The image of a wild and perfect garden has been full of resonance for me for as long as I can remember. Maybe because it’s one of the first bible stories I heard, and maybe because I spent some early years in the countryside in Nicaragua in the 70’s, running around with scraped knees, chasing chickens, climbing mango trees and bossing around the other kids at the orphanage that my parents ran.
As a preacher’s kid, I grew up on bible stories, I only took them literally until I learned about “sentido figurado” or speaking figuratively, and that afforded me a little pocket of freedom in the Sunday church ritual. Man, did I ever need that little pocket of freedom to interpret the stories in my own way, because I felt trapped in the church routine, and I needed magic! I needed something I wasn’t finding between the pews. But, prophecies and ancient tales I could trip on, and so I did as well as I could with the materials at hand.<
The garden, the unsullied, the mythic place in our collective imagination. Is it just the utopian dreamers among us or is this a deep memory we are all trying to get back to in one way or another? The place where EROS was free, and innocent, the place before shame. Here’s Joni singing about it in 1970
That is my true dream. Without realizing it for the longest time, this was the deep vein in all my explorations, the desire to touch that sense of unsullied wholeness, erotic innocence, freedom.
For the modern person, the city dweller, the body is now the garden, the place where we can find that innocence again, where we are inseparable from nature, even if it often seems otherwise.
The body is the battleground where so much fighting happens–women’s bodies, which is to say the body of the earth. Reproductive rights, body shaming and perfectionism. A woman’s sexuality. The way our culture relates to the body continues to express the christian distrust of our physical being, even those of us who are not religious can easily get stuck worshipping at the altar of the “perfect body” and paying penance through dieting and denial of pleasure. Oh, we will have pleasure one day, we tell ourselves, when we have earned it by being good.
This Mary Oliver line gets quoted a lot, because it’s really on point:
You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees. For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body. love what it loves.
To be at ease and unashamed in the body is the most radical and healing thing I can think of. It’s worth doing whatever it takes to find that freedom.
I started sucking in my belly when I was 10. Around this time, my father started calling me fat whenever I was overly rambunctious and he wanted me to simmer down. I have this memory of dad yelling at me to get down from a carport gate where I was monkeying around, because “you’re too fat! You’re going to break it!” he yelled. I ran into the house, where my sister started poking at my stomach and teasing “suck it in, fatty.” These memories mark the beginning of becoming an awkward and self-conscious teenager, after having been a feisty little girl. That is one clear moment that I can pinpoint where I started to shut down my power.
After that, I’d never go back to being a kid with a relaxed belly, naturally expanding on the rhythm of my breath. I learned to suck it in from my older sister. One day we were walking past a store window and she told me to “suck it in,” pointing to our reflections and how much better she thought we looked with flat, sucked in stomachs. After that I tried to remember to suck it in anytime I was out in public. Eventually this became my normal way of moving through the world, belly tightly sucked in. Store windows and glass doors became witnesses to my constant vigilance, lest that shameful protruding belly dare to show itself.
I don’t tell this story to talk shit about my family or to point out how awful my childhood was. It wasn’t. I tell this story because I carried those memories along with a ton of shame for many years, and because I know that I’m not alone in this.
As I became more self-conscious about my body, I wanted there to be less of me. All that exuberant girl-child energy turned toward dieting and obsessing about my newfound terror of getting fat. Getting fat became synonymous in my mind with not being loved. For years, my body hatred focused intensely on my belly area. Even now, anytime I start to feel down about my body, my belly is the first place my attention goes. This is not a quick-fix topic. To learn to love our bodies, whatever our “problem areas” might be, means confronting all the woman hating messages we’ve absorbed, and all the shaming of the feminine and of women as sexual beings.
In fact, the seeds for much of the work that I do now as a women’s coach were planted in those early days when I learned to hate my body and by extension, my femininity, and myself. I believe that healing our relationship to our body builds the foundation for self-love and self-expression.
How we feel about our bellies is a great barometer for how we feel about ourselves. How we relate to this part of our body makes all the difference in how we see ourselves, and yes I see it as both a vulnerable and a radical act to choose not to suck it in. It’s radical because it says “fuck you” to the notion that your beauty comes from fitting yourself to the culturally accepted norms. It’s radical because by choosing to stay tuned in to your body, your feelings, your in-the-moment intuition, you are much more powerful as a woman. Instead of sacrificing all that power for the sake of some cultural stamp of approval, it means choosing to be sovereign in your own body and life. That is radical. Just imagine what would happen to Madison Avenue and the massive diet industry if women chose the stance that our bodies are perfect and beautiful.
Loving your belly is radical. Loving your belly is also incredibly vulnerable. You take the risk of being judged harshly by other women who will project their own body hatred onto you. You may run across men who judge you for not fitting with their pornified ideals of a woman’s body. You will begin to see just how much you have internalized the fear and hatred of women’s bodies. So, why put yourself through all this? Why not keep sucking it in and worshiping at the altar of flat-as-a-board, six-pack abs? Because…
Hating your belly is really hating yourself.
