes with feminine yin energy coming up from the earth. This is why I don’t like certain New Age teachings that are obsessed with “higher energy” — higher chakras, higher vibrations, higher self, higher power. What about our lower power? What about our mother?


The idea that our base chakras represent our basic and undesirable reptilian drives is an unfair and dangerous oversimplification of this region of the body. Sure — sex drive, physical stamina and “reptilian” needs such as shelter, food and water are related to the base chakra and therefore the hara. But the hara also contains our immune system and our intuition — our gut instincts. The hara gives us the power to assimilate, discern, defend and trust the world.


Some of the most exciting scientific research today is about the microbiome, centered in our guts which is centered in the hara. Our hara is a powerhouse for trillions of organisms which can make us content and adaptable, or sick and depressed. Imagining the magnitude of this biosphere is like trying to imagine the vastness of the universe. Is it any surprise that our gut instincts are usually right, if we can hear them?


Rock hard abs may or may not create a good container for our hara. What doesn’t create a good container is an innate hatred of the stomach, of digestion, of centeredness. How many times have you heard, “Suck the stomach in!” screamed at you in a yoga or HIIT class? The next time this happens, notice if you feel stronger or weaker after this instruction. If it causes you to minimize the power of your center, you might look temporarily better in the mirror but lose stamina, balance and integration.


Rather than trying to make the hara transparent in order to see rippling abs shining through, we can cultivate stillness, contentedness and deep strength in this area instead. Our hara is too important to be relegated to just an esthetic concern.