There are many wonderful mindfulness practices that can help us cultivate greater ease in our day-to-day lives. One that I’ve been tapping into lately is something I stumbled upon, called “Soft Belly.” While the name may sound corny to some, the fact remains that “Soft Belly” is a simple, yet powerful form of mindfulness meditation that can help in a number of ways, including: lowering tension, increasing calm, and fostering greater presence. And, the good news is that it doesn’t have to take long – you can reap the benefits by practicing for just 20-30 seconds at a time!
Periodically, I’ve heard this directive in mindfulness meditation settings – to tune into the body and soften the belly. Most recently, I heard it when watching an excellent video by the lovely duo, Stephen and Ondrea Levine (Levine, 1993), two leaders in bringing mindfulness practices to a Western audience (on a sad note, Stephen recently passed away). For reasons which I’ll explain below, tapping into “soft belly” has been a delightful new addition to my micro-meditation toolkit, with “micro” referring to the small, more informal ways to practice mindfulness throughout the day.
“Trying hardens the belly. Trying brings us into the realm of judgment. The harder you try, the more you feel like you can’t do what you’re trying to do. And, it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about meditation or playing a piano. Judgment comes with effort.” – Stephen Levine
I’ve been a long-term meditator with over 15 years of regular sitting under my belt (with some years having been more devoted than others). I’ve found all types of practice useful – the basic mindfulness of breath, insight meditation (vipassana), body awareness practices, loving kindness (metta), and insight dialogue to name a few. As a adjunct to my formal meditation, or as a replacement during particularly busy times, I’ve found more informal practices like “Soft Belly” to be invaluable.
Recently, I was fortunate to visit the beautiful archipelago of Hawaii yet again. Tourism and colonialism influences aside, the experience of spending a week or two there never fails to change something inside of me for the better. Something about slowing down, spending a lot of time in exquisite nature and connecting (albeit from afar, as a “visitor”) with a culture that generally feels more grounded and less competitive…really does it for me. It engenders this sweet, peaceful state – a state of greater presence, openness and ease – that carries back into my regular (and good) life back at home.
Many of us think of vacation in terms of “escape,” and while there’s some truth to that in that you get a break from your regular routine and responsibilities; for me, that experience ultimately helps me reconnect to myself and my life in a deeper way. It does this in part by helping me let go of the surface stuff. For example, when I returned home and got stuck in traffic during my morning commute – I didn’t like it, but something was different. It didn’t bother me quite as much. In general, I noticed that I wasn’t as “sticky” or “attached” to whatever came my way. Instead of getting caught up in the undesirable experience (in whatever form that took), things would happen and then roll off of me more easily. This “non-stick” quality allowed me to stay more focused on the deeper intentions to which I aspire – like enjoying the day, doing good work and connecting genuinely with the people around me.
I’ve noticed as time has ticked on and I’ve become more embedded in my normal routine, this ease of being in the present moment, regardless of the circumstances and without exerting much effort, is changing. As we return to our habitual ways of being, it’s so easy and natural to jump forward into the future, or slide back into the past. The “present” moment doesn’t feel quite as compelling, in part because it’s familiar. I think that’s one of the reasons many love to travel; you experience all of these new sights, sounds and smells that help you wake up to the here and now – all without exerting much effort. But, the good (and lesser known) news is that there’s actually this freshness available virtually all of the time, even in our more seemingly ho-hum moments. And, mindfulness is one tool – granted, that requires time and effort – that helps us get in touch with that.
I feel fortunate to be experimenting with this powerful practice of paying attention to my belly and intentionally trying to soften it whenever I feel taken out of a place of ease, perhaps by some physical tension, stress or irritation. As a low-tech version of biofeedback, I take a moment to pause, notice how my stomach feels, and then send a gentle message to soften it…and voila! I get a bit of the ‘Aloha’ back every time.
Soft Belly Mindfulness Steps
“Soft Belly” is indeed a very simple practice, and I almost feel silly writing out the basic instructions of my particular version of it, but here goes it: .
1.) Pause (this step alone can actually be quite helpful with promoting more relaxation in one’s daily life)
2.) Briefly name what’s difficult for you in the moment (e.g., “I’m feeling stressed, worried, tired, angry, hungry, sad” etc; the process of ‘naming’ something is common in mindfulness practices and helps create some healthy distance from distressing feelings and thoughts)
3.) Notice how your belly/abdomen feels – it’s likely contracted, tense, as we’re often in this state out of habit. We stiffen up whenever we’re holding on to something too tight – and the “holding” can be a grasping of something good (feeling excited about something) or a pushing away of something unpleasant (“get me out of this line”).
4.) Send a gentle message to soften, to let go of the tightness in your belly. With each exhalation, let your belly soften a bit more, perhaps at the same time saying something like “it’s ok to let go.” Spend anywhere from 20-30 seconds doing this, or longer if you’d like.
5.) Repeat (several times throughout the day!)
I’d also suggest watching Stephen and Ondrea Levine’s longer guided “Soft Belly” meditations featured below, as they offer a more in-depth perspective:
Soft Belly Meditation, Version from 1993 group meditation (this is a long, excellent talk; the Soft Belly guided meditation is featured at the very beginning and lasts about 5 minutes)
Soft Belly Meditation, More Recent Version (this is also a long talk that starts with a brief discussion of “Soft Belly,” followed by the guided meditation, and then is followed by more discussion related to the benefits and challenges of this particular practice)
“With each exhalation letting go of the suffering, the anger, of the mercilessness, of the hardened belly. Have mercy on you. Let go of that pain. That grief. Softening. Levels and levels of letting go, of mercy, of care for yourself and all sentient beings.” – Stephen Levine
Why It Works
Most of us are familiar with the brain-gut connection, whereby stressful experiences can manifest in stomach symptoms. What is less known, but supported by science, is that the relationship goes the other way as well: our gastrointestinal (GI) health impacts our emotional life. Our enteric nervous system, comprised of 100 million neurons throughout the GI track, is sometimes referred to as the “second brain” because of its powerful influence over not only our bodies, but our mental states as well.
“Soft Belly” also seems to be connected to the well-studied practice of diaphragmatic breathing (taking deep belly breaths) which, when practiced regularly, has been shown to do all kinds of impressive things like lower blood pressure, increase relaxation, enhance mood and even boost one’s immune system (Pelletier & Luskin). When I send a message to my brain to soften my belly, I inevitably breath more deeply, and step out of the place of holding / contraction / tension.
Lastly, the stomach symbolizes a place of vulnerability as well, marking the general area where most of our vital organs lay. Accordingly, some theorize that we have a tendency to automatically tighten up there when under stress, as a means of armoring (a sign of the sympathetic nervous system response, known as fight-flight-freeze). Softening the belly activates the balancing mechanism of the parasympathetic nervous system, by essentially sending a message to our body and mind that it’s ok to relax. Additionally, it’s resistance, in contrast to acceptance, that tends to create more tension in our lives; softening is a means of allowing the experience to be, rather than fighting it.
Give this practice a try on your own, or as mentioned, listen to one of the Levine’s excellent guided versions of “Soft Belly” noted above. Pause and soften several times throughout the day and enjoy the results.