When you suck in your belly you lose access to your feeling center, intuition, solar plexus center of power. Your breath becomes shallow and you develop patterns of rigidity in your body as a whole. There is a feeling of not being at home in your body and if you can’t be at home in your body then where the hell will you ever truly feel at home? Besides, every time you look in the mirror with critical thoughts, you’re sending your body the message that she is wrong, bad, unloveable.
As you deepen your connection to your belly, you’ll notice that it feels so much better to be relaxed, open, to have strength and solidity, which has nothing to do with your belly being rounded or flat. It’s way harder for us to achieve that “hard body” ideal than it is for men. A truly strong and developed core is not the same as a hard, numb core.
I tried on and off over the years to stop sucking it in. It hasn’t been easy. I understand the feeling of being super self-conscious about your body. The pressure to mold one’s body to the flat-belly model is really strong. But it’s worth practicing. The benefits of an open and relaxed belly are profound and immediate and totally worth it.
Here are some benefits you’ll get from loving your belly and doing less sucking in:
A whole new level of relaxation. Your whole body relaxes. Your breath deepens on its own. This, reduces worry and anxiety, increases oxygen intake and gets your body out of fight-or-flight and into relaxation mode. Ahhhhhh.
Experience your feelings. Not just what thoughts are running around in your mind, but your emotional state in this moment. Along with your feelings, your intuition will also become stronger as you connect to this part of your body. There’s a reason we talk about “gut feelings.”
Know your true needs. Being able to differentiate between physical hunger and some emotional need, for example. With a relaxed belly, you’ll get accurate information. After all there is a whole other “brain” in the belly, as lots of research has revealed. Check out this great piece by Marc David here ( http://psychologyofeating.com/the-brain-in-the-belly/).
Find your Power Center. In the chakra system, the belly area corresponds to the third chakra or “solar plexus.” Solar has to do with the fire of the sun that is like the fire of our will, the fire of our metabolism, the fire of our resolve.
Rich sensuality. Picture the lovely, powerful undulations of a belly dancer compared to some punishing ab-busting routine. Feeling through a relaxed belly lets you feel more with your whole body so that there is pleasure to be found in the simplest experiences of the senses, from petting a kitten to feeling the breeze on your skin.
Great sex. As your breath deepens, energy is able to move up the central channel of the body allowing you to expand orgasmic feelings throughout your body. Also, as you relax, you are able to shift your focus from how you look to how you feel. This is one of the secrets to better sex, and it makes you more attractive because instead of performing or “posing” you are simply being you while in a state of pleasure.
I could go on and on, but I’ll sum it up like this:
Not sucking in the belly changes one’s entire relationship to the body to one of sovereignty. It’s saying to your body: “I am at home here. I belong to myself.” This can change everything.
If you hate your stomach or any other part of your body, by now you may be thinking this is so much easier said than done. I agree that it’s a process. Even if you don’t fully succeed at all times, you can still choose the radical stance of loving your belly and your whole body. It’s radical to choose not to walk around holding in your power, your magic. It’s possible to not live hostage to the ubiquitous body shaming around us. To change from an external focus based on how we think we are perceived by others, to an inner focus where we move through the world from that place of deep connection to our center.
Try this simple exercise to relax and feel your belly: Take a deep breath, fill your lungs and feel your belly expand. As you exhale, allow your belly to fall naturally. Pause before the next inhalation and just feel your belly. Don’t push it out, don’t suck it in. Pay attention to your breath as you feel your belly and allow it to relax.
You may not be ready to do this while you’re posing for a picture or walking into a party. That’s cool. Try it while you’re driving, or while you’re sitting at your desk. Then notice how you feel. See what’s different. I’d love to hear what you discover, in the comments.
Belly love practices: Belly dancing is a beautiful art form that fosters a positive relationship to the belly. Massaging your own belly with essential oils or receiving belly massage such as Maya abdominal massage is excellent. The simple act of putting your hand on your belly and breathing steadily can begin to shift you into belly and body love.
Let’s talk. If you’re sick and tired of putting your life on hold till you lose the weight. If you feel trapped inside your body instead of loving who you are. If you’re exhausted with the dieting game and the constant worry and dread about food and fat. If you don’t feel like you can have love, intimacy, and connection as you are right now. This can all change. When you change how you feel about yourself and your body, you are free to change your life.
If you want to learn how to trust your body as the ultimate source of intuition, pleasure, and power, I’d love to talk to you. If you know it’s time to feel confident in your skin and begin to live fully and embark on your next adventure, let’s talk. It’s possible. What if it’s easier than you’ve always thought?
Contact me through the form below to schedule a complimentary Deep Dive Coaching Session. This is a no pressure conversation where the focus is on you and your desires. We go deep to what you want, and what is getting in the way. I help you get clear, inspired, and give you tools and practices to start to make the shifts that are most important to you right now.
