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The Treasure Inside You
Finding Treasure
How I Learned to Love My Belly
How This Book Is Organized
How to Use This Book
What's in This for You?

The Treasure Inside You

This book is and isn't about your belly. It's about the life-giving, life-saving, life-affirming power that already dwells within your body's center — within your belly. This magnificent power is the source of everything I imagine you desire in life: good health, high energy, great sex, unflappable confidence, loving relationships, infinite creativity, meaningful work, unfailing intuition, and an unshakable sense of purpose.

The power focused within your body's center is akin to the Power of Being that creates, sustains, and renews the world. It's the power that, through your body, gives birth to children, generating life itself. It is procreative power in a larger sense as well. It is pro-creative, the power to promote creation in any dimension you choose, according to your intention.

This pro-creative life force is your connection to Source Energy. It's your soul in action, your soul power. Where do you rendezvous with this power? In your body's center, within your belly. Whatever your belly's shape or size, this soul power is the priceless treasure inside. In essence, it's who you are.

Finding Treasure

Imagine you found a bowl. Maybe you unearthed it when you were digging in the garden. Maybe it's something that caught your eye as you skimmed through a yard sale. However it came to you, this bowl is not necessarily a pretty sight. Its lid is stuck on tight — you can't even open it. It may be scarred or tarnished. It certainly isn't fashionable or stylish. What will people say if you put it on display?

You put the bowl away, in a dark corner of a closet. You're relieved to hide it and forget about it.

Years pass. Then comes the day you're ready to move to a new place. You ask a friend to help you pack. Out of the chaos of cartons, your friend comes to you holding something in her hands. It's the bowl you stowed away all those years ago.

Your friend tells you something surprising. Given what she's learned about antiques, and maybe even archeology, she knows that this bowl is very valuable indeed. What's more, there's something inside. When she holds it up to your ear and gives it a gentle shake, you can hear something rattle.

How will you determine the bowl's true value? Are you going to open it and find out what's inside?

Your friend keeps you company as you consider your options. She tells you what she believes the bowl is worth and how to safely open its lid, if that's what you want to do.

Together with this book, I am that friend. This bowl that you may have forgotten, that you may have hidden with some degree of shame, is your belly. Now, holding this book in your hands, you're on the verge of rediscovering the bowl, your belly, and the priceless something — the treasure — inside.

How I Learned to Love My Belly

This book originated with my own need for healing. I've field-tested all the exercises for deepening awareness and the belly-energizing moves you'll find here. I've needed to — they saved my life.

When I was fourteen, my well-meaning mother presented me with a girdle, something to trim my tummy and slim my thighs so I could wear the straight skirts that were fashionable then. An artifact of the early sixties, this item was the Gestapo of girdles. It was so stiff that, when I held it between my hands and tried to pull, it wouldn't give an inch. When I packed myself into it, a diamond-shaped reinforcement panel clamped itself over my tummy, and rectangular reinforcement strips patrolled the outside of each thigh.

The three or four times that I wore this contraption, stuffing my curvaceous belly into this prison for wayward flesh, I could barely breathe. I felt like I was suffocating — the thing was killing me. So I hid it in the back of my bottom drawer and never wore it again.

But the girdle had already delivered an elaborate message: Your comfort doesn't matter, whether you can breathe doesn't matter, whether you can live fully and freely doesn't matter. What's important is that you look good. If your belly is too big, if it doesn't fit in, you have to hide it, crush it. Your belly shouldn't be seen — it's embarrassing, shameful, wrong. You're a misfit by nature: there's just too much of you. You have to hold yourself in; you don't deserve room to breathe. Don't take up too much space. What's important is that you fit into the very narrow definition of what's acceptable. Left to be yourself, unconstricted, unrestrained, you'll stick out, bulge out, be totally inappropriate.

A few years later, when I was seventeen, I appointed the stick-figured fashion model Twiggy as my ideal of womanhood, my Goddess of Thin. I started dieting. I ate nothing but cottage cheese and drank only water for weeks at a time.

