Redefining Great AbsThe instruction seemed so shocking, I assumed I'd heard it wrong. Then the teacher repeated herself: "Soften and release your abdominals." This was the early 1980s, and I'd just started taking classes in Iyengar Yoga. Conditioned to hold in my abdominals by more than 20 years of dance training, traditional fitness classes, and our "suck in your gut" culture, I found it surprisingly difficult to let go in that area. Yet over time, I learned to relax my belly and fill it up with breath. Free at last!
Then I moved to another city and began taking yoga classes with different teachers schooled in various styles of hatha practice. Each instructor presented an alternative approach to working with the abdominals. In one class, we were told to "draw the pit of the abdomen up" and "hollow the belly." In another, we were instructed to "lift the side waist" and "pull the belly toward the spine." A third class emphasized Uddiyana Bandha (Upward Abdominal Lock), engaged by "contracting the abdomen above and below the navel toward the back." When yet another teacher asked us to "lift from the center but without creating hardness," I found myself wondering if I was the only one who didn't quite get it.
Were these completely different viewpoints about the abdominals? Or were my teachers saying the same thing in different ways? Everyone seemed to agree on the belly's energetic importance--as the body's center of power, the abdomen initiates movement and is a repository for strong emotions, or "gut feelings," ranging from fear to anger. But the directions for engaging the abs were often very contradictory, esoteric--more metaphysical than practical--and at times, frankly, quite puzzling. What does it mean to have strong and healthy abdominals? How much does the yogic view differ from that of Western fitness? And just what did all those teachers really mean by their cryptic instructions? I intended to find out.
Clearing Up the Confusion
"There's a quagmire of confusion about the abdominals," says Jean Couch, yoga teacher, author of The Runner's Yoga Book (Rodmell, 1992), and owner and director of the Balance Center in Palo Alto, California. The central problem, she says, "is that people think they should hold their stomachs in, because the shape our society values as healthy and attractive is abnormally thin and held.” Since most people hold a low amount of tension in their abdominals all the time, she says, "they're unable to build abdominal strength, because you can never, ever strengthen a tense muscle. The only way you can strengthen your abs is to continually relax them--then you can exercise them as much as you want."
Despite the American fascination with rock-hard, washboard abs, she explains, a healthy muscle is actually "springy and elastic." Yet most people's abdominals go from "being held to being flaccid," says Couch, who urges her students to release their bellies and "align their bones naturally" so their abs can relax. "I never say, 'Pull your belly in,'" she adds. "I tell people, 'Elongate your spine,' which makes the belly automatically pull in." From this pulled-in--yet relaxed--place, she says, the abs are soft enough to allow deep breathing but elastic enough to be contracted when called upon, for example, to stabilize the body while balancing on one leg in Vrksasana (Tree Pose). Abdominal strength is important, Couch explains, "not to create washboard abs but to support vital organs and stabilize the skeleton."