Let’s just get down and dirty and talk about how potent the ripple effect of the cue ‘suck in your belly’ or ‘draw navel to spine’ is in our yoga/fitness and women’s health culture in general. As a girl who grew up with two older brothers and a family dialogue that on the one hand deemed any excess as disgraceful, and on the other had a lot of body image challenges and struggles with food, I have had a long history and struggle with presenting myself as physically integrated, fit, and confident. Sucking in my stomach was a norm I learned very young and it was part of my identity for a looooong time (and it can still show up sometimes even now when situations get scary or stressful). I was an athlete in my teens who spent any extra time outside sports and school in cadets…Oh and doing drill was my favourite, so it was all about ‘stand up straight’ and ‘suck in your stomach’ and ‘feet together’ blah blah blah! In university I worked as a bartender so physical appearance was a piece to the job and a place I learned a lot about ‘putting up appearances’…From there I became a personal trainer, fitness instructor and yoga teacher and now I own my own martial arts and therapeutic yoga business, so I really have a full spectrum perspective (as well as a very personal experience) with regards to our obsession with a flat, firm belly.
So, you wanna know why I stopped sucking it in???
Well gee, let me count thee ways.
-I had constant and chronic back pain
-It perpetuated my anxiety.
-I had heart palpitations and chest pains from the tension in my ribs, stomach and chest.
-I was constipated all the time. (YUP-it’s connected!)
-I had gas and bloating most days, and always felt like I couldn’t have a good poop to start the day! (And well, let’s be serious this is a very important ingredient to a HAPPY life!)
-BM’s were unpredictable, and always seemed to come at the most inopportune times!
-Sex was tricky because relaxing into intimacy and sucking in your stomach are counter-intuitive and opposites. It’s reaaaaally hard to do both at the same time (and believe me, I tried)
-I had stomach aches most days, and always felt sick after eating. I also always overate and struggled to feel satiated.
-I felt scared a LOT. A low level feeling of dread like something bad was going to happen.
-I couldn’t take deep breaths, hence it felt like I couldn’t relax. My upper body was like a rock- solid, and yet-I didn’t feel free. I felt trapped. I felt caged and blocked up and stunted.
-I was sick of pretending.
Now, I didn’t know these were caused or connected to my belly issues before I started to unwind it, but in retrospect, I see all the relationships and how much has shifted for me as a result of getting embodied in my belly. And that, my friends, is why I feel inspired to write this blog and share it with you, so you may discover some possibilities for yourself ❤
A teacher showed me that it was possible to unwind my belly and not fall apart. At first I felt scared that I would lose core strength, that I would get ‘weak’, and that my stomach would lose tone. Working with her and an amazing pelvic floor physiotherapist helped me see that the strength of my core was NOT predicated on how well I could suck in belly to spine; in fact, the more I stopped doing exactly that, the better my lower back and neck started to feel. (Both areas of which had been chronically sore and tight for me since I was in middle school).
I started to notice that when I was sucking it in and looking the mirror, my whole face looked tense and it kinda looked like my head might fly off my body at any moment (like I was squeezing myself up and out from this inside out). I realized how unattractive this was to me, especially because once I noticed it in myself, I started to see it in other people too. I found myself feeling compassionate for those people and wanting to help ‘set them free’. Because that’s what it felt like once I started to unwind my middle, it felt like I was getting out of jail in a sense. And I could breathe, I could actually take a breath in without my shoulders going up to my ears…
I noticed that when I let my belly guard down, I felt more connected to my intuition. I felt like I could see more clearly, and tune into my own needs more clearly.
On occasions when I had a big release through my belly and things felt way more free, I noticed that the skin of my face and throat looked softer, and it seemed more youthful. I felt like I actually aged down! Um, yes please! 😉 Since then, I have seen this response in many of my yoga therapy clients as they unwind, it’s a beautiful thing.
I never really knew what I wanted to do/be in my life growing up and through my 20’s, I always had more questions than answers for myself it seemed: Holding my belly felt like a way to control the fear I felt that I DIDN’T KNOW who I was. As I softened through my abdomen and started letting it go, the KNOWING began to rise up in the most spontaneous and delightful way. I recognized how hungry I was for this knowing, and the feeling that goes with it: A taste of freedom, a taste of confidence, peace, and most of all, TRUTH.
Ah yes, truth. This leads me to the biggest reason of all that I released my belly.
I didn’t want to lie anymore.
