Last week, I discussed my newfound awareness of the core in its entirety at the the Yoga Tune Up® Core Integration Immersion. This week, I’ll discuss how I came to terms with all of the incredible things my core can do for me, and let go of the shame I felt for my belly.
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 mid-range set of muscles that surrounded my core like a cumberbund: 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. Lying on our sides we used the “Magician’s Assistant on a Ledge,” to strengthen and lengthen deep lateral stabilizers like the quadratus lumborum. 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 Aha! 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” (p. 97, 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. 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.