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 …
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:
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