Friday, September 29, 2017

The Belly Is the Beast

My Body Is a Billboard

Lovely day today--it finally feels like fall. I decided to go to yoga class at a neighborhood studio where I've been going for years. The owner knows me by name. I like most of the teachers there very much. A couple over the years did not click with me so I just never went to their classes again. Today's class was to be taught by a teacher I did not know.

Twice during the class she came over to me to give me special instruction on what to do to not "compress the belly," "give myself space," what poses to skip and what to do instead. After the second time, when she told me that I am not supposed to lie flat on my belly, I said OK, then that I had to go to the bathroom, got up and grabbed my stuff, leaving my mat and props on the floor, and left the class.

I spoke to the woman at the front desk, explaining that I was leaving the class because the teacher had assumed that I was pregnant. I am not pregnant. Something about how I look makes people sometimes assume or wonder if I am pregnant--what could it be? Every time it happens is mortifying. I left the studio and sat down in the hallway to have a good cry before going out on to the street. Luckily I had my big sunglasses to wear as I walked home. When I got here, I knew today would be the day I finally finish this blog post that I started writing a long time ago.

The Belly Is the Beast

Imagine my delight when my younger son, around age 3, got on the bed next to me where I sat propped up, put his hand on my stomach, rubbed it a little, and said "Bushy belly!" My husband and older son thought this new nickname for my least favorite body part was hilarious. For a few years, the phrase was bandied about, with me always trying to react as little as possible, hoping my family would get bored of it. Eventually they did, plus I managed to trim a little of the belly fat that had inspired the moniker.

I have twice had the pleasure of attending a weekend workshop led by a yoga teacher I greatly admire, Schuyler Grant. The focus of the workshop is on stoking agni, or the fire associated with the manipura chakra, and considered to be the energetic force that propels our personal power. The workshop focuses on the use of practices such as uddiyana bandha, agni sara, and nauli to stimulate digestion, protect and support the spine, and enhance asana practice. Once when I was attending this workshop, I fell into casual conversation with a stranger at the Kripalu retreat center, who asked what I was there for that weekend. In trying to explain briefly what the workshop was about, I must have not been very clear, as the stranger seemed to think it was just about working the abs, and she said that she had noticed a lot of long-time yoga practitioners and teachers have what she considered flabby abs. She thought that they should spend more time tightening things up in that area. I was quite taken aback, as this statement would not apply to many yogis I know, and no one could EVER say such a thing about Schuyler. However, there certainly are long-time yoga practitioners and teachers with non-washboard abs. It just seems strange to zero in on the outward appearance of that part of the body as an indicator of a yoga teacher's worth. However, doing so is entirely within keeping with our society's obsession with flat stomachs and six-pack abs.

Another yoga teacher who has worked on these core issues a great deal is Bo Forbes; I was lucky enough to take a workshop with her called "Gut Wisdom," in which she discussed the gut as the second brain, and a lot more. One part of the workshop was on the microbiome of the gut, and how it differs from one person to another. Apparently, an infant's gut microbiome is determined by his/her mother in utero--firstborn children often have more gut issues in life than those born later, due to the mother often being more nervous or ill at ease for her first delivery. At another point in the workshop Bo mentioned that people who decide to be yoga teachers are usually the firstborn in their families. I thought at the time of two of my nephews, both of whom are the firstborn of their respective mothers, and who are both yoga teachers. That's when it hit me: I could be (I have since found out that I was) the firstborn of my biological mother. Strange that I never saw myself in that light before--I am the youngest of three in my adoptive family, and have usually attributed more meaning to nurture than nature in terms of my personality. I also realized that becoming a yoga teacher does not necessarily mean you just want to help people get into unusual physical positions; the real reason might be that you are searching for something yourself.

It took many months to recover from seeing my first yoga video of myself; I spent that time reiterating to myself that making videos of myself could help my practice, and that no one else ever had to see them. But while watching them, I could see nothing besides my belly, which seemed to spread across the whole screen and block out everything else. I tried to take heart from the many yoga practitioners and teachers on social media who promote healthy body image (hashtags such as #yogaisforeverybody, #realyogaselfie, #myrealyogabody, etc.), as well as the body positivity movement in general. Seeing these examples made me start to focus more on what could I do for others who might be suffering, rather than on my own belly roll. As I became more experienced in teaching, I stopped spending quite as much time thinking about my appearance, and more about helping my students. But it is still hard to catch sight of that midsection and stop myself from thinking negative thoughts--even the way I wrote the previous sentence makes it sound as if the body part does not belong to me--I would like to get rid of it, but then again that would be like erasing the mark of my children on my body.

What can be said or learned about the meaning of a fat belly? In her book Wheels of Life, Anodea Judith writes that excess fat could be a sign of first chakra imbalance: a feeling of not being grounded could lead to overeating to anchor one more firmly to the earth. The first chakra deals with our feeling of deserving to be here: Do I have the right to exist? As an adoptee, although I have not spent a great deal of time pondering this question consciously, there are certainly grounds (haha) to wonder if growing up not knowing my biological parents could affect my weight. And of course, one does not need to be adopted to have issues with mothers or parents in general. "Having a heavy body is a way of feeling heavy enough to be anchored in the world, wrapping oneself with the body of the mother and producing the comfort that was not supplied when it was necessary" (Eastern Body Western Mind, Anodea Judith). But overall, my eating is not disordered (although I'm terrible at dieting) and my weight is in a normal range; extra fat just seems to gravitate toward the belly, and all the core work in the world does not seem to change that.

The importance of a strong core in sports and indeed everyday life as a human--the "abdominal powerhouse" as it's called in Pilates--is well established. These core muscles are in fact key to our humanness in that they help us stand upright and walk on two legs. Alan Finger writes in Chakra Yoga, 
The concentration of heat in Manipura chakra developed as human beings evolved into bipeds and the curves of the spine emerged; these muscles had to be strong in order to lift and hold us upright to provide the refined heat needed to fuel our processes of higher thought.
Whether it's called manipura chakra, or hara, or chi--the energy that comes from this core is essential our healthy functioning in the world. The energetic feeds the physical, and vice versa. What are the psychological effects of having a strong physical core? If manipura is rajasic, the lumbar curve is "too pronounced. . . . This causes the heat of the body to radiate outward which goes hand in hand with overly aggressive and domineering behavior." If the chakra is tamasic, the lumbar curve is flattened, agni is dampened, "leading to introversion and depression" (again Alan Finger). So the balance we seek comes from balancing the core muscles in the front and back of the body, to bring the spine and pelvis into alignment. However, there is not necessarily a correlation between muscular fitness and body fat; it is possible to have super-strong core muscles and also a nice, comfy layer of fat on top of said muscles. Conversely, you could have very little belly fat and weak core muscles. Either way, the outward appearance indicates little, or can be downright misleading, in terms of an individual's fitness and health. A long time ago, I won a private yoga session in a raffle, and when I went, the teacher looked at me and told me we were going to work on my core the whole time because she couldn't "see what was going on there." Now, I don't have the world's strongest core, but I know from demonstrating navasana for students, for instance, that I'm stronger than a lot of people. It may not look like it, though, because of my nice poochy pouch.

Schuyler's workshop focuses on the core muscles used in yoga, and in life, that need to be strong in order to keep us healthy, pain-free and able to progress in our practice. The rectus abdominis, or "six-pack," muscles are the most superficial of the core muscles, and the least important when it comes to this work. But, being the most superficial, they are the most visible, and therefore the object of scrutiny. They are also overworked by many people, to the point of actually jeopardizing the health of the spine by constantly pulling the upper body into a crunch position. The kind of core work taught in most types of yoga classes is not about creating any sort of outward appearance of the abs, in keeping with yoga being an inwardly focused practice. If the muscles are moving us into correct alignment and supporting our overall health, how they look from the outside is--or should be--of no concern. The purpose of all this work with the body is to allow us to go further in. It's true we have to start somewhere, and in the west that usually means starting with the outer shell, annamaya kosha, working with asana, but that's just one way in. You could start with any of the other eight limbs of yoga besides asana, and get to the same place. 

Of course, if you are aiming to become a yogalebrity by publishing selfies online, then your abs and your outward appearance in general, including your outfits, will be highly scrutinized. However, for most of us, just working on a new pose you've never been able to do before, or smoothing out your surya namaskar, or better integrating your breath into your practice, and so on, all take precedence over how we look when we practice. As a teacher, I look at students' bodies to check their alignment, so appearance is an indispensable tool to try to understand what is happening inside. Teaching yoga has if anything increased my sympathy for others, and my admiration for students who get out there and do their practice no matter what their outward shape.

And yet, mirrors and photographs exist. I am as vain as anybody. I have given birth to two children, and ever since, I have had a poochy, pouchy belly. It seems ineradicable. Even when I work very hard to lose weight, the skin of my lower belly still looks as if I am wearing a vintage suede hobo bag. When I have put on a few pounds, all of them seem to congregate inside that hobo bag, forming a squishy cushion. Short of plastic surgery, I am always going to have this floppy, soft blob that starts a bit above the navel and goes down to my C-section scar. When I do shoulderstand, a roll of flesh hangs ominously over my face, like the sword of Damocles. Like many people, I dread seeing pictures of myself, or (worse) video. So instead of feeling bad about my neck like Nora Ephron, I feel bad about my belly. I am extremely self-conscious about how it looks, and judge every outfit on its belly-disguising properties. Ever since I had my babies, I have been subjected to many comments from acquaintances and strangers from which I can only infer that they think I am pregnant. Being 51 years old now, I suppose I should be flattered if anyone might think I am still young enough to GET pregnant. Unsurprisingly, though, I am not flattered. I am mortified. Of course, the societal pressures to have a flat belly are unrealistic for most normal human beings, and go along with all the severely messed-up issues surrounding body image in our culture. It doesn't help that I live in New York City, where there is an added pressure to be thin. What is a fairly normal body shape in the rest of the country is given the side-eye here. There seems to be a general ignorance or amnesia about how the human body functions. I was in the hospital one day after having my first baby (via C-section) when a visiting friend expressed surprise that my belly had not yet snapped back to its pre-pregnancy shape. This is ONE DAY after my body had been delivered of a healthy, 10 lb. 5 oz. baby boy. The expectations are completely unrealistic, yet common.

