Softening the Belly

How do you hold your abdomen?

I was at a yoga workshop recently where I was challenged to become more aware of how I held my belly throughout the day. I noticed when I was driving, I held it pulled in as if in fear or anxiety. I let it go...let it soften. When I was standing, waiting in line at the grocery store, I was pulling my belly tight. I let it soften. We've been taught to suck in our bellies - that it's unflattering to let it hang out. We've been told: "Use those abs!" While a strong core is important, it depends on a well-functioning diaphragm.

How does your diaphragm move if you are holding in your stomach?

The diaphragm is the boundary between the thoracic cavity above and the pelvic cavity below. It is a a parachute-shaped muscle. When it flattens, it draws air into your lungs, and massages the digestive organs. When you breathe out, it domes, pushing the air out of your lungs. It is meant to move freely, without restriction. Place one hand on the solar plexus area at the bottom of your sternum, the bone that runs vertically down from your collar bone. Place the back of the other hand on the small of your back. You are holding the diaphragm between your hands. Consciously let the diaphragm relax, soften. Notice the health of your diaphragm. Its movement is automatically controlled by the brainstem, by the autonomic nervous system. Now suck in your belly. Notice how restricted the movement of the diaphragm is. When the belly is held tight, all the connective tissues and the diaphragm tighten up as well.  

So what are the effects of a tight abdomen?

The tightness of your abdomen constricts your digestive functions and may cause the symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Notice if there is pain or inflammation that you are tightening up against. The tightness can also be due to the fight or flight response to stress. Our body is built for survival, to fight or run when it senses danger but it also responds this way to a stressful situation. Your digestion shuts down in fight or flight. The diaphragm is also involved in posture and low back pain is a symptom of a poorly functioning diaphragm.

Unlearning the tight belly

Three suggestions: 1) Place your hands on your belly when you lie down to sleep and notice how your breath causes your belly to rise and fall - like a baby breathes! You'll also notice your lower ribs expanding. 2) Gently bring your awareness to how you are holding your belly during the day, not judging, just noticing. 3) Listen to the following meditation for yourself in a quiet moment. I have loved and used this meditation written by Stephen Levine in A Year to Live (1997) for many years. It's about seven minutes.