- by Dr. Thomas Ritter
©2000 - All Rights Reserved
I found an interesting statement in Philip Kapleau's book "The three pillars
of Zen" (p.104), which contains, among other things, conversations between
the Zen master Yasutani Roshi and several of his Western students. In one
encounter, Yasutani Roshi tells a student who had complained about leg
pain when sitting in zazen:
"When the body's center of gravity is established in the region just below
the navel, the entire body functions with greater stability. The center of
gravity in the average person is in the shoulders. Moreover, instead of
sitting and walking with an erect back, most people slump, placing an
inordinate strain on all parts of the body."
This statement really struck a chord with me, because almost every new
student who comes to me is "top heavy", which prevents them from sitting
deeply and securely. From a Western, scientific perspective, the center of
gravity cannot really rise or drop in the human body. However, in Asian
martial arts, as well as obviously in zazen, the energy (ki in Japanese, or
chi in Chinese) center of a person can move around in the body.
It appears that a person is most balanced, most "centered", when the energy
center coincides with the physical center of gravity, which is located just below
the navel. If the energy center rises above the center of gravity, the
person is "top heavy", easily unbalanced. In a martial art, such a person
would easily be defeated by an attacker, as he would be too slow and too
weak, too ineffective in his reactions, due to his imbalance.
On horseback, such a person will always be more or less out of synch with
the horse's movements, which makes him an ineffective rider and puts him at
risk of involuntarily parting ways with his horse.
You can immediately tell when the energy center is located too high in a
The tell tale signs are:
stiff hips, that are usually placed too far back and too high up in the
a hollow back, that results in the seat bones being lifted up and away
from the horse,
shoulders that look tense and that are in most cases tipped forward,
pulled up heels and knees
stiff, dead hands, often a straight arm with no angle at the elbow, and
too short reins.
a "jack-knifed" waist, creating a "false bend" in the rider
These symptoms usually occur in combination with each other. In particular,
the stiff hips, wobbly waist, and tipped forward shoulders always seem to
The horse rarely fails to encourage this seat by pushing his croup
forward-upward against the rider to topple him forward onto his thighs,
often combined with a simultaneous smart thrust of his head and neck to pull
the rider forward, just as the croup is pushing up.
A top heavy rider is completely helpless against this maneuver, and the
horse succeeds every time in pushing the rider out of the way and freeing his back and hindquarters. A balanced, "centered" rider, on the
other hand, remains uninvolved in this challenge. Instead, his seat
functions as a conduit for the horse's energy. This means that if the horse
chooses to push and pull on the rider in order to unbalance him, he will
only half halt himself and pull the rider deeper into the saddle.
E.g. if the horse challenges the rider's hand, the top heavy rider takes his
elbows off his hips every time, which means that the rein aids will get
stuck in the jaw or the poll, instead of being transmitted along the horse's
spine and into the hind leg on the same side. A centered rider keeps his
elbows by his side. This creates a secure connection between hand, elbow,
hip, seat bones, and the horse's hind legs. If a horse challenges the
centered rider, any push against the bit on the horse's part will transmit
this force through the rider's body into the hind leg, which will bend
underneath the self-imposed half halt.
If the horse pushes his croup up, the top heavy rider will inevitably
collapse forward, with his stiff hips back and his shoulders tipping
forward. The cycle of energy and the cycle of aids are interrupted in the
rider's waist, just like a garden hose loses all its water pressure if there
is a large hole in it. The centered rider, on the other hand, stays
connected. His hips are supple, so that they can absorb the upward thrust of
the horse's croup. The rider's lumbar back muscles become more engaged by
the flexion that the horse's action imposes on them. Like a spring, their
elastic tension rises the more the horse pushes the rider's pelvis up. As a
matter of course, the back and abdominal muscles will elastically push the
rider's pelvis down again, which also flexes the horse's grounded hind leg.
