The best thing you can do for your belly is to make your abdominal muscles
rock-hard. Hold your breath in and “suck it up” all day.
Your physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being depends on your capacity to breathe fully and deeply. By making your abdominal muscles rigid, you restrict your breath. When you don’t give yourself room to breathe, you’re reducing your vitality. You’re cutting yourself off from life.
As a seasoned bodyworker, I’ve had the privilege of touching many women’s bellies. As my palms rest on a woman’s belly, my hands receive information through the texture and temperature of the skin, the muscles’ tone, the pulsing of blood, and the resiliency of the tissue in relation to the pattern of breath.
One day I worked with a young woman who, to all appearances, was trim, fit, and fashionably thin. Her belly was fashionably flat as well. When I gently laid one palm on her belly, what I felt was hard, cold, unmoving. Rigid, bitter, adamant refusal. This woman’s belly was as hard and flat as a prison wall. It was freezing her out of life, enforcing her isolation, giving her absolutely no room to breathe.
What would you wish for this woman, and for yourself? Which would you prefer: a hard, flat, immobile belly that cuts you off from life, or a nicely rounded, resilient belly that moves with the ebb and flow of the breath?
There’s nothing useful about making your belly rock-hard and restricting your breath. Your time on this planet is determined by the number of breaths you take. Your life is as satisfying as the quality — the depth and fullness — of your breathing.
You can tone your abdominal muscles without making them tight. And that’s a good thing to do. Strengthening these muscles means they can give all the more support to your spine and help relieve pain in an otherwise overworked lower back. Strengthening these muscles also increases their capacity to support your abdominal organs.
Strong muscles in your midsection stabilize your torso and make a sturdy foundation for the work all your other muscles are doing. Stabilizing your trunk equips you to move with more balance and flexibility; it can increase your endurance and help you avoid injury.
Attacking the abs takes its toll, though. Performing Pilates exercises incorrectly unbalances the body. Overdoing sit-ups and crunches leads to injury. The unpleasant effects include flattening the curve in the lower spine, which weakens the spine as a whole; rounding the middle spine and shoulders into a permanent hunch; and inflaming the discs between the spinal vertebrae, which makes sitting, bending over, and lifting extraordinarily painful.
One woman, for example, worked out intensively at the gym, doing sit-ups plus dozens of reps on the ab machines to flatten her belly. The result? Her back rounded into a prominent and disfiguring dowager’s hump.
Another woman reveals that she’s been “sucking her belly in” since she was ten. Yes, her belly is flat — and her muscles are habitually tense. What was she trying to accomplish? Her goal, she says, was to be “the supermodel version of ‘slim,’ meaning ultra-thin, no matter whether it was healthy or not. When I was very, very young, I read a romance novel that mentioned the heroine’s flat belly and the fact that she did not need a girdle. I grew up in the days when no self-respecting young girl or woman would dare leave the house without a girdle to squeeze her into shape. My body type is slender. But that poor, tortured, over-exercised belly was never flat enough for me, never. Did I ever see the ‘real’ me? Never. Only the role assigned by the media: flat belly. I don’t even remember what it was like not to pull those abs in tight. I did it in my sleep, even.”
What were the results? “A case of such incredibly tight abdominal muscles that they pulled my lumbar spine into permanent flexion [forward bending], flattening out my natural lumbar curve. A state of permanent tension. An absolute inability to feel my own life energy. I was (and still am) completely shut down internally. My belly feels like a rock most of the time.”
But there’s more: her success in flattening her abs may have contributed to pushing her uterus and bladder out of place. “These strong muscles did not keep my abdominal organs from prolapsing, and I have a very irritating leaky bladder. I have had two major abdominal surgeries, one a hysterectomy at the tender age of twenty-nine due to the severity of my prolapsed uterus, and another because of the adhesions and scar tissue resulting from that hysterectomy.”
2006 Self-Health Education