Preface: As I wrote this post, and in my reading of it, I can feel how my brow is furrowed and an eyebrow is cocked and I am little amped. Because I am. However, I understand how that can obscure a sense of safety and that is not my wish. I'm prone to get on a soapbox with many a cultural issue, and my training in alignment has only heightened the concern I feel around what is happening to women (in particular) and their bodies, something I had only previously felt at the intersection of media and appearances and psychological health. Now that I hold a broader understanding of the cost women are paying to "look good," I feel even more inclined to preach about it. So know that however preachy I sound, I come at this from a place of deep concern and, also, real compassion for all of us as we find our way to self love.
Key to survival is fitting in. It is such a deeply ingrained part of the human experience that I would be remiss to not mention it when I am about to encourage you to buck the tide. Of course, a big part of fitting in is actually looking the way you are supposed to look. For me, on my thin body, in my Western culture, it means I am supposed to have a flat belly. Preferably, a ripped belly. Four pack, six pack? Something a bit more toned than this:
And if I don't have it, I am naturally supposed to spend most of my time going after it.
People - let's just be a bit more honest, perhaps - women everywhere are making this happen ALL THE TIME. We're tucking our pelvises, creating arbitrary contractions in our abdominal muscles and mostly? Mostly, we're sucking in our guts. We're eating and sucking in. We're peeing and sucking in. We're birthing and sucking in. We're driving and sucking in. We're writing this blog and sucking in.
Let me let you in on a little secret: the tucked pelvis and sucking in and arbitrary contraction that got me this photo? They aren't good for me. They aren't good for you. In fact, it's really, really, really a problem.
From a mechanical perspective, there are few quick and dirty things to pull out:
1. Sucking in is not working on your musculature. Sucking is about changing the pressure in your abdominal cavity. It's creating a lot of upward pressure in a part of your body where a whole lotta fluid is trying to go down. You know, to supply blood, eliminate, reproduce. To change the pressure gradient and send it another direction is a move so far away from the natural order of things that it disrupts entire systems, like the digestive and reproductive ones.
2. The pelvic tucking that generally results from sucking is your worst enemy if you're trying to build a butt, avoid osteoarthritis of the spine and address your already hypertonic (too tight) pelvic floor. Sneeze pee, anyone? Uterine prolapse?
3. Speaking of hypertonicity, why do we need six packs? No really? Tell me. I used to think I needed one, too, but I am still not sure why I thought so. So much of the fitness paradigm by which we operate isn't actually dealing with health; it's dealing with appearances. We've been had. Your body needs just the right amount of force production to accomplish its natural movements. More than that gets in the way. Sure, most of us have a weak core and we need to address that (drop your ribs!), but we don't need to crush walnuts with our abs. In addition to carrying and lifting and squatting and chasing children and cooking, we mostly need them to walk.
I share these few mechanical issues because they might stick with you in the back of your mind and participate in a chipping away of what you think you need with what you actually need. But I am no fool. I've been at this for some time both practically and academically and still - STILL! - I need to bring such a level of mindfulness to stop forcing my body into something it actually isn't. Because, friends, this is what the shape of my belly, on a relatively empty stomach, looks like:
The second picture doesn't automatically demonstrate health more than the first, and in fact, while I'll never return to chronic sucking-in, I do see how changing my alignment has already improved my core strength and will continue to do so. But certainly, you score no points for sticking your belly out or for avoiding being trim and toned. It's that the first picture doesn't truly represent the state of my abdomen. It took me a lot of work to get it to look that way for the photo. A lot of work ≠ relaxed.
Every time I am with people I want to impress or around whom I feel anxious (is there a difference, I now wonder?), I have a little conversation with myself and it goes like this:
Ego: Suck it in.
Jen's More Evolved Self: Okay. I am sucking it in. That feels right. Oh wait, no, no, I'm letting it all hang out.
Ego: This is BS. Suck it in or people won't like you.
JMES: Let's review the alternative to sucking in: good digestion, a strong, supple core, reproductive health, avoidance of adult diapers.*
The body has deeply engrained patterns of tension. Your ego has so kindly created them and allowed them because it loves to be self-protective (and we could all give a little bow of thanks for its many years of dedicated service). Unfortunately, the ego ain't looking out for your health. Or maybe better said, it's understanding of health is really narrowly defined and has a lot to do with basic survival - both physical and psychological. So if sucking in your belly means that the herd won't kick you out or that you won't be crushed by psychological despair, sure, maybe you want to keep sucking it in. For now. Maybe you also want to find a new herd and a really good therapist. Actually, I'd suggest the good therapist before you switch herds. Then you can play around with a relaxed belly.
Which brings me to the real point: letting go of what you are supposed to be in order to be who you really are is to die a thousand small deaths. And that is why, understandably, we resist change.
*Truth be told, I wasn't really able to consistently overcome the dire need to have a flat belly until I met a yoga teacher who always let her belly hang out (thanks, Carrie!). It was so permission-giving that I've decided it's an act of service to allow other women, in particular, to see me confidently relax. Next time you see my belly hanging around, you'll now know I'm just paying it forward.