Misogi for Head Cases

by Daiden Charles Young

P.R. Sarkar, the Indian philosopher, asserts that there are four kinds of human being: warriors, intellectuals, business people (acquisitors) and workers. I’m not sure how you would prove such a thing scientifically, but I find his typology useful when sorting out my relations with other people. Most of my friends at Brooklyn Aikikai are obvious warriors, who find their meaning in severe physical challenges.

I, on the other hand, am not a warrior. At various times in my life, I have thought that I should be more of a warrior and tried many sports, but I never achieved much. There always came a moment where I’d be thinking, “I can’t get jazzed about this. I hate my coach more than I hate the other team,” and I’d go read a book or something.

So I’m an intellectual, not a warrior. I was born that way. You can’t change your basic life energy. Maybe in my next incarnation I can be an aikido black belt.

Which is not to say you can’t do anything about your life energy right now. One of the occupational hazards of being an intellectual is getting stuck in your head. Early in my Zen practice, my teacher drew his finger across his neck, indicating that my head was cut off from my body, and I thought, “Well, this guy knows me. I have something to learn here.” When he strongly suggested that I try misogi, or breath purification, a few years ago, I took it as a command and I’m glad that I did.

Misogi is sort of based on rowing. You sit with your legs folded under you, and you push the rhythmic chanting to the point of hyperventilation. Sometimes beyond hyperventilation. There isn’t anything competitive about it. You just want to get through it without fainting. At the end, there is an incredibly invigorating high, as you experience chi coursing through your body like the Colorado River coursing through the Grand Canyon. All Western intellectuals who think that Eastern descriptions of the body’s subtle energies are mythology should be forced to do misogi at Brooklyn Aikikai. Overnight, academic writing would suck less by several orders of magnitude.

So there’s the instant payoff of unblocked chi, and there’s a long term cumulative effect. In Zen, they often talk about “loosening the diaphragm,” and I thought I knew what they meant. In fact, I didn’t. My diaphragm was so tight that I had no idea what loose was. After doing misogi a couple times a week (on average) for an extended period, I now know what a loose diaphragm is. I keep discovering new muscles down there, both in my gut and around the base of my spine. It has changed the way I breathe and the way I sit.

I read a book once by a gastroenterologist who said we have a “second brain” in our gut, because we have more neurons down there than any place except the brain inside our skull. This is a rare case of Western medicine confirming to some extent something in traditional Eastern medicine, namely the concept that the “hara” is the center of our being. Misogi, with its relentless up and down action in the hara, moves chi up and down the spine, thus connecting our two brains in the head and gut. Two brains acting as one--it opens all kinds of possibilities for mystical experiences that just aren’t available unless you do Zen and misogi. It might even raise your SAT score.