February 27, 2014

To Look Straight Forward, pt1

Tomoko on her recent seminar tour of Japan, 2013. 
A conversation about Makko Ho with Tomoko Horikawa Morganelli, one of only two people in the United States who is a trained and licensed instructor of Makko Ho, a Japanese stretching art.

Note: There is some misunderstanding on the Web regarding Makko Ho and its true origins. It has been attributed to Shizuto Masunaga, of Zen Shiatsu fame. This is incorrect. Authorship has also been claimed to be, "Mr. Makko," which is just plain silly. It has also been explained as six exercises instead of four.

The original art comes from a man named Wataru Nagai, whose development of the system in 1933 predates any other. This is evidenced by the simple fact his son, Haruka Nagai, wrote the book, "Makko-ho: Five Minutes' Physical Fitness," in 1972 and partially chronicles his father's tale. This version is currently out of print, but copies can be located. Outside of a licensed instructor, it remains the most accurate, descriptive, and helpful English guide on Makko ho available.

All other iterations of "Makko ho" are simply misunderstood and mis-attributed. Please make a note of it.

Makko ho Japan: makkoho.or.jp    

What is Makko ho?

Makko Ho is a stretching art and means, “look straight forward.” This means, not just physically, but also mentally and spiritually – be sincere and honest in what you’re doing, as well as having courage to face life. Not looking back or to the side.

And Makko ho has a “Hombu dojo” (main school) in Shibuya?

Yes, and there are many branch schools everywhere (in Japan).

And how many people are training in Makko ho in Japan?

A lot. Tens of thousands.

"Ninjutsu: History and Tradition"
I became a student of yours in 2005? And the reason I came in the first place was that Hatsumi sensei studied Makko ho. Nagato sensei had told me that he had studied Makko ho and that’s where he got the idea to incorporate the movements, or use them perhaps as inspiration for what we we call, “Ryutai Undo” and "Junan Taiso." How did Makko ho originate?

The founder, Mr. Nagai. He owned a big company and was very successful. He grew up in a Buddhist temple – his father was a monk. He didn’t wish to follow his father’s path, he wanted to be in business, so he became a businessman and he was very successful. But he unexpectedly had a stroke (at 42 years old) and one side of his body became paralyzed.

He could never imagine this happening to him. He had always just focused on making money and he realized he had never taken good care of his body or health. His doctor told him he could never return to work and would have to stay in a bed the whole of his life.

His doctors gave up on him?

Yes. They had no hope he would return to what he was. He lost what he loved to do – make money. And he felt like he was nothing. He was very lost. He wanted to give up on life.

Wataru Nagai
He was traumatized.

Right, he couldn’t go back to work. Then he had all this time; time alone on his bed. So, he asked God, he prayed to God, and asked for help, "I don’t know what to do." And then he remembered his father had given him Buddhist sutras a long time ago. He thought it was the last hope. He opened the book and read the sutras. In the sutras – it’s like a bible – he read the words, ‘bowing deeply and showing your respect.’

Then he started thinking – I’m still alive. Maybe I never felt the gratitude for my life. I survived. Maybe I go back to bowing and showing my gratitude. He tried to bow on the bed and move his body and he was so stiff. He couldn’t even bow to express his gratitude and he was so shocked. He made a decision – he would do bowing movement and say “thank you” over and over. He moved himself on the bed as best he could and kept it up. And two or three years later he was cured.

So, he was mimicking on the bed – he was imitating – the positions the monks knew to read the sutras or recite the sutras? There are certain positions the monks had because they sit for so long during meditations.

Yes, they bow in seated positions and also bow from standing positions. It's like if you go to shrine, people bow. So it’s kind of showing respect. Coming from long time ago. If you bow deeply, then you showing more respect. So, people wanted to be flexible because they wanted to show more respect to the god.

So, the deeper the bow, the more respect you’d be showing.

Yes. So, maybe starting from not exercise or being flexible. People just wanted to bow to be close to the god or something higher.

Morning Makko ho. Bujinkan Shingitai-Ichi Dojo Gasshuku 2011.
And this was a show of respect and gratitude that they were trying to express in their physicality. And Nagai sensei took that and … maybe he didn’t look at it as exercise-

No, he wanted to save himself.

He wanted to express this new found sense of gratitude that he had for his own life.

Yes. So, that’s why Makko ho a little different from maybe other exercises of stretching. It starts from his experience.

Seems like a similar situation with Yoga. You are also a certified Yoga instructor. And some people think Yoga is just stretching. But there’s this whole other side to it that most people will never see because they only know it occurring in fitness clubs as stretching routines. But you realize that there’s this whole other mental and spiritual side to it and Makko ho has this same ideal.

Yes – a positive attitude.

Makko ho at Buyu Camp East, New Jersey, 2013.
And eventually Nagai sensei cured himself.

It was like a miracle! The doctor tried to figure out why he was cured. Could be from bowing movement stimulate the “tanden” – your core. We call it the center of the pelvis.

Is “hara” the same as “tanden?”

Hara is a more, bigger area. Tanden is a little below - a couple inches - the belly button.

So, the movement is geared toward flexing this tanden.

Yes, and moving back and forth, kind of, rejuvenates the circulation for your spine too. Because moving you sacrum back and forth helps for the nervous system, so maybe that affects for ... the paralyzed.

