The “tighten up your core” instruction could be ignored when practising yoga. For sure, they may have their benefit for some particularly in the prevention of lower back pain etc, but those “core” instructions – are often incorrectly used in yoga and belong to the Fitness and Pilates domain.
In yoga, we are aiming for “soft bellies” to elicit the relaxation response and assist our breathing.
It is certainly a controversial idea and the opposite of what we are told to believe, but yoga and meditation promotes softness, kindness, compassion and the gentle nature of both mind and body.
Yoga can teach us to embody peace.
Positivity researcher, Dr Barbara Fredrickson, points out how a soft torso may bring ease into our life:
With positive emotion there’s more of an easiness in the torso, and I think that’s consequential because other people can pick that up and it’s a safety signal for others that this person is safe to approach. So there’s ways in which that openness both characterises the mindset and the posture and certainly the face too…
Softening the belly with the breath is just one brilliant way to effect the tone of our nervous system, improves levels of our calm and connection hormone oxytocin and improve our digestion and possibly even the diversity of our biome.
Core muscle stabilisation is definitely important for those who require it in movement and daily life and for those who have been taught how to do it correctly. However, this “core bracing” is not ideal if its keeps our breath ratio short and restricted.
Ideally, We should be able to switch between a soft belly and strong belly easily and not hold tension or restriction in our guts, as it affects blood flow and our enteric nervous system health overall, not to mention our mental health as well.
SOFT BELLY = good digestion and good blood flow to the digestive organs, body in relaxation response
TIGHT BELLY = poor digestion or sometimes nausea, blood flow is directed to the limbs, the hands (for fighting) and feet (for fleeing) and not the digestive organs, as the body may be in flight or fight. A tightness here may also restrict breathing and movement of the diaphragm giving rise to heightened activity of the sympathetic state.
If you do feel a regular tightness, anxiety and restriction in your abdomen, Dr Babara Fredrickson recommends compassion and gratitude meditation for a softer front and I would encourage the following:
Directed Focus Meditation
Engaging in meditations that direct attention toward the navel centre may enhance vagal tone, reduce nausea and gently soften that area. Use a longer outbreath and direct the breath towards the tension.
Nurture a Positive Effect on a daily basis
Based on the teachings of Patanjali (sûtra 1.33 the four great attitudes) and the Buddha (Brahmavihara Sutta: The Sublime Attitudes), activate and meditate on a positive emotion such as joy (mudito), equanimity (upeksha), compassion (karuna), unconditional love (maitri).
Engaging in the act of gratitude has been shown to increase positive affect through feelings of satisfaction, fulfillment, and resilient appreciation. Gratitude practices also produce greater humility, altruism, better sleep and less fatigue, higher levels of patience, and a preferability to minimalism over materialism. All of the above will soften the tone of belly and mind.
Engaging in the act of friendliness towards self and others; self-compassion and compassion for others has been shown to foster security in relationships through self- worth, self-confidence, and courage. Compassion practices have also been shown to lead to greater resilience against rejection, comparison, and self-judgment or belittlement. This all has a positive effect on carrying one’s self softly, a little more gently through life.