The other day, my friend and yoga teacher Meghan Currie said to me about the core: "There's just this layer of energetic garbage around your core. You kind of have to burn through it—then you're good."
I've been telling my students this lately, when I get them on their backs, hands interlaced behind their heads. Ten sets of Ana Forrest style Yogi Bicycles later, I tell them to relax and take a deep breath. "There's anger in there, there's shame, and there's a deep, meaningful, and abiding rage that often manifests as getting mad at your yoga teacher." And then they all laugh, because it's true. At least half the class is thinking about punching my lights out at that moment.
Have you ever noticed that working your core is a totally different uncomfortable than working, say, your thighs or biceps? There's something about this group of muscles that incites an extremely emotional reaction. I lived in that layer of energetic garbage for a while every time I got on the floor and worked it: the shaking belly, the frustration, the rage, the wondering when I would ever get stronger and WHO CERTIFIED THIS YOGA TEACHER TO BE SUCH A STUPID JERK?!
Then, one day, I did get stronger. Once I realized I wasn't the only one feeling this way, I relaxed into the work of it and it actually started to feel good. I started to feel more connected to my strength and willpower, my ability to get things done, to stand up for myself (or on my head) and yes, even to return to those poses that still make me shake.
And shaking is a funny thing—it will still sometimes happen if you've been doing core work for 15 years. It means a small muscle somewhere inside of you is trying to turn on but can't remember how. (Here's a trick I used once in Dolphin Plank Pose that changed it for me fundamentally: I clenched my belly muscles as hard as I could until I started shaking like a madman, and relaxed back into the pose, and the shaking stopped. I told the muscles what to do, and then relaxed and let them do it.)
And the energetic garbage in our bellies is kind of like that too: It's trying to remember how to do what it's supposed to do, but it's been so long buried down that it can't remember.
All of our lower chakras live in the belly. Chakras are centers of energy in the body that correspond to different physical and emotional states, and the lower ones all relate to our individual, personal, physical experience in the world.
At the pelvic bowl, in the perineum/genital area and into the inner thighs (and not coincidentally right where mulabandha, the yogic "bandha" or energetic lock lives) is Muladhara, where we carry our sense of survival, basic instincts and needs, sense of home and rootedness, as well as our most basic fears.
In the lower belly, connected to the hips, and just under the navel is Svadisthana Chakra, whose name means "sweetness." This chakra is not one that gets a lot of love in our culture: we are talking desire, pleasure, sensuality and sexuality, taste, emotion, and intuition. Our culture's not that cool about sexuality in general, and we often swallow sexual guilt and trauma and leave it here to leak into the hips (yogic "fact": women who have been sexually traumatized often carry extra weight around the hips, as if to protect their sexual centers. See Debbie Shapiro, Your Body Speaks Your Mind). The shame and guilt and pleasure and joy are all jumbled up together in there, and it can be an interesting experience to begin to explore these spaces.
Around the solar plexus, above or right at the navel is Manipura Chakra, or "the lustrous gem." This is our willpower, sense of identity, our ability to manifest the desires and dreams that grow from Svadisthana chakra. This is our ego, our sense of who we are in the world, our ability to stand up for ourselves, but also our insecurities and feelings of powerlessness against a world that mostly controls us, not the other way around. Stimulating this chakra can get us fired up to take care of business, but it can also stir up our rage against the machine.
We spend so much of our time holding our bellies in or clenching our pelvic floors because we are stressed and scared and don't even know how to relax. We swallow down experiences we can't fully process and hide them in our bellies, trying to make them smaller and harder and less vulnerable. But bellies are meant to be soft: there's a reason these organs are not encased in bone like our lungs and our brain. They are meant to be massaged and explored and twisted and stretched and released. When core work is done correctly, it can wake up sleeping muscles and release what's overworked and holding emotion. Which is why, on that tenth Yogi Bicycle, you start to want to kick your yoga teacher in the teeth.
Please don't kick me in the teeth, though. Take a deep breath and let it come. Relax your belly and allow yourself to feel. Then get back on the bicycle and get to know your belly. It just might be trying to tell you something.