At first, dieting gave me a welcome sense of control. I'd finally found a way to assert my will. When I was dieting I could say, "No, this will not go in my mouth." That sense of control came at a cost, though. In order to restrict my intake of food, I had to override the sensations arising in my belly — not only hunger but also anger, fear, grief, desire, pleasure, and joy.

Dieting delivered this message: You don't deserve nourishment. Food is bad, wrong, dangerous. Your appetites are by definition dangerous. Don't notice what's happening in your belly; those sensations are dangerous and should be ignored. Erase sensation. Empty yourself out. If you feel empty and hollow in your belly, you're doing something right.

My body naturally reacted to such deprivation with an uncontrollable craving for food. Weeks of dieting alternated with weeks of binge eating. If I ate one cookie, I'd eat the whole bag.

During the years that followed, I tried one kind of diet after another. The scope of my life narrowed to what I could and couldn't eat, my weight, my shape, what size pants I could squeeze into. I was always on edge, always policing myself.

By the time I was twenty-four, I knew I was losing the war I'd been waging against my belly. It was becoming obvious that I would never find lasting happiness either in consuming another bag of cookies or in squeezing myself into size 7 jeans.

Mercifully, I remembered a yoga demonstration I had witnessed as a teenager. Not knowing how else to help myself, I began taking classes in Kripalu yoga — kripalu meaning "compassion" in Sanskrit, the traditional language of yoga. Practicing yoga nurtured my body, eased my mind, and attended to my spirit in ways that food couldn't do. I began to live beyond obsession with my weight and shape.

Falling in love with yoga, I trained as a yoga instructor in 1979 and later as a yoga therapist. As part of my continuing training, I learned movement and breathing exercises derived from a Japanese style of yoga developed by Masahiro Oki. This approach to yoga focused on developing hara — the Japanese word for the belly as the body's physical and spiritual center, the source of our spiritual power.

The belly as the source of our spiritual power? Who knew? Here was a totally new take on the belly.

As I continued to practice yoga, my eating behavior evened out quite a bit. I'd still go through periods of bingeing, though, when my emotions threatened to overwhelm me. My eating was nowhere near as frantic as it had been in the past, but there were still times when I felt hopeless. Would this pattern ever change?

One night, I woke up from a sound sleep when, apparently, someone turned the light on in my room. Brilliant light filled the space — but, as I quickly learned, my bedside lamp was off. I don't ordinarily receive visits from the supernatural. In fact, although I keep an open mind, I'm relatively skeptical about paranormal happenings. But I knew that I was dealing with something here, and that I had better sit up and pay attention. I heard a message; a transmission came to me from this blazing light, not so much in words but as knowledge directly conveyed. The message was "Clean up your act with food, or you're going to die."

I noted this instruction, lay back down, and returned to sleep. In the days that followed, I didn't dismiss the message I'd received — it would have been hard to ignore such a wake-up call. But I didn't know what to do with it. I can't say my behavior changed in any way.

About two weeks later, again a bright, blazing light woke me from a sound sleep. Sitting up, I listened for a message. I didn't hear words this time. Instead, I sensed a gesture — the kind of gesture a person makes when she's standing in front of you with her arms crossed over her chest, weight on one foot, tapping the toes of the other foot against the floor. The kind of gesture that says, "Well, we're waiting. We haven't forgotten you. We're watching to see whether you'll ante up." I understood that they (whoever they were) were waiting to see whether I'd do something with myself, rise to the challenge, take charge.

Again, I took this event at face value, lay back down, and returned to sleep.

Not long afterward, I picked up a book I'd been avoiding for a while, Susan Kano's Making Peace with Food. The author herself had struggled with the self-starving eating disorder called anorexia. Without mincing words, she pointed out the futile self-absorption of my situation. I heard her saying to me, "How much time and attention are you devoting to worrying about your weight and shape? Why don't you devote that energy and attention to your life purpose instead?"

