Belly Aches: Adventures with the Rolled-Up Mat

I can feel the pulsing in my stomach, like my heart is actually there in my gut.

Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom.

For a moment it is all I hear. There is music playing but it seems to have been muted. I am lying face down on my mat but I want to get up and run.

I feel a hand land softly on my lower back and the room comes back into focus - slowly.

Okay?

Not really a question, more of a check in.

The muted sound comes roaring back. I don't answer. I breathe and sink a little deeper. The exhale is heavy and shakes my torso a bit.

Three more breaths and my palms race to be next to my shoulders.

I push back into downward dog.

I grab the rolled up mat that has been under my stomach. I have to remind myself to gently place it next to me and resist the urge to fling it across the room as I come to the top of my mat.

Bring your hands to heart center. 

***

The above scene has played out in numerous classes - more than I care to admit. 

The rolled up mat is a Forrest yoga prop. It is exactly what it sounds like. A mat, folded long-wise in thirds and then rolled tightly. It is used in various poses, but is most famously used for massaging your stomach and releasing the lower back in a pose called "abs over the roll."

My well-loved but much-loathed rolled-up mat.
So why would anyone subject their body to something that seems to cause such panic and discomfort? Some of it is physical: Abs over the roll massages your stomach and stimulates movement in your digestive system. The eventual relaxation of your abdomen releases tension that we hold in our mid-section - which can be the root cause of some back pain.

But it's more than that. The subject feels uncomfortable to talk about, and yet we need our bellies to be healthy so desperately – for quality of life in digestion, movement, and for developing a healthy image of ourselves. Perhaps nothing could be more urgent than learning to handle our gut – a place second only to our brain in the signals it sends to our organs and our nervous system.

What is it about our stomachs that we find so hard to love?

For me, my belly holds the holy trinity of emotions: Fear, Shame, and Anger. When I was heavier, and living a less healthy lifestyle, it represented everything that I was embarrassed and bothered by in my physical appearance. In tight clothes, the pressure of my stomach against my pants was a constant reminder of imperfection. Every nervous act knotted it further, every worry felt as if I was actually experiencing the fear in my abdomen.

Old habits die hard, and I remain a work in progress. When I look at my body in the mirror, my eyes often dart to my stomach first. There are always questions: How does my stomach look? Is it flat enough? Did I do enough abs this week?

Our preoccupation with our physical selves is borne out over years and years. Changing is a slow process, more akin to crawling than walking.

But yoga helps. Yoga helps so much. Perhaps it is the gentle stripping away of ego, or the infusion of self-love that finally begins to seep through the cracks in our armor as we surrender to the practice.

For me, it is also the acceptance that what feels so imperfect is really a beautiful part of myself that I have been missing out on loving.

The rolled-up mat is a physical step towards emotional release and there is something cathartic about the work.

As Ana says:  

Just know that when your stuff comes up there's Beauty in that. It's really uncomfortable but it's workable. There it is. You can reach it. You can touch it. You can taste it. And that's where you can do something with it. Celebrate that uncomfortable stuff. Now you can do something with it.

***

Yoga teaches us that we can always change the endings to our stories.

We are in savasana and the heat from the room begins to cool with the sudden end to all movement.

Eyes closed, my left hand on my heart and my right hand on my stomach, I take a deep audible breath in and exhale slowly, my lower back pressing against the ground.

I feel the edges of my hips relaxing as my belly rises to push just slightly into my open palm and fill the space.

In a few minutes, we will rise and bow and move about our day.

But at this moment I am finally comfortable, simply loving the parts of the whole.