The more strongly the horse pushes up against the rider, the more powerful
the downward thrust of the rider's pelvis, i.e. the half halt, will be. The
rider's role remains relatively passive throughout. It is the horse who
determines the timing and intensity of the half halt by his own actions. If
the rider succeeds in remaining centered, the horse will realize quickly
that the only opponent is himself, not the rider, and that any resistance is
therefore futile. This is the fastest and kindest way of resolving a certain
type of resistance.
Becoming centered on horseback is one of the most important skills the rider
has to learn, if not the most important one. Centering has physical as well
as mental aspects. George Leonard (The way of Aikido, 37f.) answers the
question of how to become centered:
"At first, it seems ridiculously simple: All you have to do is put your
attention on the center of your abdomen (hara in Japanese), at a point one
inch or two below the navel, and things will be better in many ways. This is
true and it is rather simple and you get immediate results. But the matter
of centering has ramifications that could take a lifetime to play out. There
is centering in stillness and centering in rapid motion. There is centering
under pressure and centering while in pain. There is regaining center after
disorientation or defeat and remaining centered during moments of great
He also recommends touching your abdomen at the level of the center of
gravity with your hand briefly, in order to help you focus on it. Most
people have their energy center higher up. Leonard explains this in the
"The problem is that most of us don't start out putting much attention on
our physical centers. When asked where their 'I' is located, most people
would say 'In my head', which seems logical enough. After all, your brain,
nose, mouth, eyes, and ears are located in that part of your body. Logic is
always important, but it is also always partial, as it is based on a
one-to-one physical and symbolic correspondence that doesn't exist in the
real world. When the aikidoist is told to 'see from your hara', he or she,
of course, doesn't try to make eyes appear in the center of the belly, but
rather becomes highly aware of the center and the connection between it and
the eyes. 'When seeing from the center', the aikido student is far more
successful in dealing with attacks, especially multiple attacks, than when
seeing with the eyes alone. To see from the center, breathe from the center
and move from the center leads us to a sense that the locus of our being is
centered in the hara. And this sense, this feeling, this practice can change
This leads to an interesting parallel to riding. I often tell my students to
"think with their pelvis", which is really the same thing as "seeing from
the hara", which Leonard mentions. The rider's center determines the rhythm,
tempo, and stride length of the horse's gait, engagement and collection, as
well as the bend and the direction in which he is going. In other words, the
rider controls the horse with his center. Everything has to start there.
That's why all rider's aids have to be initiated from the center and flow
outward from there to the periphery, i.e. legs and hands. I have often
observed that when the rider has a strong center, with good muscle tone in
the abdominal and back muscles, his periphery (hands and legs) can be very
relaxed and light. On the other hand, a top heavy rider with a weak center
and an insufficient muscle tone in the waist will always have to grip with
his hands and legs.
George Leonard sheds an interesting light on this aspect as well. On pp.
38f. he says:
"When asked 'What area of the body do you associate with physical strength?'
many people, especially men, would say, 'The upper chest, shoulders and
arms.' Movies and television dramas often show just that part of the body,
with muscles tensed, to signify male strength. ...
This applies as much to riding as to aikido. Over the years, the flexibility
of the rider's hip joints and the controlled, differentiated strength of the
waist have become a main focus in my teaching (as a result of my own
discoveries in the saddle). This is where the quest for moving in harmony
with our horse must start. It is the hallmark of a good rider. You can
recognize the truly centered rider instantly by his centaur-like appearance.
You can find it in seasoned working cowboys and in classical dressage riders
alike. Centering is what enables the rider to communicate with his horse
through invisible aids. Unfortunately, centering physically and mentally
generally does not play as big a role in riding lessons as it does in
martial arts lessons. By changing this and giving it the attention it
deserves, we as teachers can speed up and facilitate the students' progress.
"This answer, however, is totally off the mark. The long muscles - thigh,
buttocks, abdomen, back - that attach to the pelvic girdle are far stronger
than the macho muscles of upper chest, shoulders, and arms. Even such
actions as striking and throwing derive most of their power from muscles
below the waist. Physically, as well as symbolically, the hara can be
treated as the center of power."