During my classes I often suggest softening the belly a little. I sometimes use the term “embrace your jelly belly”! which has been met with a bit of shock horror on some fronts!
Of course, strictly speaking, this is not something we should embrace “all the time”. It is not necessarily healthy to have a complete jelly belly as we all know. Excess fat around the midriff is linked to diabetes, heart-disease and many other life-threatening illness. However, neither is it healthy for us to be walking around with super-tight abdominals (or super-tight anything really!). This extreme has been linked to digestive problems, infertility, back and hip problems and goodness knows what else. Put it this way; if I walk around with my shoulders tense and tight all day does it make them stronger? Nope – it just makes them tight and tense!
How Muscle Tension and Blood Circulation is Related
When a muscle is tense and tight, blood flow can only be limited (see my blog on “Bandha” for a more detailed explanation). In order to keep the blood moving, our muscles should be constantly tensing and releasing, tensing and releasing. Usually this happens when we move because different muscles switch on and off, but if for some reason we are continually contracting a particular muscle, then circulation to that area will be decreased. In other words, a muscle that you cannot relax due to habitual tension is just as problematic as a weak, soft muscle that you cannot engage. Short-term, it won’t be long before symptoms occur – often discomfort and stiffness for example on one level. Long term though, this lack of circulation due to constant, chronic tension will lead to more serious health problems on a cellular level, basically because the blood flow to our vital organs has been restricted.
So it is important we connect our mind with our body in order to realise when we have created tension unnecessarily or, on the other hand, haven’t engaged the muscles we actually do need to engage in order to make a movement or a pose safe. Ideally, this happens without us thinking about it if we focus on our posture instead.
Look Good but Feel Average? Our Western Culture of Vanity!
With regards to the abs, we have been lead to believe, in our culture at least, that we must have tight, firm, “washboard” abs. Sure, it looks great in a photo and impressive when those ads with details of how to obtain them interrupt our Facebook feed. But is it healthy? The answer is, no, not really. What is better is that those abs can look like that when engaged, but , on the other hand, they can also relax to the extent that we look a little like a happy Buddha or a completely-unaware-of-future-body-issues toddler! This is muscle control. The Shaolin monks and martial artists move from the navel centre (known as the hara centre or tantien – tantien actually means “brain”). They move with grace and skill, displaying incredible strength and agility. There are no contorted faces, very little grunting (usually just for effect or as a result of concentration and focus) and no build up or momentum needed. This is absolutely the use of diaphragmatic breathing to create an incredible amount of power whilst in a state of dynamic relaxation.
Creating Power with Posture
So, if we want to engage “the core” (create “bandha” in yoga language) and still be able to breath diaphragmatically, we can do a few simple things with our posture while we are practising (or weightlifting or whatever it is we like to do).
*Keep your hands on your lower abs while you do this and notice what happens.
- Anchor your feet into the floor as if they were the roots of a tree. Grip the floor gently with each and every toe. Feel as if you are stretching the mat apart with the feet but at the same time squeezing a soccer ball (for example) between the thighs.
- Do not lock out the knees, always a tiny bit bent. Engage the muscles at the back of the knee.
- Lower the tailbone slightly and scoop the sitting bones forward. You should notice the lower abs and pelvic floor subtly firm (mulah bandha with posture), the rectus abs (washboard abs) isolate and push forward slightly, while the sides of the trunk stay relatively soft still.
- Push the armpits to the floor.
- Extend out through the crown of the head, lift the sternum (breastbone) without flaring the ribs and keep the chin in.
- Relax! A little bit of effort, a little bit of surrender.
- BREATHE into the belly from here and then carefully try using the breath to expand the chest without tightening the tummy. This takes practise and you don’t need to breathe in to full capacity. Try 3/4 lungful.
- Focus on the process rather than some idea of what you perceive to be the “end result”.
So, did you notice? The above is the dynamic version of tadasana or mountain pose (sometimes called samasthiti) – a kind of “pro-forma” for most standing yoga poses. These activations arn’t necessarily just for a yoga session though – they will help to alleviate back pain when standing for long periods. You will find that engaging your body in this way creates firmness and strength in your core muscles while eliminating the need to over-tense the abdomen. Over-tightening the abs affects our ability to engage the diaphragm when breathing, limits our ability to move and thus creates stiffness and pain in the long term. It is a low-level “fight or flight” response which depletes energy levels and increases stress by sending a message to the nervous system that all is not well. When we look at it this way, is it any wonder that so many chronic health problems are on the rise?