Makko Ho (真向法) are 4 simple exercises developed in Japan and said to be beneficial for the body. They take 5 minutes to carry out and should be done every day, twice a day.
The story behind Makko Ho (真向法)
These 4 simple exercises are taught in an old, out-of-print book, called ‘Makko Ho’, which was written by Haruka Nagai. Haruka was the son of the creator of the Makko Ho system – Mr Wataru Nagai (1869-1963). This book was originally published in 1972 and was popular in the West in the 1970s. Mr Nagai travelled in America teaching his system.
The Makko Ho exercises was created by Mr Wataru Nagai (長井津). At age 42, he suffered a stroke and half his body was paralysed. His doctors told him he would likely have to spend the rest of his life half paralysed, dependent on support, and probably unable to work. Mr Wataru Nagai did not want this so he resolved himself to find a solution to his health challenges.
Wataru Nagai’s father was a Buddhist monk. He developed his ideas for Makko Ho whilst looking at a textbook on Buddhism in his father’s home. Wataru was interested in two of the sitting postures required to practice in order to attain enlightenment. One of these postures was bowing to show gratitude for his life.
He felt that in all his life, he had never showed gratitude. So he decided that it was time for him to start showing gratitude and he tried to bow. But as his body was so stiff and restricted, it was difficult for him to do it. Yet he persevered. He decided that he would bow and say thank you over and over again. After three years, he was cured. (Source: http://www.stgijodo.blogspot.com).
It was these sitting exercises that were to form the foundation for the Makko Ho series of exercises.
He found these sitting postures difficult, but as he had lots of time, he was able to practice them. Gradually his body got used to these exercises and over a three year period, he gradually restored vigour to his paralysed side of his body by incorporating other exercises. As Haruka Nagai wrote of his father:
His restored health was neither miraculous not coincidental: the process of metabolism had completely replaced the cells composing the blood vessels, nerves, and muscles of the afflicted part of his body and had thus brought about true rehabilitation.
In other words, Mr Wataru Nagai’s body had replaced its damaged parts. This is a principle that is discussed in his book – that our bodies are always in the process of replacing and repairing itself.
Mr Wataru Nagai continued to live a flexible and mobile life until he died in an automobile accident at the age of 78.
The name of Makko Ho (真向法)
The name for these exercises has changed several times. The name of Makko Ho is said to have come from a Buddhist poem, which means – ‘Just worship the spirit of Buddha with a pure heart’.
Makko Ho (真向法) means ‘to have an attitude of doing something, with all of ones’s full effort’.
Makko Ho (真向法) is made up of three kanji -真 (Ma/Shin) = truth, 向 (kou) = direction, and 法 (ho) – method/or way. It can roughly be translated as ‘the way of moving towards truth’. Or in the context of the exercises – ‘the way of moving towards the body’s truth’, or our ‘natural way’.
The purpose of Makko Ho (真向法)
In the West, Makko Ho has been repackaged and is taught according to principles of Traditional Chinese medicine. The exercises are said to open up specific Meridians (energy pathways).
This is not the original purpose of Makko Ho. The original purpose as explained by Nagai’s book is simply to regain the flexibility and looseness of children. It is not about stimulating specific energy pathways.
Sometimes, I think we like to make things more complicated or add a slant on things to sell it, but I believe simplicity is best. As Nagai writes:
The aim and ideal form of Makko-ho is the posture of healthy children.
I have noticed children are naturally flexible. My oldest son was able to stick his toes in his mouth when he was around 2 year old. My youngest son is able to do a full split just like Jean Claude Van Damn at the age of 7 months. This is the natural flexibility of children. It is possible that you or I could once have been able to do the same. One of the reasons is because children use their bodies regularly and often, and as a result their muscles are enlivened and loosened.
