Here's the scene. It's my first day of Forrest Yoga teacher training. Ana has us make two lines, facing each other. Then we walk in towards each other so we are 6 inches in front of the opposite person. We have to take turns demonstrating and teaching Ujjayi breath, the most basic, important and pervasive breath in yoga. She shows us first how it's done and I listen to the deep, Darth Vader-like sounds emanating from her on inhale and exhale.
Wait a second. On inhale?! I had been doing yoga for 10 odd years and never had I ever been taught Ujjayi breath on the inhale. What the...how?! Truly I thought Ujjayi was just an exhale thing. Okay, so let's do this. I practice engaging my throat to make that delicious ocean sound on inhale and - SNORT! Right in my partners face. I try again. Extra loud snort. Shit. I immediately become confused, self-conscious and a bit embarrassed. I call over Zach, one of the assistants, and tell him my dilemma. He smiles, disarming me, and tells me to go for it, even if I make crazy animal sounds in my throat. And I do.
I now only sometimes make questionable noises with my Ujjayi breath and I've learned to laugh and have fun with the mistakes I'm making in the quest of finding my breath. And what a breath it is. Ujjayi is cleansing and calming. It builds a gentle heat inside you. It naturally slows down and smooths out the pace of your breathing. In Forrest Yoga, we use Ujjayi breath through the entire practice, in every pose and every transition. It's delicious, and as you learn to control your breath, you learn how your breath influences your energy, your focus and your experience.
Time to practice, partner completely optional! Sit or stand up straight. Open your mouth and whisper "Hello." There, you've found your whisper muscles in the back of your throat. You'll use these for Ujjayi. Inhale through your mouth, gently constricting your throat and whisper muscles to create an ocean-like sound. Exhale through your mouth with whisper muscles engaged. It should be easier and louder on the exhale, sounding like a deep sigh, or like you are fogging up your glasses. Repeat 5 times. Next step. Inhale through your mouth and halfway through, close it and continue the breath through your nose (all the while engaging your whisper muscles so breath is audible). Exhale through your mouth and halfway through, close it and continue the breath through your nose. Tricky, I know! But this helps reinforce the use of your throat muscles as you transition between mouth and nose. Repeat 5 times. Last step, inhale and exhale through the nose while gently engaging whisper muscles. Repeat 5 times. This is full-on Ujjayi.
Here are some tips. Breathing through the mouth is much easier than the nose, so start there. Likewise, if you lose your Ujjayi breath during class, reconnect with it by breathing through your mouth. Exhale is easier than inhale. It can take a lot of practice to feel Ujjayi on the inhale (I can attest). Resist getting discouraged! I learned after much experimentation that I was snorting because I was constricting my throat too much. Play around with how much you engage the back of your throat so you can find that sweet spot where you can sift your breath comfortably. Lastly, practice, practice, practice. During your yoga class, always, but my second favorite time to practice is in my car. It gives me something to focus on other than traffic and crazy drivers and my endless task list. And I reap all the divine benefits of the breath at a time when I need it the most.
It was a comfortable evening in early October 2006 and I was taking a leisurely walk down the block. I took these walks every night with my sweet yellow lab, Matilda, but with every week my pace got slower, my breathing more labored. I wasn't totally shocked by this, given I was 5 months pregnant with twins. But it was when I felt the tightness in my belly that I started to freak out a little. It was a sensation like I only imagine a water balloon would feel, getting fuller and fuller with heavy water, skin stretching thinner until - POP! I had expected to feel like this at 36 weeks, not when I had 4 months left until meeting my babies. I wondered how much more my belly could possibly expand, and even if in fact it would.
Well it could and it did. But my belly ended up mimicking that sensation I had of a water balloon filled beyond capacity. When all was said and done, I had a 3 inch tear down the middle of my abdominal wall (the technical term for this is diastasis), an umbilical hernia, a belly that resembled squished pizza dough (aka twin skin) and...the most beautiful baby boys I had ever laid eyes on.
