I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship I have with my belly, and the relationship our culture has with this area of our bodies that has led me into what has often been a tumultuous relationship with this crucial part of my anatomy. Now I’ll go ahead say before you get annoyed at me that I am not saying that I am fat. You could really apply much of what I am about to say to whatever body part bothers you the most. For many women it is the thighs, others the butt. Though I don’t think it is quite as emotionally aggressive, men definitely suffer from this mental condition as well.
Our Western culture has ingrained in us that the state and appearance of our body parts has a direct correlation to our value or worth to others. You don’t need me to tell you how; we all know exactly the messages and images that foster this. So I would rather focus on sharing with you the journey I have been on recently to no longer suffer from this illusion, this invisible bully, this abusive apparition that has been holding my attention since the dreaded pool parties of middle school. If you’ve ever seen me you would say “What the hell are you talking about, your stomach looks fine!” and you would be right, but I would probably say the same thing about your particular bothersome body part. So we aren’t really talking about actual problems — though some are — we are talking about the psychological condition we have allowed to take root within us that causes us to see these bodies of ours as pests that are holding us back.
I can gain weight and my legs and thighs will stay trim and strong, a rare thing for a woman. The weight will always run straight to my belly as if there’s a neon blinking sign. Get a group of women together and they’ll be more than happy to crack open a bottle of wine and each describe in detail exactly where they gain weight and how. Expressing this somehow frees us, if for only a moment. Because of this particular way my body carries weight, and growing up in Florida with many bikini moments, I developed a resentful relationship with my stomach. Recently I became fed up with it, and am just plain sick of playing this game any more. Thanks to my yoga practice and the clarity meditation can bring, I found myself truly desiring to be more trim because I felt better, because I knew I deserved to have as much energy as I could, and because when I am at home in my skin I can be at home in any situation. I saw how I was bullying myself and it made me incredibly sad that I had wasted so much time. In the case of the belly, I had been systematically putting down a part of my body that is literally and symbolically the center of my being.
I decided that if we understood more clearly the power of our bellies then it would make it much harder to put them down. In many cultures the belly is honored as the center of our spiritual and physical power. Your belly is home to 60-70% of your immune system, and is where your enteric nervous system resides. The belly is referred by scientists and doctors alike as your second brain. The two largest areas of nerves are located in the brain and gut. The complexity of what happens from your sternum to your hips is astounding. When the stomach is upset we all know that everything in life stops and we have to tend to that problem right away because its happiness is paramount to our ability to function in this world. Science tells us that psychological stress has a direct impact on the digestive system, a relationship I find very telling. When we are mentally unbalanced one of the first places this physically manifests is your gut. The health of the digestive system is directly related to our daily sense of well-being.
The Japanese word for belly is “hara” and is used as a term to describe someone’s character. A “person with belly” is a person who is “calm, centered, warm-hearted, and wise.” Developing your hara is synonymous with developing your maturity and integrity. Other Japanese phrases include “Belly art,” for example, which refers to any activity that a person accomplishes with perfection and effortlessly. “A grand belly” refers to a person who is open-minded, understanding, compassionate, and generous and “a clean belly” refers to a person who has a clear conscience. To “determine your belly” means to clearly define your intention and to “beat the belly drum” means to lead a contented life. In the West we refer to a “gut feeling” and tell each other to “trust your gut”. A “gutsy” person is brave and adventurous.
The belly is located at the third chakra, or Manipura in Sanskrit. The third chakra is said to resonate self respect, the source of our self esteem and self concept and its color is a radiant bright yellow. We sub-consciously and quite literally draw our sense of self from this space; an overweight belly does not cause lack of self esteem because of its appearance, it causes a lack of self esteem because your body knows it is not at its best foundationally. The appearance of a belly is based entirely on your individual perception, for instance an anorexic person looks in the mirror and see someone who is fat. When we talk about your core being the birthplace of your self esteem, it is because your gut is intimately related to your emotional health, and not based on your biased personal definition of beauty.
As you can see, the 12 square inches of skin across your abdomen is so much more than a collection of organs, it is the central command for your soul. The brain collects and produces data, the belly experiences that data and interprets it into the physical experience you are having. If we want to know ourselves, if we want to meet our souls then let’s start at its home. I’d like to suggest that you join me in writing a letter to that part of your body you’ve been abusing, because we all have one. Decide that you will no longer be at war with any part of yourself, treating it as a separate entity from you that you have been forced to put up with. You cannot be separated into parts physically, so decide that you will stop doing it mentally. Choose to accept your body as a whole, all or nothing.
War is a mindset, and you can’t be a little bit at war. So if you are battling with any small part of yourself then you are in a battle with your whole self. Raise the white flag, recognize the divine intelligence that exists in these parts of ours, and declare that this body is now a place of peace from this day forward. Believe that every inch of you looks exactly as it does for a reason, which is a reason much bigger than your DNA. You are a brush stroke on the masterpiece of humanity. To criticize the unique curve, color, length, depth and angles of you would be a sin. Remember that this skin, this breath, this form of yours, is your only true home. The address of your body travels with you every second of your life; this shape is the beginning and end of your experience here. Invoke its wisdom, trade loathing for loving, and begin today to inhabit every inch of your skin just as it inhabits every moment of your life.
A meditation you can try at home:
Lie back with hands on your belly. Feel it rise and fall and don’t think about breathing, notice how breathing doesn’t need you, as it happens gracefully and independently of your thoughts. Think of your belly as the third eye of the rest of your body and bring your inward gaze there. We are in the habit of holding in our stomachs striving for a feeling of tightness. An interesting aspect of yogic breathing is that it asks you to do the opposite. Encourage a softness, let it stick out. When we expand the belly, the diaphragm drops down releasing pressure from the bottom of the lungs allowing you to take a full breath with all of the capacity you were given. We are always striving for tightness, but we are mistaking tightness for strength. Strength can often not be seen, it is not always flexing and putting on a show, as strength can also look like vulnerability. For many, sticking out your belly as far as you can is a vulnerable moment. But lay it all out right here on the mat, be soft, breath full, and sense the greater intelligence of your body. Ask it “How can I love you better?” Ask yourself “How would my life be different if I treated my belly with love and respect?”
– By Roni Sloman
Dedicated to my beautiful mother Toni Sloman
*Resources include www.nourishingourradiance.com and www.honoringyourbelly.com