“I stopped sucking in my stomach three days ago.”
My wife laid her knitting in her lap and just looked at me for a good long while. I couldn’t imagine what was going on in there but her eyes were soft with a mix of amusement, interest, and perhaps even understanding. She knows me so well, often my epiphanies aren’t news to her. It seemed as if she might be waiting for me to offer more explanation. Like sunrise and gravity, I can usually be counted on for more words.
I had nothing more.
I didn’t understand what was going on with me but I was clear that something was unfolding, that a subtle yet persistent healing was underway. One little lesson after the next slipped into my consciousness–like random pieces of a puzzle without a box lid to reveal their intention. The theme was clear. I was healing, recovering from whatever caused me to stop breathing.
I don’t breathe regularly. I hold my breath. I do it when I’m scared or sad or nervous or excited or happy or confused… I hold my breath. Then, I gasp for air, sigh, yawn, or whatever other technique my body eventually has to use to overcome my habit of not breathing. I don’t know when it started or even why but it’s been this way for as long as I can recall.
While working my way through countless self-improvement puzzles over the years, the pieces of the breathe puzzle kept popping up. I’d accept them and set them aside, not knowing what in the world they were for. On the evening in question, I was suddenly aware that the pile of pieces accumulating beside me actually held a message. There was a point to all of it and although I didn’t understand, my certainty that it was important far outweighed the ridiculousness of whispering, “I stopped sucking in my stomach three days ago.”
Next: Strengthening the core
In seeking treatment for a chronic pain in my butt (specifically, in my right sit bone), my neuromuscular therapist recommended a session with a Pilate’s instructor/therapist to learn how to strengthen my core. She taught me about the different layers of stomach muscles and I was surprised to find out that the only stomach muscle I had control of was the most outer upper layer. I found it almost impossible to isolate the lower levels of muscle for the exercises she asked me to do. The entire experience was both wildly informative and deeply maddening.
My first 20+ years of life were spent living from the outside in, basically reacting to what other people thought of me and I’d discovered evidence of that in my stomach. I wanted to be attractive, to have a flat stomach, and had used those highest muscles to push my stomach in rather than using those lower level muscles to pull in (which is, it turns out, what our bodies are made to do). I’d been holding (pushing from the top) my stomach in more than 20 years and found that I couldn’t even do the exercises because I couldn’t get the top muscles to relax.
I couldn’t get muscles in my body to relax. I was stunned… and sad. It’s why I couldn’t breathe, too. I’d done it for so long that I couldn’t even learn a new way. Frustrated to tears one morning, I broke down and finally realized that I couldn’t move forward with my healing until I let go of the dysfunctional way I’d been holding my body.
It meant letting my stomach go. It meant letting loose with my belly fat and my these-abdominal-walls-were-once-occupied-by-my-offspring muscles. My overly round behind and thickish thighs had never even made it on my radar compared to the obsession I had with my middle. Letting go, allowing my not-quite-flat belly be my straight-up-chunky belly was more difficult than I know how to describe.
It feels ridiculous to even write about it now but it is the truth. I felt so ashamed to have the extra weight, to be weak, to be round instead of flat… and then I let go. I let go and sat there for three days, watching myself be round and noticing that the world did not stop spinning. The people I loved didn’t stop loving me. Oh hell, they didn’t even notice that I stopped holding it in. My coaching clients still respected me, and I was still capable of supporting their efforts to change their lives. My neighbor still asked me to check in on her dogs while she was away. Nothing changed.
Nothing, except me… of course.
Letting go changed everything about me, and about what was possible for me. After three days, I whispered my dirty little secret. My wife’s only response that night was to make me promise that I would someday write a book that opened with that line. That’s love, don’t you think?
It took another year for me to understand that the book is about yoga, breathing, healing, and weight loss. I finally started writing it last week. After a week of not holding my stomach in, I started trying to do the exercises again and found that I could finally isolate the muscles in question. After a month, I was able to do the exercises they assigned me. After six months, I started taking Kundalini Yoga classes. And, of course, the healing continues…
The recovery from our old ways of being take time. We have to find the courage to be patient with ourselves and still persistent when it’s hard for our bodies, minds… or egos. We must explore the reality of our individual situations–get to know the truth of who we are–because it is only through that process of self-discovery that we become capable of accepting ourselves.
When we know and accept what is… we can change it.
Next time, I’m going to share some yet undetermined number of puzzle pieces that taught me how to breathe again. More and more, people are talking to me about how they too hold their breath. Interestingly, most of them are abuse survivors. Does this resonate for you? Do you hold your breath? Have you already recovered from this habit of self-restriction? I’m eager to hear your stories here on Care2, or you can contact me directly through my website (below).