This morning I danced to Paradise, while playing a Qoya video. In it, Rochelle Schieck (creator of Qoya) talks about paradise as the state we long for when we imagine life feeling really good. I spent an hour moving, dancing, finding the place where it felt so good and noticing where there was resistance or mind chatter distracting me from the sensation. Having access to that inner paradise, which to me is a feeling of freedom–well, it’s simple now and it was simple as a child and yet I’ve worked fucking hard to find it again. That degree of innocence and pure joy in making circles with my hips, or shaking my booty like a happy pup, it’s something I had to reclaim so that I could know it from the inside, not just intellectually.
I think much of our work as women now is about re-orienting toward what feels good, and that is a revolutionary act.
To re-orient our compass toward what feels good means that we make it just as important to feel as good now, in the process of getting to our dreams, as we’re hoping we will feel when we get there.
Sounds easy enough. “Follow your bliss” and all that, but unless you’ve deliberately chosen a practice where there is an emphasis on pleasure and enjoyment–which isn’t most people out there, then this notion might feel pollyannaish or even infuriating! I mean, you have shit to do, bills to pay, and important things to attend to. And when someone comes along and says you ought to prioritize feeling good, maybe you think “who is this hippie anyway and what does she know about my life?” There’s a part of me that still, after years learning to trust the feeling of pleasure and aliveness as a sign that I’m on the right track, recoils and gets resentful at the idea that it’s really ok to, like, feel good. Usually, the bitchier I get the more I need a dose of feeling good.
As women, we’re raised to bond around our complaints. We’re kind of suspicious of people who feel “too good”. It pisses us off, which is a clue. And when we dare admit that we want it because we’re burnt out and hungry and dying on the inside, then we wonder how! How do you make the time? How do you decide that it is ok to put yourself first? It’s a huge question to which I offer a simple medicine. Move. And find a way to do it that feels good to you.
Here’s a little story about movement and dance and how it saved my life.
When I was thirteen and beginning my teenage obsession with NOT GETTING FAT! I used to do aerobics. There was this show called the 20-minute workout. It was super eighties–leotards with panty-hose and leg-warmers. Big hair. These chicks moved like smooth barbie automatons. They didn’t seem to sweat but they all had skinny, toned bodies like I dreamt of having. Ah, the irony, because I wasn’t even chubby. But that’s not the point, since in my mind anything less than idealized perfection meant I was a disgusting pig and who needed to work harder and strive to be better at denying myself. I was starting my training in numbing out hunger and pushing my body like a machine. I would hop on my bike after school and do endless loops of the neighborhood, or get on the stationary bike at home and pedal away. The thing was to clock miles and keep the ugly fat at bay. This was not about enjoyment!
But there was a time before all this self-flagellation. As a little girl, before the self-consciousness and worry about getting fat, I remember climbing trees and tumbling on the grass with my little brother. There were afternoons doing cartwheels with friends, and days at the beach splashing around and waiting for the next wave. Moments where the joy of pure play was simple and completely mine. My family lived in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. The cliches about tropical places and paradise exist for a reason. So in my memories of playing on the beach where the world around me really did look like “paradise” are also where I experienced the inner freedom of being totally at ease in my body. But that didn’t last very long, just a few sweet years before puberty.
I’m not sure when exactly I discovered that I actually liked moving and that it felt good? There were the times in eighth grade after school, doing silly interpretive dances with my best friend in her living room. There were those times in college, dancing all night at the little club where I used to go with my friends, or going to shows in New Orleans and getting sweaty to down and dirty blues. Through all the years of body hatred, of obsessing over every calorie, of doing my best to eat the least possible amount, through all of that there was always something in me which remained intact–the part that loved moving! I’m not saying that I embraced pleasurable movement with open arms. I didn’t have such a concept. Back then I put in my time. I walked, ran, pumped iron. But the thread of pleasure through movement was never totally severed. And bit by bit I found my way back. There were those very first yoga classes where simply breathing and paying attention to breathing was a revelation. A return home. It’s not that I discovered that I liked moving but rather that I re-discovered it as I grew up.
So why do I say movement and dancing saved my life? It wasn’t one particular incident where I danced out of the way of a moving train or any such literal thing. But I cannot tell you here the countless times when I found my way home to my self and my own heart through dancing and movement. When my ex-hubby and I divorced, I found connection and passion and a healthy obsession through tango. I became a regular at Triangulo studio in New York City. When I lost a baby after a tough and complicated pregnancy, I found my strength again and let myself move through the grief dancing in the forest in Costa Rica with Parashakti and her Dance of Liberation. Those were some big transitions, but movement has also been there for me in quieter, slower ways, like learning how to do walking meditation or getting to a 5rhythms class and sweating my prayers. Whenever I feel “off” or when I feel great and want to celebrate, I move. No matter what else is going on, the body is home, and moving and dancing is a direct way to connect with self and soul.
Here’s the video, in case you feel like getting up and shakin’ it:
What’s your idea of paradise? Where does movement and dancing figure into it, if at all? I’d love to hear your comments. (Comment at the top of the page).