Position 1

So, moving the body helped to move the blood and invigorate these deadened nerves?

If you do bowing movement, you need to breathe, otherwise you cannot bow forward. You have to exhale, bow forward - otherwise it’s difficult. So, the bowing movement maybe create more ... breathe deeper. And we call “harakokyu.” That maybe help to get back more vital energy. But I think most thing we think help to cure was he changed his attitude. His spirit changed and everything was affected. Or could be the same time – the body, mind, and spirit got together and brought him toward a cure.

Position 2

What are the basic movements of Makko ho?

There are four seated positions. And you can stretch all sides of your legs with only these four positions. Outer, back, inner, and front. Outer hip, IT Band on the side, the hamstrings and calves, inner thigh adductor muscles, and the front quadriceps. Doing the bowing movement also readjusts the pelvis naturally. Most of us, our pelvis is not even. Could be one side is tighter than the other, then your pelvis always shifting one side or the other or little bit tilt. Makko ho movement is all symmetrical and ‘evens up’ any imbalances because the movement exposes misalignment.

Position 3
If you write the kanji for “kosshi,” the lower back and sacrum, it is (composed of) “kaname,” the vital point. The jackknife has a little ‘kaname’ here-

The hinge.

Right. Or the “ogi,” Japanese fan, has a ‘kaname’ here.

That’s interesting. This past year, Soke was talking a lot about ‘kaname,’ the vital, or core points of Taijutsu.

Position 4
That’s the kanji – “nikuzuki” and “kaname.” Two kanji together make “kosshi.” Nikuzuki means, “the physical body.” And kaname. Two kanji together make kosshi.

In terms of Makko ho, the kaname is the kosshi.

Yes – the center. And it is connected with the tanden, otherwise you cannot bend forward. So, when you bow, you are not rounding your back and bowing – this is not bending from kaname. When you bow, you are bowing from kaname, from your hip, so you have to learn how to move your pelvis. You are not bowing from your middle back.

What are the four positions?

Position One is … If you are in Asia, people are used to sitting on the floor, and it is a very natural position for the seated position. Feet together and open your knees. If you see the baby sit on the floor, baby always sitting like that - knees out and feet closer. This is natural for them because their pelvis is so open. But when you get older the hip joint gets tighter and you cannot sit easy anymore. So, it is a more primitive seated position. Maybe our ancestors always sitting like that.

Position Two looks like an imitation of a standing bowing position (but seated). If you go to see the temples or shrines, people praying and bowing first - they are standing and bowing. The legs are together straight out in front of you.

The third position is for the weakest part of your legs. You open the legs out to the sides and bow forward. A side split position and stretches the inseam of your legs.

The last position is a backbend that stretches the front of the legs and body. You are seated in what is called, “wariza,” sitting between your feet.

I read somewhere wariza was a way to show an authority figure greater respect because it was to position yourself lower than them. Although, I am not certain that's true.

This is my guess: As a warrior, like samurai, you defend for the (master). And if you do "seiza" (a kneeling position) – in seiza you are ready to go fight. But in wariza, you can’t. Means maybe I am not fighting you. Or I have respect to be here. That’s my guess.

That would be an interesting history of that way of sitting. When samurai would go to see the emperor or be at a castle, they might have to wear very long hakama, because they knew it would make it harder to fight.

Right. They could not move.

The breathing – harakokyu – is the thing that connects all four. I think this is the most difficult thing people have with it. When I inhale that draws me down and when I exhale it presses me back up. Like how the lungs expand and collapse. An expansion and contraction with the movement. Also extension of the spine – I always tell people to rub their head on the ceiling. That expansion of the spine in order to get the extension right. There seems to be these other elements that activate the position.  
Could be that breathing is more important than being flexible. How you breathe. Best breathing is longer and deeper and smoother. Slower. Feels like the diaphragm moving down, so more diaphragmatic breathing.

And that means making your belly big?

Yes, kind of expanding your stomach and then compress your internal organs.

See Part2


Stan Skrabut said...

Wonderful article! Thanks for sharing! I will pass it along.

~Stan Skrabut

SafeNSharp said...

I thought backbend position #4 was dangerous to knee ligaments? If not, why not?

James Morganelli said...

Dear SafeNSharp,

ANY position can be potentially dangerous if it is performed in a manner beyond the user's ability. Thus, each and every person must decide for themselves if such practice is merited.

Western knees are not as strong or supple as those found in the East, for obvious cultural reasons. Perhaps this reality is the basis for such concern.

I am unaware of any danger to ligaments in position #4, provided it is done correctly and reasonably. If there were some inherent danger, knee problems would be ubiquitous across the Eastern world, but they are not. Healthy, strong knees can bend into such a position and stay there for a good period of time, just as they do and have done for centuries across the East.

The position itself stretches the muscles of the front of the leg, abdomen, and chest. The first half of the position is critical to the second half: comfort in the "wariza" pose is necessary to achieve results in the second half, or "backbend," of the position.

Practice the wariza pose for 30 seconds at a time until it becomes comfortable. Using a mat or cushion under the buttocks and instep will relieve discomfort. If this is not sufficient, try performing it one leg at a time.

With daily practice, patience, and time, one can gain skill and confidence in the stretch and challenge oneself with deeper positions.