I have spent most of my adolescent and adult life trying to be in good shape, and at different times I’ve been in better and worse physical condition, with the low points being (1) after my sister died and I moved from Boston back to Penn Yan (aka: the land of Pizza Hut eaters, no gyms, and stress) and (2) when I had a job that was very unhealthy and stressful (aka: I ate more because I was intense and unhappy). The high points were when I found (1) anusara yoga, (2) mind-body skills, and (3) T.Colin Campbell (aka: balanced physical exertion, balanced mental/emotional practice, and balanced nutrition).
It wasn’t, however, until I attended the mind-body skills training in DC this fall that I really realized where I was going wrong. I was spending all of my time, posturally, trying to be rigid. I had learned in yoga that I am a chronic over-efforter with tight joints/muscles, but I didn’t realize the damage I was doing to myself (and I sort of liked having a “hard-body”).
The phrase and meditation titled Soft Belly first made me cringe—who wants that? But, shortly after my first soft belly meditation, I learned that I have a real challenge to deal with—my efforts to keep my body aligned and abs tight (six-pack, anyone?) were reversing my breathing pattern and causing the opposite of physical relaxation. In a posturally relaxed physical position, I can breathe into my belly, but while standing, walking or during exertion I keep everything tighter and breathe into my chest (when I breathe in, my stomach goes in and when I exhale my stomach goes out—this is backwards). This is so bad because it prevents the vagus nerve from being stimulated by the breath (whose job it is to tell the brain to relax the body), and it causes stimulation of the adrenals (which cause the release of stress hormones in the body). Why did my hair turn gray when my sister died? It sure doesn’t seem to be genetic—have you seen my parents? They’re both in their 60′s and not totally gray. It was emotional and physical stress—when stress hormones float around in the body for extended periods it prevents absorption of nutrients and leeches nutrients from tissues (including bone). If I had managed the physical stress (by breathing properly), I could have possibly not been so physically affected by the emotional stress that I didn’t manage right away. In fact, I multiplied the bad effects by being so rigid in my belly, and it was a slippery slope from there to my hair turning gray (among other things).
So, it’s time to get in touch with my belly again—and I think that even if you don’t have the same exact issues I have, you can still benefit by this increased awareness. Geneen Roth says, “If you ignore your belly, you are homeless.” Being more in touch can help you in a lot of ways, including knowing when you’re actually hungry, tired, sad, tense, etc. Your belly is your center, and it can help you figure out where you are, so you are better able to make decisions about what to do.
At any point in your day, take a few moments, and reflect on the sensations in your belly (and numbness or emptiness is also a sensation, just so you know). As you breathe in, are you expanding your belly? This is the best case scenario, physiologically and emotionally. Can you expand a little bit more and breathe all the way down to your pelvis (don’t worry, I’m not going to go lower than that).
Breathing techniques and meditations sometimes get written off as fluffy and abstract—like, it’s all in your head and who has time to focus on something like that, something that isn’t tangible? But, I think if you just begin to raise your awareness of your belly, you’ll notice some things about yourself and your life that you did not see before. The sense of breathing being intangible changes, and you can connect your breath to …everything in your life.
I have a short (6 minutes) soft belly breathing guided meditation that I’ll send to you for free if you’re interested. You just have to email me and ask for it (and no, I won’t start emailing you about other stuff). If you’re not ready to go belly out, then don’t—the last thing you should do is stress yourself out or go into denial over it. But, a baby step would be to just notice your belly throughout the day when you think of it. Notice how it feels in relation to how you feel. Notice how you treat it too. It’s one of your most important assets.