Blissful Bellies

Gym science and fitness marketing have successfully sold us a desirable model of hard-cut, washboard abs. In our culture this military archetype is firmly associated with health and vitality. People clamor for a stronger core and firmly believe it’s the answer to all their postural deficits.

On the other hand, if you have a soft, round belly, it’s considered unfit, unhealthy and unattractive. Fat accumulating around the midline is a health concern but equally, overtraining the front body can create imbalance. So before you embrace the idea of flat, tight stomach muscles, let’s consider what your abs of steel are really doing for you.

Abdominals assist in the flexion, rotation and lateral movement of the trunk. They contribute to our overall core strength and help maintain the lumbar curve by resisting sway back. Abdominals also play a role in the breathing sequence, acting as assistants to the diaphragm and contracting to compress the abdominal contents during exhalation. They help us eliminate, cough, laugh and give birth.

To accomplish this multitasking, the abdominals need to be toned but not overdeveloped or tense. Overly strong or hypertrophic abdominals can have an adverse effect on the body, locking us in the postural slump of flexion, reducing the effectiveness of digestion and restricting the breathing mechanism.

Studies have shown that our thoughts and emotions are influenced by the body’s “power center” or center of gravity, which lies just below the navel. Many Eastern mystical traditions consider the belly a center of energy and consciousness. This conscious area doesn’t think on a cognitive level, but like the brain, the gut produces more than 30 neurotransmitters (including serotonin, which influences mood). The ability to tap into our natural intuition, gut feelings or deep wisdom can be diminished by a wall of tense muscle.

By creating a hard center and projecting that to the people around us, we imagine we are coping with the stresses in our lives. Like a type of belly armor, our tight abdominals attempt to protect us from the fray.

Instead of sucking in your belly and pushing your chest out, try a softer approach. You can practice this through belly breathing: Lie down on your back and as you inhale, soften your abdominal muscles and breathe deeply into your belly. Notice how it inflates like a balloon as it becomes filled with breath; then simply release as you exhale, letting your belly melt toward your spine as you slowly empty the air. Keep this focus on your belly as you notice the breath flowing in … and out …

belly breathing
Practice belly breathing to cultivate a blissful belly.

 

Many yoga poses focus on a strong but fluid center, honoring the abdomen as a sacred place in our body while offering a balanced concept of core strength that includes lateral and back muscle stability. To keep the abdominals strong but flexible, it’s important to combine movements that contract the abdominals with poses that stretch them.

Try this short yoga sequence as you wait for class to begin or as a daily addition to your own yoga practice:

nose to knee slow release
1. Lay on your back, both feet flat on the floor, fingers interlaced behind your head. On an exhale, draw your belly toward your spine as you bring your right knee to your chest. Simultaneously lift your head, neck and shoulders off the ground. Hold for a count of 2, then slowly release the foot and head back down to the ground. Repeat 3 times on the right, then the left.

 

oblique nose to knee slow release
2. Draw your right knee into your chest, as you reach your left elbow across your body and toward the right knee to engage the obliques. Hold, then slowly release. Do 3 reps on each side, taking a full, relaxing breath between each rep.

 

side laying
3. Lay on your right side with your right arm resting on the floor and knees slightly bent. Cradle your head in your left hand. Firmly press the lower ribs into the floor and slowly lift your head and neck while shortening the left side of the body. Be careful not to pull your head up with your arm. Repeat 3 times on the right, then on the left.

 

prone extension 2
4. Lay on your belly with hands stacked on top of each other, forehead resting on your hands. Inhale, lift your head a few inches away from your hands, imagining that you are balancing a book on the back of your head so your face stays parallel to the floor. Hold for a count of 2, then slowly release your head to your hands. Repeat 3 times, allowing yourself to fully relax between each rep.

 

full body extension
5. Place your arms down by your sides, palms facing up. As you inhale, lift your arms, legs and head a few inches off the floor, coming into Locust Pose (Salabhasana). Hold for a count of 2, then slowly release to the ground. Repeat 3 times.

 

Consider your belly as your life source, abundant with creative energy. Cultivate bliss in your belly and your mind will also be blissful.

 

Image credit: LexnGer on Flickr

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