Affirmation: I take several deep belly breaths throughout the day.
Stephen Levine, author and death and dying guru, presented several workshops in the 1990's at Duke for The Flying Monkey Foundation. It was the first time I heard the expression "soft belly." He suggested that one easy way to reduce tension was to let the belly relax, to maintain a soft belly. It seemed then as it still does now to be the opposite of the cultural norm. As far as I can see, most of our society is focused on tight abs and six or even eight pack "wash boards". For most, the bulging belly is not a thing of beauty unless it's filled with the potential of new life.
One of the eight limbs of yoga is pranayama, focusing on the breath. There are many different breathing modalities. Some require short shallow pants, others slow deep breaths. Some focus on nasal breathing, others include mouth breathing. Some encourage making sounds, others are completely silent but the one thing they all have in common is that they keep you present to the moment. As soon as you stop focusing on the breath, you've lost your concentration. One of the easiest breaths to practice is "dirgha" breath. You inhale through your nose and slowly fill your lungs. You begin with the upper part of your lungs, the chest area. Then you go to the middle part, expanding the area around the heart finally you let the breath expand into the bottom of your lungs, the belly section. It's the deepest breath you can take. Once you have filled all three parts of the lungs, you slowly exhale from the top down, like you're pouring out a pitcher of liquid. You squeeze out every last drop so that all the stale air from the very bottom of your lungs is expelled. In the process, your heart rate slows, your blood pressure drops and your mind calms.
It seems like such a simple, essential rule, "Take a deep breath." How many times have you heard that statement, especially when someone is becoming agitated? "Take a deep breath!" It would seem like the most natural thing in the world to remember to breathe, but we forget. How many times do we find ourselves holding our breath? One of the women in my fiddle group forgets to breathe every time she's learning a new song. I know whenever I'm faced with a sudden shock, I hold my breath. It's my first reaction. There's also the fight or flight reaction to distress which means our breath becomes faster and more shallow. That's why some people actually faint in those situations.
Yoga, practiced properly always includes a focus on the breath. Sometimes the teacher will instruct you when to inhale and when to exhale, other times they may simply tell you to "watch" your breath and to decide for yourself. "Watching," the breath, however, is always an important part of the practice. I begin all my classes and my personal practice by calling attention to the breath. "Watch the rise and fall, the in and out, the up and the down." Just by creating that simple awareness, the body and mind unite and calm. Taking it one step further, you can let your exhale be longer than your inhale. That has been shown to engage the parasympathetic nervous system: The part of the involuntary nervous system that serves to slow the heart rate, increase intestinal and glandular activity, and relax the sphincter muscles. Karin Johnson, yoga teacher extraordinaire at Rex Wellness in Cary took our inhale and exhale to another level at one of our recent classes. "What qualities can you take in on your inhale? What can you release on your exhale?" Ah, the gift of time deliberately spent moving and breathing.
What additional benefits come from breathing "properly" by taking deep belly breaths? Recently I learned that if we want to keep our internal organs healthy and perky, we should not be holding in our abdominals. For me, that seemed completely the opposite of what I'd learned over the years. I've always made an effort to contract my abdominals but I have now been instructed by my PT, Sarah Talley, to let my belly "blossom." It has been explained to me that by sucking in my gut, I'm pushing my internal organs down and constricting their ability to properly function. It makes sense but I must say letting my belly be soft is taking a very concentrated effort.
My intention for the year has been to "let go of struggle." I never dreamt, however, that would include letting my belly relax but that's what I'm being guided to do. In his book, Unattended Sorrow, Recovering from Loss and Reviving the Heart, Stephen Levine offers this advice,
As we soften the belly, letting go of trying to control the rise and fall of each breath but instead observing it as sensations come and go with each inhalation and exhalation, we begin to free level after level of holding. In the levels and levels of softening are levels and levels of letting go. Let old holdings begin to float in the new openness created by softening, as there arises a new willingness to heal, to go beyond our pain. As we begin to soften the belly, we unburden the body and mind of their automatic withdrawal from and walling-off of pain. As these burdens begin to lift, we find ourselves a bit lighter and the road ahead that much easier to travel; we’re a bit more able to continue on with our lives.
He goes on to suggest we make a conscious decision to soften the belly several times throughout the day and that many people who use this practice claim "a better day." Give it a try. Take a deep "dirgha" breath and let the belly expand and then slowly let it release. Not only will you be improving your day but your health. All those crunched up organs will thank you and you might just find that by softening your belly, you also soften your heart. There will be more room for healing and for love.