Holding in my belly was living a lie. I was trying to present as a controlled version of myself, something/someone to be contained and held together, an idea of what I thought could be perfection. The feeling and energy of sucking it in became a constant reminder that no, I was not perfect, that I was something that needed to be squished in to fit in. As various truth bombs were rising in me in moments of freedom as my belly unwound, self-love and acceptance were also rising with it, and I began to sense that I liked letting myself ‘be’. I liked leaving myself alone and letting my body take up the space that it needs to, breath by breath.
I always felt so very very tired. I hated how I felt objectified by men or other people and then it hit me that it was also ‘I’ who was objectifying myself. It was ‘I’ who was displaced from her body and so judgmental of it. This started to feel like a betrayal of trust after a while. And I noticed when I was sucking my belly in, it was a sign that I was misaligned with my truth in that moment, ie- I wasn’t feeling safe or comfortable in the experience I was having or decision I was making. And so, what has emerged as I have let my belly guard down more and more, is a rapid emergence of what feels like a primitive core stability, an inner authority both physically in my body and also spiritually in my being.
I am more integrated.
There is an inner trust growing into the belief that I AM perfect with an open belly. I AM in fact contained when I am not bracing my core because I am allowing my body to have space INSIDE of itself and INSIDE OF my experience of life. It’s like comparing the difference between tunnel vision versus peripheral vision. When we tunnel our vision, everything narrows and we lose sight of details and perspective, and we see a small scope of what’s there and it’s limited. When we expand and open to our periphery, a whole world of sight opens up for us and we get so much more information and details to support our journey. We access more space. The same is true in our bellies, we lose sense of ourselves (extremities in particular, arms to hands and feet to legs) when we cut ourselves off with a sucked in gut. The grip of it chops us up into pieces, and we lose the ability to flow.
This flow is what core stability means to me, not the rigid crunches or 100’s that we might rock in our bootcamp or pilates class. Embodied flow is feeling engaged and awake through our core, grounded and wide through our hips and feet, abdominals responding with deep inner support versus a desperate holding on. This leaves us light on our feet and feeling supple and steady. Now I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty damn sexy to me! I know my husband likes me more as supple and steady versus rigid and stuck 😀 There is a thickness to this kind of stability, where we become able to stand our ground and not be pushed. To stand our ground, we first have to stand open wide in our core, letting it shine out from the belly. The truth flows and from the truth comes love.
As amazing yoga teacher Donna Farhi says, “We don’t have to ‘feel bad to look good’. However, we may have to change our definition of what looking good means to us.”
It is amazing how much we think we are ‘hiding’ it by doing this, and yet, it is so obvious when you begin to look at people and notice how tense they are. It’s impossible to suck in your stomach and not have a ripple through your whole body and through your breath. You may think you are fooling those around you, (and maybe you are trying to fool yourself too?), but we are intuitive creatures, we feel when people are hiding things from us.
So I invite you to begin a belly awareness practice: look around at people-see if you can notice people who are sucking it in. Take them in when you notice it and really see the person in front of you. Can you FEEL their tension? Is there anxiety, or hiding in it? As you feel it, notice what it evokes in you. Then take a deep breath and allow your belly to relax as much as feels available and safe for you. And when you start to explore, know that only you are in charge of how deep you go in releasing. You can start to ask what is underneath all that tension? Who is hidden away in that held belly? How free could you be if you relinquished the fight with your guts? There may be tears in there, yes, years of tears and fear of losing control; there may be rage; or a desperate desire to be acknowledged. And through all the wounds that got us to where we are, deep inside lies the diamond that is who we really are. As the tension and armour melt away, we begin to shine brighter.
Shine on friends…
OH, and a little PS for those of you who still aren’t quite convinced…
Chronic belly holding can lead to chronic neck and shoulder tension, lower back pain, sciatica, breathing dysfunction and chest pains, incontinence, anxiety, hip pain, constipation and digestive problems. Serious issues. Is it really worth it?
Oh and the idea that your belly will stick out more if you stop bracing it in all the time is b.s. If you are walking around in a constant state of contraction all day long, you can get those ab muscles are freaking exhausted, and you are actually making them weaker? You might think ‘Um, how can they be getting weaker if I am engaging them all the time???’ The answer is simple: for a muscle to be strong it must be able to completely contract, and completely relax. BAM. How do you like them apples. Do you even know HOW to relax your tummy muscles? Perhaps letting it ‘hang out’ is as important an exercise as your weekly crunch workout???
Much love from my FierceHeart to yours~