To understand just how flexible we once were as children, here is a picture of my 7 month old doing the third Makko Ho exercise:
And here is my son a few months later, at age 14 months, doing the 2nd Makko Ho exercise – the forward bend:
With an additional standing variation for good measure:
The principle of Makko Ho – preventing atrophy
There is a simple English expression – ‘Use it or lose it’. The meaning being that we should continue to practice a skill or movement, because if we don’t, we will lose the ability. This is common in sports, when if a sportsperson stops training, their ability level, flexibility and strength can reduce.
In Makko Ho, there is this quote:
Lack of use leads to aging and functional failure.
Simply put, as people have created more and more labour saving devices, more transportation options and other conveniences, we have started to use our bodies less. As a consequence, our bodies don’t get worked out as much as our ancestors used them. As a result, they become weaker, tighter and less functional.
This is not a criticism of the modern life or a call that we should go back to primitive living. It is merely a reminder to be grateful for these conveniences and that in order to counteract the negative effects of a more convenient lifestyle, we should take steps to regain flexibility and to practice exercises like Makko Ho in order to improve our bodies.
Nagai states that:
Failure to use parts of the body adequately brings on the condition known as ‘atrophy’.
Actually, I touched on the same topic in my book – ‘The Genki Self Health Guide‘ where I discussed how – by not stretching or moving our bodies, a layer of restriction builds up in our fascia layer, which hinders the smooth flow of Ki energy.
Benefits of Makko Ho
Makko Ho helps regenerate the body, and prevent atrophy of the body through misuse or underuse. It also helps improve the circulation – the flow of blood through the limbs, enabling it to remove waste effectively and to keep our blood clean. It improves the nervous system and flow of hormones in the body. It can benefit joints, helping to prevent arthritis. Additionally, as all of these postures are based on opening up the hip joint, it will help with posture and spinal health.
Makko Ho objectives
When Mr Wataru Nagai demonstrates these exercises, he does so with perfect posture. In his pictures, Wataru is a middle aged Japanese man. He does not have a dancer’s or martial artist’s body. He looks more like a regular middle-aged company worker or business man. But when he performs these exercises his does so with perfect posture and great flexibility.
This makes it easy for anyone to relate to him. We are not all blessed with model-like physiques. These days, the media throws images of this ‘perfection’ down our throats. But by seeing Mr Wataru Nagai perform these exercises with grace, teaches us that we all have the potential to achieve this level of childlike flexibility and looseness.
Nagai reminds us not to be led by the ego. Never to force these exercises, and that it can take up 3 to 5 years in order to gain this level of flexibility to carry out these exercises perfectly. This is how long it took Mr Wataru Nagai to achieve this level.
It is accumulative. As we practice every day, gradually we regan vigour and liveliness in the stiff parts of our body. Eventually, our bodies can become loose like a child again. We do not need to rush.
It reminds me of many times I have attended yoga classes. There are often very flexible, “bendy” people who can carry out all these exercises perfectly. Some of them used to be dancers (in other words – very flexible). But there are always many people who are not as flexible as them. I am such a person. I am extremely inflexible.
Of course, looking at these bendy people, I feel a little envious and want to be bendy like them. Sometimes I have forced myself into specific yoga stretches to try and hurry up and get quick results. But this always has a negative effect. On a few occasions I have pulled back muscles by over-stretching or pushing myself too much. This is the ego.
I think Nagai’s advice is wise:
People whose muscles are seriously stiffened – no matter whether they are young or old might at first think that the positions of the Makko Ho exercises are impossible… proficency cannot be expected overnight. To restore a seriously atrophied muscular system to original good health takes from three to five years of diligent application.
Makko Ho (真向法) exercises
Without further ado, here are the 4 Makko Ho exercises:
Exercise 1 Makko Ho
- First sit as in picture A. This is similar to the seated Buddhist meditation pose. However, the feet are not tucked under the knees, but instead the heels of the feet are brought together and the soles turn upwards as much as possible.
