Consider the poor belly, zipped up and girded, its protuberance detested. It is the underdog of the body yet hardly anyone comes to its defense – not even yogis. Just google “belly and yoga” and you’ll find hundreds upon hundreds of websites, classes and DVDs all devoted to blasting its fleshy folds to oblivion. Today we desire something called “abs” and getting them is all about cultivating core strength and power, about firing up the third chakra, the seat of our will.
And clearly, women are in the greatest need of assistance. We are as naturally endowed in the belly as we are in the breasts and buttocks (perhaps signaling that sex and fat are meant to go together?) And lets face it, an overabundant, jiggling and dimpled belly clearly signifies one thing – our appetites run amok.
It seems pointless to deny that ‘abs’ signify willpower and control while ample girths signify succumbing to the mindless desires of the body. And such wanton behavior has long been one of patriarchy’s chief complaints about women. We are all about the dangerous temptations of the flesh, emotional, primal, we lack discipline.
That’s what bothers me about the images fed to us by the yoga marketing machine. They speak to an ideal of spiritual discipline in which denial is the name of the game. And they take root in an ascetic tradition that spurns the body and the physical world, and female bodies in particular.
The Fall of the Sacred Belly
I find it telling that the belly, once revered as a symbol of abundance and fertility is today so despised. Early cultures spanning the Neolithic to the Paleolithic produced a continual stream of female figurines, engravings, ceramic designs and paintings all featuring the glory of huge, even gargantuan stomachs.
These images are believed to represent the Great Mother Goddess, and her mountainous belly had little to say about ‘transcendence’ salvation or original sin. In these prehistoric cultures, everything – nature, stars, rocks and human beings were considered sacred. They were part of the body of the Great Mother Goddess who gave life, and she nourished, protected and loved us – without reservation.
Honouring her was not about seeking salvation for our ‘sins’, it was about celebrating and feeling life – here and now. Sociologists often attribute our prehistoric obsession with fat as signifying ‘plenty’ in a time when food was a precious commodity, but I see something deeper at work. I believe these bellies celebrated woman’s unique capacity not only to take in nature’s bounty – but to revel in it.
According to author Lisa Sarasohn, (The Woman’s Belly Book) the belly of the Great Mother Goddess signified woman’s miraculous connection to “the force that brings forth, sustains and renews life”. It’s abundant folds signify not only her procreative powers but her capacity to nourish herself, to feel and fulfill her desires. So she asks, is it any wonder from the point of view of a patriarchal authority invested in keeping women under control, that the belly became so subversive?
It’s no secret that women and bodily desires have long been lumped together as evil, and Sarasohn believes that belly hatred is part of a continuing cultural assault that “frames woman’s bodies as objects to control”. And the agenda? To wage war on woman’s deepest source of ‘knowing’ – her belly.
The Mind Body Divide
This war began, according to author Philip Shepherd, with the disposal of the Great Mother Goddess and her belly embracing ways. While the Goddess was all about sacred embodiment it was with the arrival of patriarchal gods approximately two thousand years ago, that the body became defiled.
Shepherd’s book New Self, New World: Recovering our Senses in the 21st Century details how, with the rise of patriarchy that the centre of consciousness (the feminine centre of feeling in the belly) began its migration to the masculine isolated, sensation-less, tower of our head. And this is relevant to women who have, throughout written history, been equated with the life of the body.
The body -and women -became dangerous distractions not only to reason, thinking and logic but spiritual purity itself. Because in this new order, a woman’s body is no longer sacred but an impediment to transcendence. God is now officially male, bodiless and ‘out there’ somewhere.
And from this, according to Shepherd springs “ the primary wound of our culture” – the mind/body split. Because while the brain rules thinking and doing, it is the abdomen, the gut that is the center of being. And what we have lost is our connection to that most feminine aspect of being – feeling. This is not a metaphoric claim, but a physiological fact.
Two Brains =War of the Sexes?
Today gastrointestinal research has revealed that we have two brains, one in our head and one in our gut. Far more than a mindless organ of digestion, our belly contains a nervous system so neurologically similar to the brain in both structure and functioning, it is called our second brain.
The walls of our gut contains some 100 million neurons (more than in either the spinal cord or the peripheral nervous system) and their job is not to think or reason but to “feel”. This second brain is not the seat of conscious thoughts or decision-making, it is charge of something we understand as gut instinct or gut feeling.
So what happens when we view the gut not as a field of intelligence, but as inert matter, run by the thinker in our head? Well according to Shepherd it has left us “locked in the towers of our brains, thinking, planning, analyzing and rationalizing” cut off from nature, from feeling and being itself.
Shepherd suggests the cranial brain is the center of the male aspects of consciousness and the feeling belly brain is the center of female aspects of consciousness. Today it seems normal that the ‘idea filled’ head should rule over the ‘sensation filled’ belly, but Shepherd reminds us that in order to claim our full intelligence, each must find its complement or completion through the other. Yet our head centered viewpoint see’s the belly as something to be overcome, and it still identifies women and their appetites as targets for control.
The 21st Century Belly
The belly is home to our body centered wisdom – our gut knowing, our instinct for self-preservation. So what does it mean to us as women that the life affirming presence of the belly has been replaced by a flat fat-less concave expanse between protruding hip-bones?
I cant help but wonder if there is any connection with belly loathing and the fact that women are main sufferers of eating disorders and gastrointestinal issues? Why are we unable to find nourishment? Woman’s bellies are biologically programmed to be round. Its gentle pad of fat is meant to protect our reproductive organs, and without it our hormones malfunction and we quickly become infertile. Could its absence be one reason why reproductive disorders are rampant?
Is the lack of joyful jiggling belly one reason why women are the main consumers of antidepressants? Or why teen-age girls cut and maim themselves in ever-growing numbers? Because the psychological diagnosis is that these young women are desperate to ‘feel’ – anything.
Now I know I’m probably going to get a slew of comments –pointing out that too much belly fat is unhealthy, indicating the overproduction of insulin brought on by the dangerous over consumption of sugar and white carbs. And while I fully acknowledge this reality, it doesn’t really address my central concern – our cultures deep-seated discomfort over our bellies. Because as Sarasohn points out, that as women have increasingly began to “ participate in the ‘mans’ world – the belly, the literal and figurative sign of womanly power – became, ideally, invisible.”
That’s why I want to google “belly and yoga” and come up with an entirely new and revolutionary set of links. Ones that tell a story not conforming to patriarchal or ascetic ideals of getting our bellies under control, but of letting it all hang out. Because what is at stake is our ability to nourish ourselves, to thrive, to be joyfully present in the world.
I find a viable alternative and visible role model within the less recognized yogic traditions of Tantra. Tantra’s practitioners sought divinity within the body and the roots of its practice trace back to the Mother Goddess worshiping early cultures.Their Goddesses of Nature, of Love, of Earthly Abundance, of Feminine Wisdom are lovingly and meticulously depicted in temple art and statuary spanning centuries.
And their bellies, adorned, bedecked and framed by jewelry, are an erogenous zone all of their own. Rounded and prominent as the jutting breasts and full-some hips and buttocks, they speak not of asceticism or denial, but to the sensual pleasures of life, and of the sacred nature of embodiment.