While “six-pack abs” are touted as the ideal, a soft and flexible belly is, by design, more useful.
We often get the message in our culture that our bellies should be small and hard. But part of a belly’s job is to be soft and wide, to be flexible and to hold a lot of things. Bellies (what we commonly call our abdomens) contain most of our internal organs, and, in some people, they even grow babies. This is where so much of the work of our bodies happens, including digesting our food, cleaning our blood of toxins from our food and environment, and performing reproductive functions. Not to mention the belly is where most of the muscles of our core are located, allowing us to sit and stand upright.
Soft and flexible—this is part of the belly’s design. When we move, especially when we twist, forward bend, or backbend, we assist in moving the contents of our digestive system around as well as stimulating the lymph nodes in the belly, which helps us detoxify our systems.
The muscles in the core are many and complex. Most of us want a “six pack,” but the muscles that create this visual effect are probably the least useful in terms of supporting our backs and our organs. For that, we need to work the transverse abdominis, which is an internal muscle shaped a bit like a corset that runs 360 degrees around the entire belly.
When we’re trying to be small and hard all the time, many of us unconsciously engage the muscles of the core more often than we need to—specifically, sucking in our guts. Yes, we sometimes want to mindfully engage the core, but when these muscles are held short with tension all the time, they have a much harder time getting strong and actually working in a functional way.
Now that we know a little more about why we should appreciate our soft squishy bellies, here are some practices we can do to help love them even a little bit more.
Breathing into the belly is one of the most effective ways to calm the nervous system and relax the body, which has multiple benefits for our health and wellbeing. My favorite way to do this is to lie on the ground with knees bent and feet on the floor. Widen the feet a bit so that the knees can fall together and place your hands on your belly. Relax. Allow the breath to come all the way into the belly, and then allow the exhale to simply fall away with the tension. Don’t forget the pelvic floor—think of this area like the bottom of a soft balloon around the genitals. Allow this area to relax and gently move naturally with the breath.
Place a bolster or a couple of pillows on your mat so that the support is perpendicular to your yoga mat. Sit in front of it and lay back so that your belly and solar plexus are opening towards the sky. Allow your shoulders to fall off the top edge of the bolster. You may need to adjust forward and back until you find the right spot, and some people really prefer some support under the head here as well. This gently stretches the belly area (and often feels great on the shoulders, too). Continue to breathe into the belly.
When you are standing up, notice your posture. Lean your weight slightly more over your heels than your toes. Let your bum relax back so that you have a natural curve in your lower spine and lift the chest gently. Bring your chin parallel to the floor. Where can you stand so that you can still breathe into your belly but also feel strong and supported? (Learn more about this posture here.)
Try this pose while brushing your teeth or standing in line, and notice how quickly it disappears when you look at your phone!
Keep it up with this guided meditation for loving your belly.