In the midst of these uncertain times, we’re “All in the same boat, but not all in the same storm.” I wish I could remember who wrote those words, because the sentiment seems to perfectly encapsulate how differently everyone is experiencing the Covid-19 crisis. Personally I am alternating between fear and anxiety (which drives me to excessive production as a way to deflect the unknown) and acknowledging my decades of fatigue and exhaustion already brought on by excess productivity (which calls me to rest and contemplate and dream). As a result of these two states, I’m having bouts of insight that I’m moved to record here for the future shape of my work. However, I don’t want you to think that I am suggesting you should use this time to be, do, or change anything that doesn’t feel appropriate for you now. Even I can’t do that, and these are my thoughts. Just know that in the After Times, these posts will form the foundation of how I want to effect change in the world. Do what you can for yourself now.
A is for Anatomy and Alignment
You can’t trip over an exercise article without mention of the “core”. But seriously, who cares? Well, it IS pretty useful, in all honesty.
Our bones exist for our muscles to pull on them (among other reasons, of course. Cool it, #anatomynerd) We need our muscles to pull on our bones to move, like a lever and pulley system, but also to stabilize the pulleys (joints) so we don’t fall apart.
The core is cool because the middle of our torso doesn’t have any bones. Instead, layers of muscles between the pelvis, ribs, and spine work to help keep us upright, to keep us from peeing ourselves, and to create “intra-abdominal pressure”- useful for things like digestion and blood pressure.
So the core is really the front, back, top, AND bottom muscles of the torso- abdominals, pelvic floor, diaphragm, spine muscles. They’re supposed to have some give and take, some ability to expand and contract, and not just be locked in for that impossible-to-attain washboard looking thing.
Besides, if the rest of your body is mis-aligned, the core can’t work the way it’s supposed to anyway. What does this look like?
At the bottom end of things, the core is attached to the hips and pelvis. So if your leg and hip muscles are uneven, unengaged, or unbalanced, they will pull your core off-center and impact the function of everything from your feet to your spine.
At the top end, rib flaring is common in our “chest out, belly in” culture. We learn how to Stand Up Straight by throwing out the chest, not by straightening our alignment- it’s fake posture. This puts an awful lot of strain on the psoas (pilates peeps, you knew I couldn’t get through any mention of anatomy without the delightful psoas making an appearance!!) and on the neck.
Any kind of alignment issues will literally mess you up from your feet to your forehead.
B is for Breathing and Bitters
The ribs move SO THAT they can disperse the pressure of breathing. If your ribs are flared (aka popped), then when you try to breathe they can’t go any farther and they stop being part of your breathing mechanics.
Instead, when you breathe without your ribs you’re messing with your intra-abdominal pressure (bad idea) and with your chest (also bad idea).
Chest breathing can actually cause anxiety, because it puts stimulates upper back nerves which feed signals to the brain that scream, “Pressure on the chest! We’re suffocating!” If you’re feeling tightness or burning on the center of the breastbone just below the collarbone, or a feeling like you need to take a deep breath and stretch that area, you may benefit from relaxing your ribs. More on that in a future video.
Half of your digestion happens inside your ribcage, so realigning it really helps here too. Pretty much every organ except the large and small intestines are actually inside the confines of your ribs.
How do you relax your ribs? Think about a big yawn. Now that you’re yawning (gotcha!), take that big stretch and big breath in, and let it out all at once- whoosh. Where are your ribs? Down, relaxed, and over your hips. Pretty quickly, they’ll probably start reaching forward so yawn them back down again, until you recognize the down position and can just go there.
Side effects- you might gurgle, burp, fart, or even release constipation. Yay you! We’re not built to be silent machines. Digestion is a dynamic process, and anything we do to support it should be increasing its activity and energy, not just creating an end result.
I’ve been thinking about this, though. Digestive remedies work in a variety of ways that act together to move the instinctive processes of metabolism and elimination along. They stimulate the different parts of digestion- chemical, mechanical, instinctual.
For example, Herbal Bitters (my personal favorites) are amazing, and not just for digestion. When you taste a bitter flavor, bitter taste receptors ALL OVER your body relax smooth muscles. (Do a PubMed search for “bitter” and “asthma”!)
