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

A Blinding Flash of the Obvious

One of my valued gurus, Judith Lasater, uses this phrase to describe the moments in life when we suddenly gain a newfound awareness of something that’s not new in the world, but is deeply relevant to us – an “aha!” moment that is recognizable as a whole-body experience. We have all felt these to a greater or lesser degree.

I want to share a blinding flash of my own, a revelation that changed how I think about meditation. It was a realization that allowed me to feel successful for the first time in a practice that had, until then, been fraught with discomfort and disappointment.

When I began to meditate about 20 years ago, I was filled with ambition. I wanted to be a great meditator and feel the bliss that my own teachers seemed to be experiencing. But the harder I tried and the more determined I was, the more frustrated I felt – and the further away from meditation I seemed to be.

Meditation is one of the eight limbs, or techniques, that make up the practice of Yoga. In just the same way you learn physical poses (asana) in a beginning class, it’s wise to begin a meditation practice with baby steps.

During my own teacher training, I was taught that the definition of meditation was 144 seconds of uninterrupted concentration, or a little over two minutes. While two minutes doesn’t seem long, it can feel like eternity if you’re uncomfortable, not at ease, or experiencing “monkey mind.”

One morning, as I attempted in vain to achieve two minutes of uninterrupted concentration, I had an epiphany, a blinding flash of the obvious. What if I went for a walk in my garden and walked with concentration for two minutes, my mind completely focused on the walking? Perhaps I could do some Yoga (asana) and move with mindfulness for two minutes, or be focused and completely present as I prepared the evening meal by chopping vegetables with full intent on the task.

The more I thought of applying mindfulness and meditation to everyday life, the easier it seemed to find activities I could do with 144 seconds of focused concentration. Once I gave myself permission to integrate meditation practices with everyday activities, I discovered multiple opportunities to practice.

Try these ideas to add mindfulness and meditation into your daily life:

1.  Rise early and take a short walk. Be mindful of each step you take, the nature around you, the temperature, and the sounds of the morning. Remember, walking is the meditation. Unlike walking for exercise, you’re not focused on a goal, outcome or destination; you are simply focused on the walking itself.

2.  Make a simple salad for lunch and eat with conscious awareness. Notice the way you chew your food, the texture, and its flavor. Take your time – each bite is an opportunity to practice being present.

3.  The next time you take a shower, bring your attention to your sensory experience. Notice how the water feels on your skin, the smell of your shampoo or body wash, and the sound of the water as it hits the ground. Just be aware of your experience as you cleanse your body and mind.

Blending mindfulness and meditation with movement, cooking or enjoying nature were the beginning steps I needed. Now I celebrate the start of every day by sitting for 30 minutes or so. Sometimes my eyes are open, sometimes closed, but my practice is always calming, quiet and blissful.

 

Image credit: Tomi Tapio K on Flickr (CC)

Get OFF Your Yoga Mat

I love Yoga. So why am I asking you to get off your mat?

Because in the West, we have a very narrow view of Yoga — we think it’s all about stretching. We celebrate flexibility as if it’s the only result Yoga can help us achieve.

I’m here to show you how Yoga can benefit you OFF the mat. Rooted in a history that’s over 5,000 years old, yoga techniques are as relevant in today’s world as they were to the ancient yogis and yoginis.

My intention for this blog is to show you how to apply these ancient techniques to your lifeI’ll be giving you practical tips, sharing my own yoga experience, and inviting you to comment on the posts.

I’ve been a Yoga teacher in Simi Valley for over 20 years, and Yoga Nook has been in business for 12 of those years. Our studio is built on a valley-wide reputation for excellence in teaching yoga classes, teacher training and somatic education.

Until now, the only way you could benefit from Yoga was to come in and take a class. That’s about to change. Now you can subscribe to our blog to receive two monthly posts that will shed light on how Yoga can help you understand yourself and the world we live in.

Simply enter your email address below to sign up. I invite you to share your insights, stories and comments. Join us and become part of the Yoga Nook community, living Yoga OFF the mat.

With gratitude,

Jeni Winterburn

 

Image credit: bradleypjohnson on Flickr (CC)