The Mind-Belly Connection

The Western beauty ideal has a flat belly and washboard abs. Clothes are designed to girdle the gut, or to hide it. We often try to make the belly simply go away, and many of us feel badly if our bellies do anything but. Controlling our bellies is our outward sign of self-control, and if we cannot, we often feel shame or guilt.

In yoga and other Eastern systems, however, your belly is the very center of your energetic system. It is a key access point to your spiritual wisdom. Western yoga borrows the Japanese term “hara” to describe the belly and its transpersonal power. Does the Buddha have washboard abs? Most definitely not.

Recent discoveries in human biology add fuel to the fire of just how important your belly is. Did you know that the second-highest level of neurotransmitters, the chemicals found in the brain and nervous system that carry thoughts and emotion, are found in the gut? This “gut brain,” known as the enteric nervous system, appears to reach deep into our evolutionary past. It came way before the one in our head in evolutionary terms, and it’s definitely not a center for higher reasoning. The belly’s brain responds on the intuitive, nonverbal, instinctual level. When you “feel in your gut,” you’re feeling with your gut brain. When you are upset about something, do you have gastrointestinal symptoms? If you do, you are experiencing how your gut brain can impact digestion. Holding tension in the belly is common, and learning to release that tension and relax the belly is, for those who struggle with weight and eating, an impressive yogic feat.

Western scientists ponder the French Paradox, wherein people in France seem to follow a diet rich in high-fat, unhealthy foods yet have low incidence of heart diseases and other chronic illness. We’ve worked so hard to quantify their diet to determine the chemicals that explain the difference. How Western of us! Not until recently have we looked at how they eat rather than (or in addition to) what they eat.

And the French eat very differently than we do. Their meals can take hours of relaxed conversation with friends. They enjoy their food with all five senses, allowing their gut brain to prepare their bodies to digest and making mealtimes a sensory feast. Think of that way of eating as opposed to our Western “tear the package open and eat it in the car on the way to a meeting” mealtime mentality and you might see why our bodies don’t respond as well. How you eat may be just as important, nutritionally, as what you eat.

Many Westerners have done their best to disconnect from the very center of their energy system: their belly. The way we stand, with the belly either drooping forward or sucked back, doesn’t take advantage of its ability to stabilize our frame. Yoga provides many ways of developing the awareness of our belly, of relaxing so that when we engage it we do so without tension. Learning to harness the power of your belly can profoundly and permanently improve the way you move.

Stomach-Pumping Breath

Stomach-Pumping Breath creates internal heat and “wakes up” the stomach. It may also aid digestion and tone the abdominal muscles. This practice is not recommended if you have had recent abdominal surgery or experience dizziness or shortness of breath. If holding your breath is new to you, begin with short holdings and avoid straining.

  1. Begin by lying down or finding a position to relax in for a few moments. With each exhale, see if you can relax the belly a little more. See if you can notice tension in your belly, and consciously release it. Then roll to one side, sit up slowly, and make your way to standing.
  2. Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Root through the feet by pressing them into the floor, and stand tall. Inhale and, on the exhale, lengthen forward and rest your hands on your thighs, shoulders relaxed down away from the ears. Inhale and exhale deeply, then hold the breath out. Holding the breath out, strongly draw the belly button in toward the spine and suck the abdomen upward, as if it were moving up under the ribcage. Hold the breath in for several heartbeats, then release, and inhale as you return to a standing position.
  3. Repeat Stage 1 to the point where the abdomen is drawn in. Holding the breath out, pump the abdomen in and out several times. Exhale, release, and inhale up to standing. Repeat this three times.

This post is adapted from Annie’s book Every Bite is Divine: The Balanced Approach to Enjoying Eating, Feeling Healthy and Happy, and Getting to a Weight That’s Natural For You.