As hatha yogis, we are typically body centric. Our world revolves around the “human” temple, and all the nuance having a body implies – senses, emotions, mind, movement, stillness, touch… Developing a relationship with each of these aspects of ourselves is our “advanced education” program for really growing up into human adulthood. Commonly, our growth from infant to adult is a random collection of learning opportunities and development of ego, which produces a variety of outcomes, often predetermined by the bias that naturally occurs from our culture, our schools, our churches or our family agendas. Rare is our experience of a learning environment that supports inner attention and growth, ie seeking wisdom from within, borne from our own experience, and recognition of the limits the ego has.
Yoga has the potential to offer those who choose that path the first glimpse of learning from a different frame of reference, and truly cultivate an understanding of self awareness. It is not the easy path. Actually, it is a path that almost always produces failure, because failure is a necessary step for breaking down the grip our egos have to keep us from true self, free of attachment.
So the average beginner to yoga has only a vague understanding why they are drawn to their first class and upon that first pose that involves unfamiliar movements, it can be an overwhelming experience of new sensations – physically, mentally, and sometimes even emotionally. Our mind can become overwhelmed, which produces physiological and psychological reactions in the body. If we are mind-centered in the brain, the capacity of our brain to process all of the stimulus the movement of asana can create is often overloaded, and in a way, unnerving. This is an important step, to feel that the mind does not hold all of the answers or at least the answers you have relied on in the past to get through a “tough spot”.
As we learn more about yoga, and develop a regular practice, awareness increases of other areas of the body capable of “thinking” – capable of processing input from the nervous system and providing guidance for an appropriate response. The belly is one such place and has a very important role in the life of a yogi. The expression found in many old yoga books “navel gazing” is really no accident and frankly, it’s a saying that has a compound meaning (multiple layers of understanding). As we encounter poses that work the abdomen, we often become aware of a weakness or dullness in that part of the body, which creates some levels of distress. Even if we have a well-toned abdomen, and consider ourselves healthy there, we may not rely on our “brain” that resides there, as much as we rely on the “brain” in our head, or the “brain” in our heart.
As we will see, the belly region of the body is not a simple thing, nor one that is easily integrated, when we begin our practice of yoga with a “belly-full” of conditioning and habitual behavior. If we consider the many forces at play in the abdominal region, it is beneficial to understand how we have lost our connection with the belly center. Physically, it is the area of our bodies responsible for digestion and assimilation. In most Western cultures, a healthy belly is considered only by its outer appearance – flat, “cut”, and firm. The emphasis for “good” posture is chest up, guts in, shoulders back. The function and location of the abdominal organs and glands is obscure for most, and emotionally, this area receives the brunt of many of our dysfunctional attempts at dealing with negative feelings such as anger, fear, and low self-esteem.
In general, we have placed more prominence on the ‘head’ (objective intellect) and ‘heart’ (individual soul) centers for discernment and transformation, while overlooking what many Eastern or primitive cultures considered an essential step – the prerequisite descent into the depths of our being (lower centers) necessary before the ascent towards higher levels of awareness (upper centers). Our attention has moved away from the profound intelligence of this lower, physical and emotional center of the body, namely our ‘guts’. There are remnants, still found hidden in common expressions in our languages, which intimate a time when we recognized the power of the lower centers. In the English language, to have “a gut feeling” suggests a deeper understanding that often is hard to explain logically. It is a feeling that comes from deep in our center and, in the past, was considered more reliable than those feelings which came from “above”. Another example is someone with “guts”. This expression generally implies courage and unwavering integrity.
It is interesting to see how in other cultures, we find words for the belly with a more profound meaning. The Japanese word “hara”, simply translated means belly. But the roots of its meaning extend far beyond the physical abdomen. In Japan, the word “hara” takes on a meaning that involves almost every aspect of Japanese life. It implies all that is considered essential to a person’s character and spiritual evolvement. Hara is the center of the human body, but not just the physical body. In many of the idiomatic expressions in the Japanese language where the root word hara is found, the meanings suggest a deeper context for the term. In his book “Hara- The Vital Centre of Man” Karl Von Durckheim describes one such expression, Hara no aru hito. This expression suggests not only one who possesses “center” physically, as in posture and balance, but one who maintains balance in every way, i.e. emotionally and mentally. This person is capable of tranquility in the face of strain, moves in and about the world with serenity and possesses an inner elasticity that allows quick and decisive responses to any situation that arises.
It is this very quality of hara that we look for in our practice, what is referred to in the Yoga Sutras as sthirum sukham. It is a state of unconditional calm, which is not dependent on any outward circumstances. When in it, one commands a heightened sensitivity and an increased readiness to meet the unexpected. It is here that we realize our capacity for appropriate response in the practice of asana can only come from the genuine absence of unnecessary tension, coupled with the correct attitude of mind. Working with “belly-mind” increases that awareness and presence of center (hara), and helps to purify the body from the core.