In the weeks that passed after Abel's and Oskar's births, I remember not being able to lift up my shirt and look at my stomach in the mirror. When I finally did, my spirit felt even more deflated than my belly looked. I couldn't muster even touching it. Then the really horrifying moment came when I laid on my back for the first time to attempt some version of crunches. Muscles didn't connect, I lacked feeling where I should, there were weird gaps. I lifted up my shirt and looked at my belly to see, what I later termed, "the crevasse." From just below my xiphoid process all the way passed my non-existent belly button, my belly sunk in. Deeply. Like one of those haunting cracks in glacial ice that claims the lives of mountaineers.
I'm sure it was in the works long before this moment, but my belly was now a freakish "it" to me. I kept telling myself (and others) that it had safely brought two of my greatest loves into this world. That I should look at it like a badge of honor. That I should embrace it. It was a good talk, but really I felt like it betrayed me. It was flawed and broken. Whatever lack of physical feeling I had from muscles and connective tissue stretching and splitting, and from being cut open for a c-section, I added to it by emotionally disconnecting. I basically gave up on my belly. I refused to look at it or touch it, and god forbid anyone else see it.
Two years, two boot camps, and a few month of doing the Tracy Anderson method in my living room later, I saw a plastic surgeon. I just wanted a fix to the hideous monster under my shirt. My experience left me feeling...empty. As scared as I was about living the rest of my life with my belly the way it was, I was even more scared of having it cut out of me and reshaped. Plus, it would cost a fortune that we just did not have to spend. The doctor's final words echoed loudly in my head, "Surgery is the only thing that can fix this."
The universe, being the great orchestrator that it is, soon put an article in front of me about aerial dance. You know, where you gracefully move on, in, up, down and around flowing silk clothes suspended from the ceiling. Soon after, I went to see our local aerial dance company, Blue Lapis Light, perform. Let's just say something unexpectedly stirred in my belly. I felt it! In the coming weeks, I could not ignore that feeling and I enrolled in a private lesson, just to see what this was all about.
What feels like a lifetime ago, I was a competitive gymnast. The for-real, athletic scholarship, captain of the University of Illinois team, kind. Let's just say I had buried this person at the bottom of my crevasse, and all the flipping and twisting and moving in the 90 minutes in the silk clothes woke her up. I signed up for series of classes and the true awakening of my belly began.
Something truly remarkable happened, like a reintegration. My belly was no longer this isolated thing, but it was part of this greater whole that helped me move the way I wanted to. In a way that felt good. Strong. Sure, we did hollow body rocks and holds, v-ups and tuck-pike-straddles, and all sorts of cool exercises to strengthen the abdominals. But what really mattered to me was dancing in the cloth, expressing feelings through movement, using my whole body to make and feel something...beautiful.
Then I made the giant leap to become a Forrest Yoga teacher and headed to Houston for a month-long training. I knew Ana Forrest's abdominal work would be crazy intense, but nothing prepared me for what was to come. Long sequences of deep low abdominal exercises, connecting in with pelvis and inner thigh work. Laying belly down over a rolled-up yoga mat, massaging the muscles, fascia, intestines and organs, and providing sweet relief to my chronic tension in low back and sacrum. Uddiyana, agni sara and nuali every which way. After the first 7 days of being instructed to lift up my shirt to not just practice, but to teach and demonstrate uddiyana in horse stance, my fear and self-consciousness surrounding the appearance of my belly disappeared. My yoga was becoming a practice of being completely in the feelings of my body, however fantastic or frightening they were. It was exhilarating!
Half way through the training, as we were helicoptering our legs to switch sides for twisted root abs, Ana commented, "I developed this one for all the mamas with diastasis." As my brain was still digesting what she just said, my hands instinctively wrapped around my belly, fingers palpitating down like a search party desperate to find the lost climber. It was gone. My crevasse was gone. My 3 inch wide abdominal separation was healed, which I'm sure you can imagine, wasn't the only thing. Tears streamed down my face as I realized I was reclaiming and welcoming back home a huge part of my body that I had shut out for many years.
I'm teaching a workshop called Core Recovery at Say Om Yoga on August 11 from 2-4pm. This workshop personally means so much to me, and I've been drawing very deeply on my own story and relationship with my belly for inspiration. It will include ceremony - smudging, calling in the four directions and chanting - breath work and poses that will help awaken the center of your body and being. I'm so looking forward to sharing this with you.