My belly has always been a central part of my life. In the beginning, this wasn’t because of the core support and physical axis a healthy middle can provide – quite the opposite in fact. When I came to yoga, I had many physical issues that centred around the gut; crippling IBS, emotionally-held and stress-related constipation (us nutritionists don’t mind talking about poo!) and a fractured and self-critical relationship with this area of my body. I had very little connection with my body neck-down and had been clumsy and uncoordinated through my childhood. With a busy head and traumatised body, I was ready to meet the stuff I’d buried deep ‘down there’ as going on as it was simply wasn’t an option.
In Ayurvedic medicine, agni is the fire that resides deep in the belly and provides the energy for absorbing essential nutrients and eliminating waste. With strong agni (from where we get the word ‘ignite’), we can digest and assimilate both our food and the experiences we meet in life. When it’s weakened, we feel both an internal physical toxic build-up (ama) and emotional accumulation such as resentment, anger, sadness, guilt, shame and fear.
Living with these damaging self-judgments flying around creates internally generated stress that interferes with digestive processes and the wheel keeps turning. We can feel locked into ‘head stuff’ that steals our energy and fragments us from our bodies.
Even if you don’t have digestive symptoms or feel overwhelmed by inner voices, we all live in a culture where we can tend to live up in our heads. Much of the popularity of yoga and other meditative arts is to counter our conditionings for analysis, evaluation, comparison and measurement. This thinking over feeling way of living can get (yet more) stuff done, but it often creates disconnection from our bodies and nature.
Many people turn to the physical side of yoga to simply ‘come back home’ to their bodies. Even if it’s not totally conscious, on some level, if we’re prepared to connect, we’re ready to release some of the blockages we can hold in our bellies. For me, this process was not easy, but it was always rewarding. Letting go of stuff we carry round can feel physically and emotionally intense, but it does clear the way to feeling lighter on many levels.
In Zen Buddhism, the energetic place just below the navel is referred to as the hara and associated with will or intent rather than just feeling, so where we act and move from. According to Peter Wilberg’s fascinating book Head, Heart and Hara, the hara is the source of our intuition, the “clear space within the ‘soul-belly’ that turns it into the intuitive ‘womb’ of our listening” and from where we move and act. In yoga we often talk about ‘listening and responding’ and here is where that originates. When we notice we’ve got up into the noisy soup in our heads, inhaling deeply and dropping down into the space of the hara can connect our back to our inner worlds – back towards connection with what we truly need and how to move with a free and easy energy flow.
“When you are sick, do not seek a cure. Find your centre and you will be healed.”
– ancient Daoist saying
In yoga, the lower, more physically based chakras represent the grounding that many stressed people ‘living up in their heads’ need to apply for nurture, support and kind attention. In Ayurveda, the yoga asanas recommended for both gut and emotional issues are often related to the second chakra under the navel (svadisthana – orange) – said to be the seat of emotion, where we can store feelings that have arisen from experiences and (along with the solar plexus area) feel physical ripples of the effects of stress and trauma.
This correlates with neuroscientific research into the enteric nervous system in the digestive tract, showing that ‘gut feelings’ are very real ways of how we gauge whether a situation or person is safe or unsafe. The more we can feel and are able to trust these, the happier and healthier our mind-bodies can become.
This practice is a great way to focus in to your centre at any time you need to move away from brain agitation or as to arrive into your body at the start of an asana practice. Connecting to your navel area first means that movement can then move from belly integrity, where we feel that our limbs move gracefully out from the hub, rather than independently flailing around without grace. Ultimately this can help us with mindful movement through life and trusting our gut intuition.
- This is best done lying down (with knees bent, feet hip-width apart) so your whole body is supported, but can also be done sitting if you need or prefer.
- Place your hands somewhere onto your belly where they feel relaxed and can allow your belly to move as you breathe.
- Simply let your breath settle; not needing to impose, change or expect anything from it. Simply observe how it is, right now.
- Let your breath show you how you are feeling within your belly; how the rise with the inhalation and fall with the exhalation can feel different in tone, heat, fluidity, ease, resistance, smoothness, stickiness with each breath. Simple observe with curiosity and fascination without judgement, analysis or comment.
- Breathe a sense of kindness and loving attention to your belly and feel this emanating from the sensory attention (even if imagined) of your hands placed there. Feel how your nervous system responds to this focus, care and soothing.
- Let the inhalation start to bring in a sense of gathering your entire self into your belly area, feeling this as the true centre of you and noticing if and when your brain might pipe up to try and steal the limelight. Use this focus to drop down from any distractions (thoughts, feelings) that may try to take you away.
- Notice how your body and brain can be soft and feel ease when you are connected to the flow of information within your belly and from here, move into your practice or your day.
Here are some free audio meditations from me that also bring a sense of embodiment and coming ‘back to whole’:
Come and experience feeling your belly deeply: