by AnnMerle Feldman
I arrived at Kripalu last August, my too-large belly tucked and belted firmly into my high-waisted stretch jeans, wondering what the Yoga Tune Up Core Integration Immersion, one of the foundational YTU immersion trainings, could do for this “unsightly bulge.”
I have been ashamed of my belly my whole life. I sucked it in. I did crunches. One time I ate grapefruits for 3 days and another time I ate hard-boiled eggs for three days. I exercised and exercised and exercised some more. I punished my belly for being inadequate. I distanced this part of my body and considered it broken, irreparably broken.
And, as I learned more about nutrition, I came to understand that my “jelly belly,” as my kids lovingly called it, was the result of metabolic and hormonal disarray. My unalterable apple-shaped midsection resulted from my slow thyroid, my near-constant high stress life-style, and, perhaps insulin resistance, which turned me into a fat-storing machine. But there was much more to learn.
My Belly Was A Body Blind Spot
Even with this relatively new awareness of my belly, it was still, for me, what Jill Miller calls a body blind spot. My belly was a source of inappropriate attention. I fussed about my belly. I looked for quick fixes. I clicked on every Internet sidebar that offered 5 foods not to eat.
What I was not doing, even after all this time, was connecting to my belly in a way that could help me design “a new normal” – a way of understanding how my belly was not a separate and numbed-out body part, but was instead an integrated piece of my whole being, both body and soul.
Permission To Feel
Elizabeth Wipff, our lead immersion teacher, spoke eloquently and passionately about her own journey – her own path and how she found and embraced Yoga Tune Up. She is a competitive weightlifter with an exceptionally stretchy body (thus, her website address is www.strongandbendy.com). She told us that first evening that the core is not good and not bad; it’s not your stomach and it’s not your abs. This definitely got my attention.
At its most basic level, according to Yoga Tune Up, the core is anything that mobilizes and stabilizes the spine. This made me curious.
She went on to say that we are the sum of our parts in a positive and holistic way. Opening up to the core is nothing less than who we are, what our identity is, and what each of us brings to the world. Now I was getting butterflies in my stomach, which I was soon to learn was part of the immersion! To sum it up, Nancy wrote on our wall-mounted notes, “#permission to feel.” I wondered if I could give myself that permission.
My Belly Has a Brain…Who Knew?
What do I perceive my core to be? I had been thinking of my belly as an isolated mistake in my otherwise acceptable body. But now, Elizabeth was asking me to connect with this area in a new way, experientially, with feeling, from inside out. What would it mean to connect to my belly in an embodied way?
The enteric nervous system supervises digestion, taking food from the esophagus through the system to the colon and, the fascinating thing is, it does this with a set of tools that look very much like the neurology of the big brain – the one that lives inside our skulls. I didn’t know, for instance, that 95 percent of the body’s serotonin lives in the gut. This essential neurotransmitter creates feelings of well-being, but it also gets things moving in our intestines.
A lot of attention has been paid recently to the microbiome or ecosystem that is our gut. There’s much we don’t know. For instance, if I become constipated and my gut is struggling to process food, does my brain get information about what’s happening? Or, are there signals coming from my brain to my belly that created a situation in which I became constipated? While the burgeoning field of neurogastroenterology is just beginning to explore how the belly’s second brain operates, scientists are sure that these hundreds of million of neurons connecting the brain to the belly play a much larger role than being a traffic cop for digestion.
All this belly talk provided food for the brain in my head as we rolled and breathed on the Coregeous ball in ways that I had never imagined. Up, down, and all around we rolled and we breathed.
At one point, Elizabeth reminded us of a research study cited in Jill Miller’s book, The Roll Model: A Step-by-Step Guide to Erase Pain, Improve Mobility, and Live Better in Your Body. Researcher Lisa Hodge, in a study published in the International Journal of Osteopathic Medicine (15, no.1, 2012:13-21) reported that a group of rats infected with lung cancer received rhythmic abdominal massage and that group’s tumors decreased and contracted less pneumonia.
What, then, could rolling on the Coregeous ball do for our immune systems? We know that our lymphatic system – which is a type of connective tissue – stores cells that boost our immune system. Can rolling on the ball unleash healing lymph into our bloodstream? It just might, along with mobilizations such as inversions or abdominal contractions.
Honor the Curve of Your Spine
Since my very first days practicing yoga, I had appreciated the notion of awareness through various meditative practices involving the breath. I was getting better at sitting or lying down and focusing on the in and out of my breath. But the core immersion took me to a new and unexpected place. I don’t believe that before the Core Immersion, I had actually been aware of my spine. I knew in general that the core was not one thing, but many things, I knew, intellectually at least, that it was composed of the entire midrange set of muscles that surrounded my core like a cumber bund: the rectus abdominis, of course, but also, the transverse abdominis, and the internal and external obliques. But my spine, awareness of my spine? That was something I had never, ever contemplated.
I somehow thought that this circular band of muscles woven through and hydrated by our precious fascia was all that was necessary to support the spine.
After each series of breath-filled movement, we lay on our backs and “checked–in.” Encouraged to notice my spine, I now felt the lumber curve as more curvy and more alive. My thoracic spine, surrounded by my upper back, spread deliciously onto the mat with more assurance and my cervical spine, or neck region seemed more relaxed. And my lower, front ribs seemed to relax down as well.
The Most Coregeous Abdominal Muscle of All
Each day of the immersion began with an exploratory class that surprised and delighted. We found our innermost abdominals by resting our bellies on the Coregeous ball. But we also used The Roll Model Therapy Balls to release intercostal tension and to mobilize rib joints, which would improve our breathing mechanics. We did leg lifts on blocks with arms outstretched to lengthen, strengthen, and connect our breath with the central chassis of the spine. Throughout all of this 360-degree movement that both lengthened and strengthened, I learned that the diaphragm was the body’s MVP.
Perhaps my biggest “a-hah!” moment in the core immersion was that I could use my breath as a mobility tool. Certainly muscles stabilized the spine. I knew that, at least at some basic level, when I entered the immersion. But leaving the immersion with this new, very big idea about the breath and the function of the diaphragm was really a game changer for me personally and for how I design my Yoga Tune Up classes.
We laid on the floor – all of us on our bellies – looking down at an illustration of the diaphragm in our well-worn anatomy book, the Trail Guide to the Body and then we looked up at the much used skeleton, draped with multi-colored elasta-bands. We could see, now, how stabilizing the core happened from the inside, specifically inside the ribs, with the movement of the diaphragm.
The diaphragm was not simply a mechanism designed for breathing. But I didn’t really understand the impact of the sweater of connective tissue that envelops all of our muscles, ligaments, and tendons called fascia. The fascial connections between the diaphragm, the pelvic floor, and the entire rest of the body create a functional unity in our bodies. Our fascia, as Jill Miller defines it, is “the ubiquitous seam system in your body that threads your tissues to one or another” (The Roll Model).
Fascial tissue offers a “highway” that connects structures, protects and repairs tissue damage, and relays information to your brain through a process called proprioception (p. 98, The Roll Model). With greater fascial fluidity comes greater proprioception – your ability to identify where you are in space. And, with greater proprioception your perception of pain decreases.
The experience of watching my breath, studying the illustrated diaphragm in the Trail Guide, and seeing a folded Coregeous ball held inside the skeleton’s ribs with colored ribbons of stretchy rubber created a “new normal” for me.. The diaphragm, attached to the six lowest ribs and the upper two or three lumbar vertebrae, and also attached to the xiphoid process on the sternum, now looks like the control center – the place behind the curtain where the Wizard of Oz worked his magic.
Finally, my too-large belly was not the point. It was a body blind spot with little proprioception. Understanding and seeing how my spine was stabilized and mobilized by the diaphragm and all its attachments created a much larger road map for me. My proprioception – my ability to feel and see my body in space – had shifted momentously. The isolated numbness I saw as my belly now had permission to feel from the inside out.
Over the course of this four and a half day journey, my belly-obsessed thoughts took a back seat as I felt more, strengthened more, and lengthened more, all from the inside out. Only as I look back, can I see that I was gently, but surely, healing a persistent disconnect that treated my belly as a distinct body part and not part of an integrated whole.
Many of my yoga students have the same disconnect. They come to me and point to their bellies and say, “I need to do core work.” And now, after this immersion, I have a richer, more complex understanding of what their needs are and how to respond in my classes and my workshops.
More than “core work,” it takes courage to redesign what was a shameful body part as a launching pad for your whole and much-loved self. This is the message I take home from the core immersion and the message I hope to bring to my students.
AnnMerle Feldman started yoga as a 50-year-old single mom: a stressed-out, sleep-deprived, achievement junky, suffering from constant pain and headaches. After that first eye-opening yoga class, she immersed herself in yoga, movement, and breath. She did all of Ana Forrest’s trainings, continued studying with Steve Emmerman and Talya Ring and is now completely thrilled with the Roll Model Method and Yoga Tune Up with Jill Miller and her mighty band of extraordinary teachers and trainers.