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Happiness Toolkit: A Simple Belly Massage

Happiness is a mind-body endeavor. It only takes two minutes to deploy this self-massage to stimulate our belly brain, the enteric nervous system, which regulates mood and immunity.

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Even when we do all the “right” things like practice yoga, eat healthfully, and get enough zzz’s, the secret to happiness can feel elusive. Here to help is Bo Forbes, a clinical psychologist, author, and yoga and mindfulness teacher with training in stress management, biopsychology, and behavioral medicine. In her YJ mini-series, Happiness Toolkit, Forbes will share “tiny two-minute tools” for finding happiness, based in simple, science-backed methods. (Plus, don’t miss her workshops at Yoga Journal LIVE New York, April 19-22, 2018—sign up now.)

Happiness is a mind-body endeavor, and the gateway into a healthier mind-body connection is through the autonomic nervous system. Our modern lifestyle pushes the nervous system into overdrive. Today’s nervous system has to contend with email, apps, video chats and selfies. It doesn’t differentiate between a woolly mammoth and the pressure to get more followers on Instagram. Even if we’re used to it, the onslaught of information we process on a daily basis can trigger a toxic surge of chemical messengers, such as cortisol, which sends the nervous system into overdrive.

Here’s the thing: for any positive change to happen, our nervous system needs to be balanced. Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to learn the most effective ways of balancing this Agent of Change. So, how do we do it?

The Tiny Two-Minute Tool Theory

Most of us are used to the idea that we need a challenging 60- to-90-minute yoga practice to feel better. Recently, however, neuroscientists have shown that the frequency of practice is far more important than its duration. That’s why what we’ll call “Tiny Two-Minute Tools” have the potential to make all the difference in balancing our nervous systems and re-wiring ourselves for happiness. Practice these two-minute tools throughout the day at regular intervals, and you’ll feel the difference immediately. The good news: you don’t need to give up the practice you love. Just work these tiny tools into your existing routine.

The Tiny Two-Minute Tool

A simple belly massage to stoke health and happiness

A key part of our happiness toolkit lies in the enteric nervous system, or belly brain. This special nervous system, stored in sheaths of tissue in the esophagus, stomach, small intestine and colon, regulates mood and immunity.

Tight abdominal connective tissue can cause inflammation, changes in the gut microbiome through an increase is stomach acid, and a corresponding fight-or-flight response. This nourishing massage helps release tension we may be unaware of. The fringe benefits: it primes stress resilience. It also offers us a chance to “befriend” a part of the body that often elicits judgment.

It also stimulates the vagus nerve, one of twelve cranial nerves that originates in the brain, travels down the back of the neck and into the chest and heart, and then moves down into the abdomen and digestive tract. Its resume is extensive: It regulates heart rate and digestion, and it’s the primary medium through which our belly brain regulates mood. It’s the main communicator to our rest-and-digest system, which helps us to relax more deeply. It also elicits our tend-and-befriend system, enabling us to reach out and connect with others. This is a critical factor in long-term stress resilience and, research shows, in happiness.

And there’s yet another bonus you can cram into 120 seconds: This massage mirrors the path of digestion, and helps enhance digestive motility.

How to do it:

Start in Supported Bridge Pose with a block beneath your sacrum. Breathe through your nose; this lowers heart rate and activates the rest-and-digest (or parasympathetic) nervous system. Place your palms on your belly, starting at the lower left corner just medial to (or slightly to the right of) your hip bone. Apply gentle pressure with your finger pads, the heels of your hands, or your palms. Move in a circular motion or rest with gentle pressure over areas of inflammation or tenderness. Continue at your own pace moving across the abdomen toward the lower right side. Gradually, move up the right side to the area just below the rib cage. Continue with the massage or light pressure and gradually sweep to the left, so that you’re at the abdomen’s upper left side. Then continue down to the lower left, your starting point. Repeat as desired. Notice when spots feel tight or sore, and see if they feel different on your next “lap” across the belly. Use oil or moisturizer to make sure your hands glide more easily.


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Want to practice or study with Bo in person? Join her at Yoga Journal LIVE New York, April 19-22, 2018—YJ’s big event of the year. We’ve lowered prices, developed intensives for yoga teachers, and curated popular educational tracks: Anatomy, Alignment, & Sequencing; Health & Wellness; and Philosophy & Mindfulness. See what else is new and sign up now.

Bo Forbes is a clinical psychologist, a yoga teacher and an integrative yoga therapist whose background includes training in biopsychology, behavioral medicine, sleep disorders and stress management. She is the founder of Integrative Yoga Therapeutics, a system that specializes in the therapeutic application of yoga for anxiety, insomnia, depression, immune disorders, chronic pain, physical injuries and athletic performance. Bo conducts teacher trainings and workshops internationally, writes frequently for Yoga Journal, Body + Soul, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, and other leading magazines, and is on the advisory board of the International Association of Yoga Therapists and the Give Back Yoga Foundation. She is part of a research collaborative that investigates the contemplative practice of yoga, and will participate in the Mind and Life Institute’s Summer Research Institute this year. She is also the author of Yoga for Emotional Balance: Simple Practices to Relieve Anxiety and Depression. Learn more at and via FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.