My life purpose? My life has a purpose? Until that moment I hadn't considered that my life had a purpose other than to avoid punishment and please the authorities in their external and internalized forms — my parents, my older sister, my employer, my supervisors. The notion that I had a life purpose was so exhilarating that I didn't care whether I ever found my purpose. It was enough to know that, by birthright, I had one.

Within days, though, a purpose did reveal itself — bright, shining, and clear: I resolved to practice the hara-strengthening exercises I was learning on a regular basis. With regular practice, I began to experience the benefits of developing hara that I craved — such as more confidence, creativity, energy, and sense of connection. (See chapter 4 for more on the experience of hara.)

After a few weeks of the practice, though, I started feeling a certain nameless dread. So I stopped for a few weeks. Then I took the practice up again for a few weeks. I continued like this, starting the practice and then stopping again. I was running up to the edge of the ocean, sticking a toe in, getting scared, running back to dry land. What was wrong with me?

Energizing my belly was stirring up more than nameless dread, though. One morning, in a room full of seasoned and sober yoga practitioners who, like me, were engaging in this hara-strengthening practice, I began to giggle. And I giggled and laughed for half an hour or more, for no reason at all. I began to suspect that whatever feelings were lurking in my belly, they might not all be dreadful. Those feelings hidden deep down in my belly might also include joy.

In 1988, I fully committed myself to the study and practice of hara. I made it my purpose to plunge — full-body, full-being — right into the ocean I had been skirting. In the context of this intention, my previous stop-and-start pattern of practicing the belly-energizing exercises was no longer a personal failing. Instead, it became something interesting to investigate. And the nameless dread became nothing more than a clue that something significant was going on under the surface.

I also set my intention to make practical information on developing hara, a relatively obscure subject, available in contemporary terms. I resolved to share the good news about our bellies' splendid treasure with a wide audience of women.

And here we are.

Over the years, I've developed a hara-strengthening practice that draws not only on yoga but also on movement traditions such as qigong and tai chi. The sequence of twenty-three belly-energizing exercises begins with warm-up stretches that prepare the body for the vigorous moves that follow. The sequence concludes with other stretches for focusing and balancing body and mind. I've been teaching this practice for more than fifteen years, sharing the related insights and skills with hundreds, if not thousands, of women.

Practicing this sequence, along with the exercises for deepening awareness presented throughout this book, I entered into a whole new experience of my body's center. I no longer felt compelled to stuff or starve myself. The eating disorder gradually diminished and disappeared.

Although the initial version of this practice included twenty-three moves, I've created a short form for your convenience in using this book. I've selected seven moves from the original practice and present them here as The Gutsy Women's Workout. Even with this abbreviated sequence — you can easily practice it in five to seven minutes — you'll be reaping the benefits of honoring and energizing your belly.

During my decades of bingeing and dieting, I gained and lost twenty pounds several times each year — at least two thousand pounds in total. I'm sure this repeated weight gain and loss took a physical toll. But even more destructive, my obsession with banishing my belly was dissipating my spirit and unraveling my soul. Discovering my belly as the site of my soul power, my connection to Source Energy, essentially saved my life.

Sharing this process of discovery with you is my greatest joy.

How This Book Is Organized

This book enables you to cultivate the deep wisdom and creative power concentrated in your body's core.

What's the plan? First, you'll learn five core principles and practices central to reclaiming your pro-creative power. Next, you'll identify the cultural misconceptions that shame women's bellies, preparing you to revalue your belly on your own terms.

You'll also discover that Western culture originally revered the pro-creative power centered in a woman's belly. If in this twenty-first century we choose to honor rather than shame our bellies, we're actually reviving a respectable tradition.

You'll then meet and greet your belly in terms of the many ways it serves you. Taking a tour of the interior, you'll get an insider's view of your belly's physical, emotional, and energetic landscape. You may well discover that your belly is your best friend for your health and happiness in every dimension — that it's literally central to your well-being.