Then years later, I decided to train to become a yoga teacher, and opened myself up to another set of expectations, and more side-eye when mentioning in conversation that I'm teaching yoga. For yoga teachers, appearance plays more of a role than for the average yoga practitioner, because students often look to their teacher for inspiration. There are many ways to inspire, but surely having an exemplary physique helps attract students in the first place and keeps them coming to class. The trick is to transform any aspirations a student might have to look a certain way into dedication to a path of inner growth and learning. I know for myself it took many years of rather casually practicing asana for it to dawn on me that there was any deeper meaning to yoga. So maybe it is necessary to engage new students on the level of appearance, and how asana practice can give you a "yoga body," as I have often heard in teacher trainings that we should try to, "meet students where they are." At the same time, having a teacher with less than Yoga Journal cover-ready looks could make some students feel more at ease with a teacher, to feel like they can "do yoga" without having a certain body type.

My experience in the yoga class when the teacher thought I was pregnant has a lot to teach me as a teacher. I know that the teacher acted as she did out of caring, and out of wanting to do her job well. She was not teaching on autopilot. She was trying to be in tune with the students in the room, and she was constantly going around the room from student to student to check on how we were doing. She was working hard and something still went wrong. What should we as teachers do if a student appears to have a physical condition/problem/issue, but does not indicate anything to us explicitly? I know as a teacher that it gets a little boring to ask at the beginning of each class if anyone has any injuries, etc., but now I am renewed in my belief that we should do it every single class, even if we already know everyone in the class, because things change and something new might have come up for someone. 

What if class has already started and then you notice that a student appears to be pregnant, or is maybe having a problem doing poses because of some issue, physical or otherwise? I would try to go talk to them very quietly to check in--but how do you ask someone, "Are you pregnant?" I don't know how I would handle the situation if the person said no. The embarrassment (haha I typed "embarfassment") for both of us in a group setting would make continuing the class very difficult. I've continued classes after seeing a mouse run out the door of the studio, so I can handle some stuff, but that one might do me in.

When there is something going on in a class that I want to address, but don't want to single anyone out, I'll say something general, like "It is your choice if you don't want to do a full vinyasa here," or suggest a modification such as knees down, cow/cat, instead of going all the way on to the belly for cobra. Perhaps the teacher today could have suggested that to the whole class as an option, instead of singling me out; or, she could have trusted me to treat my body properly without being told. If I really had been pregnant, would I truly need someone to tell me not to lie down on my belly? I remember in YTT learning all about how to teach pregnant women to modify poses, and avoid some poses completely, but I don't think we ever talked about what to do if you think someone may be pregnant but you're not sure.

I've had women come to my classes that have rather generous bellies, but I have never thought they were pregnant, because their bellies LOOK LIKE MINE. Soft, mushy, amorphous--not like a baby belly, which is firm, shapely, part of the woman but also somehow mysteriously apart. I had the thought recently that when we wax poetic about the "miracle of life" when a mother gives birth, and people say things like, "Isn't it  amazing what the human body is capable of," we are really showing how divorced we are from nature, that something that happens constantly, everywhere around us, namely reproduction, strikes us as so wondrous and miraculous. We are just animals after all. Our fear of the dead body, and our confusion over whether a belly is pregnant or just permanently post-baby, are other examples of this disconnect, or amnesia.

Carrie Owerko wrote a blog post about outward appearances that contained the following quotation from Jakusho Kwong: "We practice in order to let go of that which limits the expression of our innermost authentic selves." Is my focus on this body part, and my dissatisfaction with it, limiting my self-expression? Yes, and more, it is holding me back from full enjoyment of life and from full embodiment of my most authentic self. So, my belly. What do I do about it? Frankly, I'd love to get rid of it, to have those nice flat abs of my youth. Am I strong enough to, not just keep it, but to step into it fully, to stop trying to hide it under loose tops, to literally let it all hang out, to use it as a billboard to say, Look! Women's bodies can look like this and it's OK! I am not pregnant, but I was, twice, and those two pregnancies, and the children who came from them, made me who I am. Why should I be made to pay through all these mortifications over the years for the fact that I had children and did not bounce back to my previous shape, like I was made of rubber? Can I stop being ashamed? I want to, so badly, but there's another little voice inside my head that's telling me to just lose some weight. Is that voice also part of the "full expression of my authentic self" or is it something from which I need to free myself? If so, how? I would so love to be able to find out, and in turn help others become more free.