Have you ever stood at the mirror, sucked in your stomach and thought, “I wish I could look like this all the time?” Your answer is probably yes. The West has sold us the notion that taut abdominals are the quintessence of health and beauty. Rock-hard bellies are used to promote everything from underwear to cereal.
But if you yearn for the rippled look of “six-pack” abs, consider what you may sacrifice to obtain it: That look might cost you flexibility and freedom of movement. Overdoing abs exercises can lead to a flattening of the lumbar curve, creating a weakened spinal structure. Hunchback conditions are now shown to be caused by of excessive abdominal crunches.
Society’s obsession with flat tummies has psychological consequences too. We want to control our feelings, so we make our bellies hard, trying to ‘keep it together. Soft bellies appear vulnerable; abs of steel don’t. But the traditional military posture of attention—chest out, belly ina—not only makes soldiers appear hard and invulnerable, it also foils their independence. Soldiers are supposed to follow orders, not intuition. Yogis may be warriors too, but we want to shed armoring. Tension interferes when trying to access the deeper wisdom that rests in the belly. As yogis, we require a supple abdomen in which we can sense the stillness of our being.
We’re a culture afraid of the belly. In our societal obsession with abdominal minimalism, we often lose sight of the true nature of this crucial part of the body. Abdominal muscles assist breathing, align the pelvis, flex and rotate the trunk, keep the torso erect, support the lumbar spine, and hold in the organs of digestion. The crunch-obsessed fitness buffs are partlyright, though: Strong, toned muscles at the core of your body support good health. But that does not mean we should cultivate a permanent navel cramp, hold our breath, and stand like soldiers on parade. Take a look at the Buddha, perhaps the world’s best-known yogi. In many paintings and statues, he doesn’t have “abs of steel.” Yogis know that chronically tight abdominals aren’t any healthier than chronically tight hamstrings or back muscles. Yoga can help you develop the perfect balance of abdominal strength, suppleness, relaxation, and awareness.
Of course, different yoga teachers approach abdominal exercise in different ways. Some approach the belly primarily through sensory exploration, helping us become sensitive to all the layers of muscles and organs; others use standing poses, employing the arms and legs to strengthen the abdominals in their function as stabilizers for the limbs. Still others stress motion, emphasizing that the value of abdominal muscles lies in their ability to move and change shape. But all of the yoga teachers highlighted four themes in common: (1) Movement springs from the body’s center of gravity just below the navel; (2) asanas train this core to act as a stable base and fluid source of movement; (3) abdominal muscles should be toned but not tense; (4) the first step in abdominal fitness requires learning to sense this core, becoming familiar with it from the inside.
A basic knowledge of the belly’s anatomy can help us approach core work with a more accurate mental map. So let’s peel away the layers and see what lies under the skin.
Abdominal skin differs from much of the skin covering the rest of the body. It has a subcutaneous tissue that loves to hoard fat. It can store up to several inches. Those fat-free torsos you see in advertisements are possible for less than 10 percent of the population. You have to have really thin skin to show muscle and this takes more than diligent exercise; it takes the right genetics.
You have to be young too. Once fat cells accumulate around your torso, they don’t disappear. You can starve them; they’ll shrink. But they will always be there, endeavoring to fill up. Too much belly fat—we all know—is unhealthy. But working too hard to eliminate fat can also cause serious problems. Women can suffer estrogen depletion, bone weakness, and fractures. A few millimeters of fat over those muscles don’t matter. Most adults, including distance runners and people of optimal health, carry a slight spare tire around their middles.
Instead of obsessing about fat, we’d do better to focus deeper. Right under the skin, a sturdy wall of four paired muscles stretches over our internal organs. On the surface, the straplike rectus abdominus extends along the front, from pubic bone to sternum. On either side, a thin but powerful muscle, called the external oblique, courses diagonally from the ribs to the rectus, forming a “V” when viewed from the front. Running perpendicular to the external obliques, the internal obliques lie just below. These two pairs of muscles work in concert, rotating the trunk and flexing it diagonally. The innermost layer of abdominal muscle, the transversus, runs horizontally, wrapping the torso like a corset. You flex this muscle to pull in your belly. The sinewy, three-ply sheath formed by the transversus and the obliques provides a strong, expandable support; it protects the viscera and provides compression that aids elimination and a housing flexible enough for diaphragmatic breathing. You can exercise all of these muscles with yoga.
Our center of gravity lies just below the navel, a spot many yoga teachers call the “power center.” The source of our vitality, the abdomen is a sacred space in our bodies, so we would do well to shift from criticizing how it looks to respecting how it feels. As people begin to sense and move from their lower torso, over time they experience a surge in creativity and sexuality.
Throughout the world’s healing and mystical traditions, the belly is seen as an important center of energy and consciousness. Tantra yoga sometimes represents the navel as the home of rajas,or solar energy. In Tantric practice, the yogi stirs up rajas in the belly by using the breath, helping to create a divine body endowed with paranormal powers. You’ve probably noticed that many of India’s great spiritual adepts sport prodigious bellies. These tremendous tummies are thought to be full of prana. Hence, Indian artists often depict their deities with a paunch.
In China, the gentle art of tai chi emphasizes the lower abdomen as a reservoir for energy. It’s possible to strengthen the abdominals by learning how to compact qi (prana) into the belly. From the Chinese viewpoint, the belly is considered the dan tian or ‘field of the elixir,’ where you plant the seeds of long life and wisdom.
So the next time you’re critically eyeing your stomach, you might consider instead saying a reverent Namaste to your power center and home of your gut instincts. And you can also help cultivate the belly bliss by employing an integrated approach to abdominal work, combining somatic and energetic awareness with asana and pranayama.