One way of thinking about yoga is as a form of education into your own body. There are literally muscles that you can’t feel when you are first introduced to them because there is no neural pathway between your mind and that muscle. As you practice directing your awareness towards certain sensations, however, your body becomes illuminated and you start to feel things that were simply dark before. It’s like getting x-ray vision, but internally, and just for your own body.
The richest source for this sensation education, for me, has been my belly. Your core runs through your entire body, but the center of the chain, the core of your core, is in your belly from your pelvic floor up the midline to your solar plexus. In general, when we are upright and moving, we want the core to be engaged and connected: it supports the lower back and allows fluid full body movement that can keep strain out of the hips and shoulders. But just like any other muscle group, it can’t be fully engaged all the time, and needs opportunities to rest. These core muscles activate unconsciously anytime we sit up or stand, and they also tense when we have a fight-or-flight response. Because of these unconscious functions, they are difficult for many of us to feel, which makes it harder for us to turn them on or off, and for many of us they are in a semi-constant state of tension.
Tension masks sensation, and when there are knots in the belly, it’s very challenging to access the strength and fluid power that can come from this place. We can also miss out on the huge range of emotions that we can feel in this powerful and sensitive place, including fear, shame, guilt, butterflies, hope, and the warm-and-fuzzies.
Your gut has more neurons than your spinal cord or your peripheral nervous system, and sends its own messages to your brain, which has led some scientists to call your digestive system your “second brain” (See Adam Hadhazy’s Scientific American article for more information. Your gut feelings are an important part of your experience of the world. Not every gut reaction is appropriate to every situation, but they will respond to things your brain may not have picked up on. If everything looks pretty and fine, and you are still getting “the no feeling” in your belly, you may want to to look more closely at your situation. Your gut is a key source of emotional intelligence that often gets ignored and numbed out in a world that wants our bellies to be smaller, harder, and flatter.
My favourite pose for reconnecting to my gut and is Supported Bridge. To do this pose, lay on your back with your knees bent, then lift your hips and slide a yoga block under your sacrum, that hard ridge where your spine and pelvis meet. Widen your feet and let your knees fall in towards each other, and allow the lower back to lengthen and drape towards the floor. Rest your hands on your belly and notice the sensation of your belly rising and falling, focusing especially on the exhale. If you feel a small tug or even a bit of queasiness, you know you are releasing some deeply held muscles. Let it happen, breathe into it, and discover the deep intelligence of your soft, smart belly.