Recently I have been paying more attention to my belly. Not just doing plank pose to try to firm it up, but also practicing softening it. It may seem like a radical idea to think about softening our bellies, especially in the era of six-pack abs, but I don’t think it’s contradictory to have strong abs with a soft belly. When I am experiencing acceptance, of myself, others, or a situation, my belly is soft. When I’m experiencing fear or any kind of anxiety about a situation, my belly gets tight and constricted. Have you ever noticed this?
My belly has been a focus in my life for a long time, and not always in an accepting way. As a teenager and young woman, I struggled for a few years with active eating disorders. A close friend of mine from graduate school was visiting this past week, and he reminded me of the time when my apartment was broken into while I was out one night. He came to see me the next morning, and he said that I looked pretty awful, and he asked me how I was doing. I replied that I was much better having bought a box of pancake mix and cooked and eaten all of it! How exactly did I feel better after that? Eating dozens of pancakes helped me avoid experiencing the fear and anger that arose when a stranger broke in and ransacked my home. My belly was tight with fear, and I didn’t yet know how to soften it, so I chose to avoid experiencing life for a while. Stuffing myself full of pancakes felt terrible, but it was easier than experiencing the emotional pain that was behind the tightness in my belly. The longer I practiced this habit, the harder it became to face difficult feelings, and the more likely I was to avoid them.
My yoga and mindfulness practices have taught me a new way. The practice of yoga is a practice of dwelling completely in the body so that we can start to gain awareness and the ability to hold whatever comes up without running away. We are all experts at creating brilliant avoidance schemes, but yoga helps us slowly start to let go of those schemes and land squarely in the present moment, whatever it is. When strong emotions arise, especially fear or anxiety, I now notice that my belly is tight and it is literally preventing me from digesting the situation. When I soften my belly, by consciously breathing deeply into it, and allowing the energy in my belly to relax, I am able to digest the situations of my life, regardless of how difficult they seem in the moment. Practicing mindfulness and yoga have given me the confidence to know that I can tolerate the difficult feelings and situations in my life and to trust that, if I soften my belly, I will be OK. I know I can digest all of what comes my way, even if I can’t always do it perfectly, and even if I am still avoidant at times.
By practicing whatever comes to us, we learn that we don’t need to cut ourselves off from our bellies and our feelings. Starving ourselves, stuffing our bellies with unneeded food, and other unhealthy avoidant strategies become unnecessary. Sometimes we are stressed or anxious while eating a meal, with bellies so tight that we can’t receive the nutrition that we are eating. When that happens, we can never satisfy our hunger. If we can practice softening our bellies while we eat, then we can really feel the food going in, and know that we are being nourished. Eating this way with a soft accepting bell is mindful eating. We can carry this practice into all of our lives, practicing softening our bellies whenever we feel them tighten up. And having strong abs may help us create the boundaries that we need to feel comfortable softening the insides of our bellies. So soft bellies and strong abs are a great combination.
Stephen Levine describes the soft-belly practice:
This primary opening practice of soft-belly begins the letting go of a lifetime of holding. It makes room in the body and mind for our whole life. As we focus on softening the muscles, the tissue, the flesh of the abdomen, the breath begins to breathe itself in a new openness. In the increasing spaciousness of soft-belly, thoughts float like bubbles. Feelings come and go in a softness that does not tighten around anything that passes through. This expansive awareness observes judging thoughts as simply the next in line to express the suffering we have become so inured to that we don’t notice any longer how hard our belly has become.
with much love and gratitude for sharing this journey with me,