It’s summer time, season of swimsuits and abs classes. As I was teaching yoga to five people in one room, the abs class next door was a sardine can of men and women, crunching away in pursuit of the elusive six pack. Even now, in the best physical shape of my life, the closest I’m going to get to a six pack is the supermarket beverage aisle. When I was in high school, seems that all the popular people–cheerleaders, athletes–had the taut bellies, firmly establishing the connection that powerful abs were something to seek.
In recent years, the imperative seems to have softened somewhat, at least if the flabby midsections of celebrities showing up on “tell-all” magazine covers in that same supermarket check out line are any clue. Still, we suck in our guts, ever mindful of tightening those muscles to look good. And why is this a problem?
When you’re ever-focused on flat abs, it’s quite likely you never breathe really deeply. We pull in those muscles, concerned about appearance, or toning, or trying to emulate ‘the situation.’ The air doesn’t really fill our lungs completely. With each breath of a healthy breath, we inhale 7 pints of oxygen. With an appearance conscious–or anxious–breath, we inhale only one pint. Not only are we depriving our brains and other organs of the life force of oxygen, when we breath only from the chest, rather than the belly, we are reinforcing the habit. Breathing from the chest restricts the muscles of the shoulders and neck, causing constant tension and constriction in those muscles. In turn, there’s a ripple effect for your abs–which weaken from lack of use in that most basic skill, breathing.
Who says sucking it in is the way to rock hard abs? Reverse this catch-22. Be mindful of bringing all 7 pints of healthy oxygen into your system. You’ll improve brain function and metabolize stress hormones. Breathe in deeply through your nose, filling your lungs and allowing your belly to rise. Then exhale deeply through your nose, pushing your shoulders back and down as you pull your belly button to your spine. It’s easier to restore this healthy habit of breathing if you practice it routinely: two minutes each hour, ten minutes each evening, at each stop light, as you are on hold with that help desk.
As we like to say in yoga practice, you always have your breath. It’s a great built-in tool–use it.