The pro-creative power concentrated in your belly is your soul power, shining through your life as the qualities of vitality, pleasure, confidence, compassion, creativity, intuition, and sense of purpose. Attending to these seven soul qualities in turn, you'll learn specific ways to enhance each one in your life — with opportunities for reflection, journal writing, and art making as well as with belly-energizing breathing and movement exercises. (If you're familiar with yoga, you'll recognize that these seven qualities correspond to the capacities developed through the seven major chakras — spinning wheels of vital energy aligned along your body's vertical axis.)

You'll also find images of seven aspects of your pro-creative power — your powers of cycling, holding space, nourishing, regenerating, expressing, connecting, and being present.

Chapter 13 provides a guide for designing your own belly-energizing practice and incorporating The Gutsy Women's Workout into your life. In this way, the workout becomes a comprehensive exercise in self-respect that empowers you in body, mind, and spirit.

How does our belly-centered soul power relate to the world at large? I'll invite you to consider that humankind's success in surviving on this planet depends on the wise application of our pro-creative power.

Throughout these pages you'll find women's words about their own experiences, reports on the process of becoming belly-proud. These words come from women who have participated in my workshops or who have written to me in response to magazine articles or postings on my website. Consider their voices to be your personal chorus of support.

How to Use This Book

I suggest you start this book by reading through chapter 1 and becoming familiar with the five core practices: Giving Yourself Room to Breathe, Locating Your Center, Centering the Breath, Naming Your Feelings, and Setting Your Intention. These practices will serve you well as you work with the material in the rest of the book. Having them under your belt, so to speak, equips you to get the most out of the text that follows. Bookmark the pages so you can come back and refer to them at your convenience.

That done, let your intuition — your body knowledge — lead the way. You might, for example, first want to skim the book all the way to the end and get a quick overview, and then start again at the beginning and proceed through the chapters as they're ordered. Or you might want to jump right to chapter 5 and start learning the belly-energizing moves.

I'll say this now and repeat it in chapter 5: As with any other exercise program, before embarking on The Gutsy Women's Workout, check with your health care provider to ensure that the belly-energizing exercises are appropriate for you. Ask your health care provider (and also a seasoned movement instructor) to help you adapt the moves as necessary to accommodate your particular conditions and capacities.

If you're pregnant, be sure to discuss the suitability of The Gutsy Women's Workout for you with your health care provider and childbirth educator. Several of the exercises and some of the breathing patterns include contracting the abdomen. Depending on the stage of your pregnancy, you might want to save the workout for the time after childbirth. But you can still make good use of the Perineal Squeeze in chapter 3 and the gentle breathing patterns offered throughout the book.

If you're not interested in developing a movement practice at this point, that's fine. You might browse through the cultural exposé in chapter 2 and take the belly tour as you read chapter 3. Then you may find yourself curious about some of the breathing patterns in part 2. Several of the exercises for deepening awareness in that part of the book may appeal to you as well.

I've sequenced the awareness and breathing exercises and the belly-energizing movement patterns in order of increasing complexity. If you do pick and choose among them, be sure to observe the guidelines that will enhance your comfort and pleasure as you experiment with them.

Be aware that the awareness exercises — playful ways to begin loving your belly — can also be provocative. They aren't substitutes for professional medical or psychotherapeutic attention. If you become emotionally or physically distressed while doing any of these activities, stop and consult with your health care provider to address your individual needs.

What's in This for You?

This book is your invitation to reshape the way you think about, experience, and value your body, your belly, and yourself. You'll discover practical skills for developing the pro-creative power you shelter within your body's center. You'll learn how to direct this power as you choose — for your personal healing as well as for the well-being of your family, your community, and the world.

At this very moment, you're part of a globally expanding circle of women who share this belly-celebrating adventure with you.

2006 Self-Health Education

 

 

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