- Aim to have the heels on a line with the knees. In perfect posture, the knees rest on the floor. This may be difficult at first.
- Aim to keep the back straight and lower the knees to open up the groin area. You can lightly press the knees down, but NEVER strain or force it.
- Once you are able to keep the lumber spine straight, lean the upper body forward as in diagram B.
- The purpose in not to bring the head to the ground. The purpose is to expand and contract the joints in the hips and groin.
- Repeat the forward bend from ten to twenty times.
- NEVER force or strain the movement
Here is Mr Waturu Nagai. performing stage 1 of exercise 1 with perfect form:
Model picture of 1st stage:
Here is my colleague Eitaro modelling the second position of Exercise 1:
Exercise 2 Makko Ho
- Sit with the buttocks flat on the floor and the back straight. Bring the legs together and stretch them in front of you.
- Extend and contract the joints of the groin.
- The ankle is to be held at an angle of 60%, to extend and contract the foot.
- Sit with legs outstretched so that the torso forms a 90% angle (or ‘L’ shape) with the legs.
- Aim to keep the lumber vertebrae straight and knees not bent.
- When you can perform the L position, gently lean the torso forward, beginning at the waist and keeping the back in a straight posture.
- Do not attempt to bring the head tot he knees (which “spoils” the position of the spinal vertebras and angles of the knees and heels.
- Exhale quietly as you bend forward. Repeat ten to twenty times. in a session.
- You may only be able to move 1/32 of an inch forward in a single day. That is fine. In 3-5 years it will add to your overall progress.
- NEVER force or strain into the movement
Exercise 2 is a basic forward bend stretch. Here is Mr. .. demonstrating the exercises:
Here is Eitaro performing Exercise 2, stage 2, with great form and flexibility. Do note, that Eitaro is a black belt Aikido practitioner, who has been doing stretching exercises for many years:
- As with the previous exercise – keep heels at 60%, knees unbent, and back straight.
- Legs are spread. 80% or 90% is good enough. The optimum level is 160%, but 80% or 90% is fine.
- Make sure the back remains straight as in Picture A.
- Beginners often slump in this posture. This is because the muscles of the inner side of the legs are tight. These muscles are also related to the sex organs.
- From position A, bend the torso forward. Again follow the principles as for the first two exercises. keep the back straight.
- NEVER force or strain.
- Repeat the exercise 10 to 20 times. for a session. A movement of 1/32 of an inch is fine.
- when you have mastered the exercise, your chest and knees will come in contact with the floor WITHOUT feeling pain.
Exercise 3 is a wide leg open forward bend pose. Here is Mr Wataru Nagai demonstrating:
Here is Eitaro demonstrating the pose: (note – feet are not quite at a 60% angle)
- Stage 1 is similar to the traditional sitting seiza position used in Japan. But instead the buttocks do not sit on the feet. They sit on the floor between your feet.
- The thighs and lower legs fold in two. In position A, the buttocks reach the floor
- If it is impossible to bring the buttocks to the floor or the back bends, then a cushion under the buttocks can be used. Over time, gradually reduce the size of the cushion, replacing it with a towel or a handkerchief folded thinner and thinner as you gain more flexibility.
- When position A can be sat in, without pain or discomfort, you can attempt stage 2.
- Put your hands on the floor behind you and lean your torso backwards.
- Aim to lean further backwards as much as you can. The edge of a bed or cushions can be used for support.
- When practicing this exercise, a person may feel a stretching sensation in the muscles of the abdomen and chest.
This diagram only shows the first stage of Exercise 4. The bottom is sitting directly on the floor (not on the feet). The feet are by the side of the bottom. Here is a demonstration of stage 1 and 2 of Exercise 4:
Here is me performing exercise 4. It is the only Makko Ho exercise that I can carry out with reasonably good form. For some reason, I am quite flexible in this position but for the first three exercises, I am extremely inflexible and find it difficult to carry them out… Go figure.
