What should I do with my belly?
I am asked this question frequently, especially since I love to dole out generous permission for clients and students to refrain from holding it in and constantly “tightening their core.” Allow me to share some ideas and invitations. I’m not a believer in “the right way.” I much prefer hanging out in Rumi’s field out there beyond ideas of right and wrong. These invitations for your exploration are offered from that beautiful field. So – What should you do with your belly?
- Whatever you want. Seriously. It’s your belly. No one else’s. If you’ve internalized other people’s well-meaning ideas and are constantly haranguing yourself with them, consider giving yourself free reign to do whatever you feel like. Suck it in. Pooch it out. Let it breathe. Soften it. Stiffen it. Paint it with swirly purple and silver bodypaints. What if “should” is a violent word? Do what you like. It’s yours. Feel free!!
- Love it. Do your best to love it, appreciate it, right this very moment, whatever it’s state of chub or thin, stretch-marked, six-packed, flabby, bloated, scarred, painful, or pristine. You and your belly deserve love. Love liberates.
- Let it breathe. Please. Won’t you? We’d all feel better if you would. For your main breathing muscle, your diaphragm (which sits under your lungs and heart, above your guts) to get anything close to a full excursion (that means you getting a reasonably full breath), you’ve got to let your belly move! It’s not about forcing a movement. It’s about liberating yourself from the physical tensions and modern notions that prevent your belly from participating in the movement of your breath. This is not an invitation to contrive – but to give yourself a break from posturing. To relish a feeling of naturalness. Your heart will thank you. Your guts and digestion will thank you. Your back pain will thank you. Your neck and shoulder tension will thank you. Your anxiety will thank you. Your friends will thank you. As it turns out, your inability to relax might just make you a big pain in the ass for other people. (Ain’t it the truth?) Your friends, your spouse, your kids, your coworkers will thank you. Strangers who sit by you on the bus or in a restaurant will thank you. Because we’re so intimately influenced by each other, we make it easier for others to feel safe and breathe with ease when we do it ourselves. Try it. Again and again and again.
- Soften. It’s been said that you can directly diagnose the hardness of your heart by observing the hardness of your belly. Doesn’t it make sense? When we feel most safe, authentic, and open-hearted, we’re not posturing or hardening, not trying to be anything other than our natural selves. Softening your belly makes space for your uncontrived self. Softening your belly makes space for compassion in your body. When we feel hard-hearted, judging, angry, unsafe – our bellies can become hard as a rock. They become armor. It certainly may be useful in the short term, but it gets heavy to carry around armor for very long. I love this poem by Rick Fields:
Behind the hardness there is fear
And if you touch the heart of the fear
You find sadness (it sort of gets more and more tender)
And if you touch the sadness
You find the vast blue sky
You can take that very journey he describes right now by softening your belly. Welcome –through the layers – to the vast blue sky of your uncontrived self.
- Strengthen. Just because I want to stand on the mountaintop and preach the gospel of soft belly, it doesn’t mean I think you should be flabby and never exercise. (Truly, what I really think is that you should do whatever the hell you want. It’s your life. See #1.) I do believe some core strengthening exercises can be great in supporting wellness and vitality. But here’s where a BIG misunderstanding comes in: A held belly does not equal a strong belly. Strong and held tight are two completely different things, though SO much advice is given in the fitness industry to “hold your core tight” whatever you’re doing. It makes about as much sense as someone saying, “Oh, you want stronger biceps muscles? You should hold your arm tight as you go through your day.” Actually, the opposite is often helpful. You can’t contract a muscle if it’s already always contracted. Strength is good. Contracting and releasing develops a muscle’s strength. Held does not equal strong. Can we say it together? Held belly does not equal strong belly. There! We did it. Listen – when you do a plank pose, unless you gave birth in the last few days, your abs know to contract. But they seriously don’t need to do it all the time. Remember bra burning? I propose burning your invisible girdle. And it won’t even make any nasty smoke. So do you really want to hold your belly in? If so, have at it. If not, feel freeeeeee!
- Be gentle. When we begin to soften our bellies, we may discover unfelt grief and the deep vulnerability that goes with being our uncontrived selves. We may find feelings we’ve stuffed by hardening to them, armoring against them. Treat the tender baby-flesh of your newly softening belly with great kindness. Make space for whatever comes. Laughter, tears, feeling weird. (I’m a big fan of weird.) If at first you feel too vulnerable to have a soft belly in public, try it at home, alone. In the bathtub. In your car. With the support of a kind and skilled therapist or bodyworker. Maybe eventually with close friends. Gradually, with gentleness, integration will unfold.
- Respect it. Your belly houses your beautiful, slippery, vital organs. Your gut brain. Your belly and pelvis are your center of gravity when you’re standing and walking and moving through your day. In so many traditions, this part of your body is recognized as a powerful energetic center, whether referred to as your dan tien (Chinese), your hara or tan den (Japanese), or your lower chakras (Indian and Tibetan.) It’s a powerful part of your body, physically, somatically, energetically, emotionally. Beware of overlaying this innately intelligent part of your body with too many “shoulds.” One of my friends said her favorite part of being pregnant was that she felt she could finally stop sucking her gut in. She respected her belly when someone else was inside there. But you don’t have to be pregnant to allow your belly its due space. Respect it enough to let it be itself.
- Center Yourself. One of the most non-habitual moves for someone living in modern culture is to center yourself in your belly. Rather than imagining you are a self that resides in your head and paying attention to that belly “down there,” try to center yourself in your belly. (I call this “being embellied.”) Practice for a few minutes perceiving from in there, being in there. Powerful stuff.
- Listen to it. Actually, a better way to say what I mean is “Listen to your life and to the world through your belly.” We all know about gut feelings. Our intelligent, embellied self is always resonating with the moments and situations in our life. Learn about your enteric brain. Your smart belly has intelligence. I like to think that it’s got lie detectors, truth resonators, a bullshit meter, gratitude receptors, safety sensors, a joy-o-meter. Your belly is not a thing. It’s part of you and it has deep knowing. Listen to and through it. It won’t guide you wrong.
- Get to know it. Are you familiar with your own belly? Do you know where your various organs are? Many people feel that their bodies, and especially their visceral organs, are like a foreign country and it takes a medical professional to navigate. But it doesn’t need to be that way! Getting to know your own belly and viscera can be greatly empowering and can benefit your health too.The topic is far bigger than this article – but it’s not hard for you to learn more. Ask someone who knows. Look in an anatomy book or app. Do you know where your liver is? Your appendix? Your stomach? Descending colon? Small intestines? Personally, I love to massage my belly; I always find useful information. What feels tender, tight, hard, stagnant, or wonderful today? You’ll get great feedback for your health, and the massage itself is good for increasing circulation, wellness, and awareness in your abdomen.
- Laugh. Laughing is the easiest way to free your belly, massage your guts, simultaneously strengthen and soften your abs, and increase your well being. What’s the last thing that made you bwahahaha out loud?
- Feel free. Personally, I don’t care to live in a system of domination. (What do I mean by a system of domination? A few examples: Humans dominating nature. Men dominating women. People who live in their heads dominating their wild bodies.) Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” One way to challenge the domination system is to quit dominating your own body from up there in your head. Can you sense the difference between what it might feel like to live through your body, rather than doing things to your body? It takes some radical unlearning, but it’s both possible and wonderful to free your natural embodied wisdom. Whatever any experts tell you, ultimately it’s all up to you. I hope you and your belly will feel free!
We’ll be exploring all this and more in my upcoming Women Embodied: Empelvised, Embellied, Empowered Online Course. Registration opening in early April. Make sure you’re on my email list so we can stay in touch!