In digestion, this means that smooth muscles like the intestines relax and expand and allow for more effective functioning. Bitters also stimulate the liver, the gallbladder, the pancreas, saliva, peristalsis, all kinds of fun things.
But here’s the problem: In addition to popping our ribs to fake good posture, we also worry about the look of that belly.
What good is herbally supporting the relaxing and expanding of your smooth muscles if you’re also “sucking in” AllDayEveryDay? How can the GI tract relax if it’s got nowhere to go? Or worse, what if it finds somewhere else to go?
C is for Contraction and (In)continence and Constipation
Rather than thinking of the core like a “wall” with a front and back, think of it like a balloon. Your abdominals wrap around your torso like plastic wrap (or a corset), your pelvic floor supports it at the bottom, and your diaphragm supports it at the top.
What would happen to that balloon if you squeezed it in the middle (the equivalent of sucking your belly in)?
First, all your organs get squeezed, and they’ve got nowhere to go. They lose all movement and blood flow is reduced. For context, a good deep breath can move your kidneys 3 inches side to side.
Second, all that squeezed intra-abdominal pressure has to go somewhere, and it only has 3 choices- up, down, or out.
If you squeeze the balloon and the top bulges, now you’ve got pressure pushing UP on the stomach, esophagus, etc. Reflux, and all its friends, are common. Plus, since blood flow is being cut off any kind of inflammation in there (think: leaky gut, ulcers, esophagus erosion) can’t be healed very well.
Bottom-directed pressure pushes on the pelvic floor. This can look like urge or stress incontinence (I can’t hold it vs sneeze pee), prolapse (or enlarged prostate in men), pain (during elimination, sex, sitting, walking, etc), constipation, or the like.
Out-pressure exits through the belly button. Hernia. ‘Nuff said.
Absolutely NONE of these are easy issues to deal with. Wouldn’t you rather avoid them in the first place?
The very first thing you can do to help is relax your belly, right now. Then, by the time you’ve finished reading this sentence, relax it again. Got you, didn’t I?
The idea of sucking in is so very, very ingrained. It’s good for support. It’s good for looks. It’s good for who knows what else. But it’s not. No more than tight shoes or tight bras or tight shirts and jackets are good for us, regardless of how we think they look.
At what point does a toddler’s cute round belly become a sign of “letting yourself go”, and who taught you that anyway? It’s crap. They know how to move naturally, let's take some lessons from the under-3 set.
Your core muscles reflexively engage when you need them. They relax and allow for internal functioning when you don’t. Yes, you can work with someone like me to align and strengthen them when lifestyles aren’t challenging enough to do it already (that’s most of us, tbh.) You can also make sure you’re breathing when you move, that’s a massively important part of the core reflex.
The biggest thing you can do, though, is relax your belly.
Sucking in only rearranges your internal organs. It does NOT support, stabilize, brace, or improve anything. And yet, just about everyone has this habit, me included. The practice is just to relax, over and over and over, retraining yourself that relaxed is normal.
Yes, there’s conversations to be had about the position of the pelvis, and muscle recruitment patterns, and stress responses and habits, and other such related subjects. And yes, there’s LOTS of practitioners out there besides me who have wonderfully helpful and accurate things to teach you about this.
Learn from them, or from me, whichever- just learn it! Your body is supposed to work and move, fashion and culture keep it restrained and embarrassed, you have to practice to relearn natural habits. That's my calling, relearning those natural habits. Check out ways to work with me if you're interested.
Fun Fact: I'm an herbalist and a movement coach. Not a doctor, or a pharmacist, and not pretending to be one on TV.
This is a public space, so my writing reflects my experiences and I try to stay general enough so it might relate to you. This does not constitute medical advice, and I encourage you to discuss concerns with your doctor. Remember, however, that the final say in your wellness decisions are always yours- you have the power to choose, you are the boss of you.
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This website is provided for educational and informational purposes only and is not medical, mental health or healthcare advice. The information presented here is not intended to diagnose, treat, heal, cure or prevent any illness, medical condition or mental or emotional condition. Working with us is not a guarantee of any results. Paula Billig owns all copyrights to the materials presented here unless otherwise noted.