Other stated benefits of exercise 4
On a side note, the Ki-Aikido practitioner, author and teacher Koichi Tohei states that this particular exercise can “cure” diseases of the digestive system in The Book of Ki.
These days, you have to be wary of making this kind of claim. But it may be that this particular pose can benefit the digestive organs and abdomen as it does stretch and open up this area enabling better circulation and stimulation of the organs in the abdominal region.
However, this exercise does put a bit of strain on the lower back, so I would recommend you follow the guidance in the Makko Ho book in order to carry out this pose safely.
Makko Ho Guidance notes
In Makko Ho, Nagai gives some basic guide instruction on carrying out these exercises:
- Perform once in the morning before breakfast and again in the evening for maximum effect.
- Perform on the floor for best effect, but beginners can do them on a bed.
- Repeat exercise 1 to 3 ten times for about thirty seconds. This takes 1 minute and 30 seconds. This is ‘one round’. Then carry out another round of the first three exercises. (3 minutes in total)
- Then when performing exercise 4, lean back and stay in the pose fo 1 minute. (In total 4 minutes. There are some additional variations to make it 5 minutes, but they are not necessary for beginners.
- If you are pressed for time, only do one round of the first three exercises and thirty seconds in the backward leaning exercise.
- Perform with family members all together to enjoy the benefits
- NEVER, NEVER, NEVER attempt to strain, or achieve perfection in any of the poses because you think you can achieve quick progress. This desire for quick results and speed is a reflection of the modern civilised person to pursue speed and efficiency. We should take time to reflect and enjoy the process.
- Some mild pain and bruises can occur. In this circumstance, slow down and lighten the routine. If there is significant atrophy, this can occur but do not give up. obviously if there is significant pain, then stop, or leave out specific exercises.
- Pregnant women should avoid exercise 1 and 2. (I would add, that maybe they should avoid exercise 4 at it strains the back a little).
This article is not an official teaching of the Makko Ho exercises. I am simply introducing you to these exercises, which have fallen out of Western knowledge in the last 40 years. To learn them properly, I would recommend you read the original Makko Ho book, written by Haruka Nagai. (Be warned – the book is out of print and second-hand copies are expensive!)
In order to officially teach Makko Ho, it is necessary to undergo training in Japan and pick up a license. The Japanese are quite strict about this kind of thing, so if someone wants to teaches Makko Ho, it is likely, they will need official authorisation from the official Makko Ho association in Japan. And I understand that to receive the license, the training course is one year long.
There are various teachers around the world who teach an altered version of the Makko Ho exercises, tying it in with the Meridians (energy Channel pathways) of Oriental Medicine as part of shiatsu training. As far as I know this new version is not true to the original teachings.
The creator of the Makko Ho exercises did not teach according to the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine or shiatsu. He was not a Traditional Chinese doctor. The principle behind these four Makko Ho exercises was far more simple – It is only about regaining the natural flexibility that we would have had as children.
It is true that looking at these exercises, they are essentially basic stretching exercises used commonly in martial art warm ups or yoga. And as such, I don’t believe you can trademark these individual exercises. However, the ‘Makko Ho’ label and set of exercises as a whole, can be trademarked, and should be respected as such.
Makko-Ho: Five Minutes Physical Fitness, by Haruka Nagai (English Edition). Japan Publications, Tokyo and San Francisco 1972.
Makko Ho Official Site (In Japanese) – www.makkoho.or.jp
Article by Tomoko Horikawa Morganelli, www.stgidojo.blogspot.com – One of the few officially licensed teachers of Makko Ho in America
YouTube Video Makko Ho demonstration from Japan, from Taninaka T.s YouTube Channel:
It’s incredible to see these middle aged and elderly Japanese stretching with the bodies of children, and shows what is possible if we practice Makko Ho.
Chizue Rudd gives a good demonstration of the original Makko Ho Exercises on her YouTube Channel:
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