Training the Hara

The science of high-performance – of advanced states of body and mind known as “Flow” – confirms what we discover in traditional karate training: 

Training the hara is essential to effective martial arts.

In one sense the “hara” refers to the center of the body – our center of gravity, the center of our energy. But in pre-modern Japanese and Okinawan cultures the hara referred mainly to the will. Training the hara in karate meant making your will powerful. How important is that to high-performance – in combatives and other demanding, high-skill activities? It is not just a tool in the toolkit. It is central. 

While modern people think of the will as a mental function, traditional cultures located it in the hara or lower abdomen. We still sometimes describe having courage as “having guts.” We still locate the power of the will in the hara.

In traditional karate we know that simply getting the moves “right” will not win a fight. It takes more than physical strength or energy. Filling our technique with “spirit” – with our will, our intention – taking the initiative, dominating the opponent, leading the dynamics of the engagement, is essential. 

These are functions of a strong will – used with good judgment, by choice, where and when it is needed. 

Research in the neurobiology and psychology of Flow, in high-performance athletics and other fields, shows that goal-directed behavior – willed action – reduces our susceptibility to distractions when we are under intense pressure. This allows us to direct all our resources of body and mind to our objective. 

Distractions consume our limited mental resources. They pull our attention from doing what we need to do.  Our “conative” functions – our will – reduces the depletion of energy that results from distraction by chemically suppressing the stimulus-response systems of the brain.

This scientific insight is supported by the subjective experience reported by high-performers. Dr. Bill Lewinski, director of the Force Science Institute says this: 

…It is characteristic of great athletic performance where athletes—operating in complex and dynamic situations under high levels of physiological and emotional arousal—utilize focus, experience, and training for great decision making and performance.  It’s not surprising that many of the law enforcement and military personnel I have interviewed have credited their survival and ability to save others on their decision to focus on what needed to be done in the moment, despite the life-threatening and chaotic circumstances they were operating in.”

In other words, intention overcomes distraction. We can develop this in karate, as we enter the Flow phase, every time we train.

Implications for Dojo Classes

Researcher Steven Kotler writing in the Harvard Business Review, listed four conditions that produce a flow state – intense concentration, goal clarity, feedback as to how well you are doing, and a properly matched challenge to skills ratio. 

We use these continually to continually deepen our ability in traditional karate…  


Post by Jeff Brooks, author of the influential book True Karate Dō, instructor, Yamabayashi Ryu, Mountain Karate, Saluda, NC

Post and photo Copyright © 2019-2023, Jeffrey M. Brooks and Mountain Karate Dojo, L.L.C.

1 Comment

  1. Jeff Moriber says:

    “intention overcomes distraction” a mantra that serves well in all aspects of life. Arigato Sensei Brooks.

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