Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.
—Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 11
“Mmmm, your abdomen has no tone.” My eyes popped open at these words, completely disrupting the relaxed state I was trying to enter as the acupuncturist examined me. I was resistant to trying a new practitioner, especially since the referral was a kind of admission that my case was complicated and needed a second opinion, from an expert, to attempt to address. By then, I’d heard my body described as “cold” and “deficient” and “stagnant” enough times to not take them as moral judgments; but this reading of my abdomen was new—and didn’t make me happy.
Before I go on, let me clarify one thing. The word “tone” in the context of Traditional Chinese Medicine refers to the relative health of a tissue—herbs that “tonify” an organ system, for instance, enhance its overall function, generally by increasing its quality and/or quantity. It does not refer, as I heard it then, to “muscle tone”—what I had been trying to cultivate in my abdomen since the ripe age of eight, first with daily sets of 100+ crunches, gradually adding in other exercises and modalities with promises to surpass crunches with “whole body toning.” In either meaning, though, at the time of this exam I had neither—strength or functionality in my abdominal organs or muscles, reflected in my various physical imbalances.
The implications of this diagnosis aside, the suggestion that my abdomen lacked tone—and more so, my reaction to that assessment—is where I want to direct our focus in this discussion, and where I’ll be teaching from in the month of September. Last month, I was caught off guard my how my theme of the earth element manifested—an exploration of the inherent duality of earth’s “stability,” given the constant mobility of the planet and of nature at large. There seems to be more to mine here (pun intended), so I’m staying on this idea a little longer, and going a bit deeper, into the “core of the earth” as it were—the molten center of our planet, this vulnerable center of our physical bodies and emotional associations with it, and, you guessed it, another expression of the non-dual duality at the core of any core.
Let us begin with the most accessible—and socially prevalent—of these dualities, as it pertains to the notion of “core strength” in modern fitness. Perhaps some of you were also raised in an era where the only appropriate way a girl or woman could stand (or sit or walk, or even lie down!) required sucking in her belly—a habit I developed early on, and which was reinforced by years of dance training and choir. Sucking in my abdomen didn’t do anything to enhance my muscle tone, but it did severely impair my natural breathing patterns, digestion, and mental health. Rather than consciously engaging these muscles during exercise (or other necessary life circumstances, like exhaling or laughing), which could affect muscle tone, non-stop engagement created the conditions of weakness and tightness in those muscles. In other words, with my belly already habituated to being pulled in, there wasn’t much more for it to do when I told it to “engage” in Pilates or other “core exercises.” And so, all my years of crunching and table-topping and planking with a tense abdomen weren’t producing any of the effects I thought they would, but did result in pelvic floor pain, digestive weakness, and stress. In summary, chronic tension does not equal strength or tone; it equals imbalance—the non-tone that my acupuncturist pointed out, and which seemed so antithetical to what I thought I’d been doing.
I’m still in the process of unlearning this pattern of being, but I’ve made the most progress not by working directly with my core muscles (or even my organs), but by addressing the mental and emotional imbalances at the core (pun intended—again!) of this pattern. In my case, the belly tension was a reflection of a story I’d been told, as an individual and as a female, that I should take up as little space as possible. Don’t speak, don’t get in the way, don’t have or want too much, don’t have big feelings, don’t make trouble. But also, always be right and “do it all” because—girl power! At the same time, the exercise modalities I practiced offered cues like “draw your navel to your spine” or “move your front ribs to your hip bones” all the time—with little to no instruction on when to NOT do this, in exercise or life. When to release the belly muscles, allow for full inhalation, or simply observe the whole body at once rather than put all my attention on one body part over which I really have very little control—the core, which (un)ironically is associated with the sense of self and ego. These were messages as confusing as “don’t exist” and “rule the world”; “pull your belly in” and “pull it in more.”
The contradictions in these ideas are as obvious as Barbie, but revising them wasn’t as simple as negating all the ways I’d been told to not take up space. Rather, I had to understand—and experience—the truth of the core’s function in life, and why a “toned” belly, in an energetic and physical sense, could be neither flat and hard nor non-existent. Because, over time, my body did change: my core became flat, then concave, but as that tissue I once feared and despised disappeared, so did my spirit. No one had ever told me that something other than fat and shame (or, their opposite ideals, strength and muscles)—the dense and heavy stories I prayed to be relieved of—lived in my belly. But it’s also home to the subtle substances and energies that fuel our life force and spirit. And they need space—lots of it—to give us the “core strength” we need to lift the heavy loads of life—stress, grief, illness, joy, passion—for as long as we’re lucky enough to encounter them. Earth begets space, space begets earth—one cannot exist without the other.
We can encounter this dichotomy by taking a look at the organs of the core, Magic Schoolbus-style, where there’s a lot of nothing. Between the GI organs (digestion and elimination) and reproductive organs, there’s mostly empty space in this relatively small expanse of the abdomen (if you don’t believe that it’s small, go ahead and spread your hand and place your pinky on your hip bone and your thumb on your ribcage. Then look at your hand. Yep, that’s your belly! So much happens in that tiny space!!). Anything solid that enters the core ultimately leaves (and if it doesn’t, we have a problem); and the solid beings that hang out there most often, our microbes, are not even technically “us.” Indeed, for all of those hollow organs (known as the “yang organs” in TCM, meaning they are organs that receive and act, rather than the full/dense “yin organs” that store and regulate) to do their job, they’re going to need to move around a bit. Hence why our bellies swell during menstruation and pregnancy, after a big meal, or when the diaphragm temporarily displaces them to allow for the lungs to fill with inhalation.
Bread, blood, babies, breath—these are indeed what I have come to associate with a non-empty, sometime-space-filled, “toned” (by which I mean “functional”) core. It is a space made of spaces meant to be filled—then emptied, then filled again, on and on, every day we’re alive. This process of emptying and filling cannot happen when the core is not allowed to move—when it’s pulled in tight from fear of being seen and/or to achieve a socially acceptable figure. We find a healthy ego and sense of self, too, when the belly can do its job as the supple center of transformation—taking things in from the outside, turning some of those things into our tissues but not all of them. Preserving the boundaries of our identity, and letting that stay spacious and dynamic, includes allowing for the natural ebb and flow of emotions, which further has a direct impact on our immunity and longevity. The build up or dismissal of emotions will, over time, create the kind of hormonal imbalances that tax our bodies’ immune reserves, making us more vulnerable to illness—and irregularities in sleep, appetite, digestion, energy, and mood that cause or result from illness. To me, that sounds like the opposite of “core stability”—which, again, was exactly what my acupuncturist found in my abdomen that day.
Indeed, my constant approach to “core stability” actively prevented these life-giving processes from happening for many years. I couldn’t access the full nutrition of my food or breath, and my worldview became so limited and rigid I couldn’t recognize what external information was useful for me to take in because I’d squelched the space where that fire of recognition—the agni, the spirit—lived. I turned to exercise to make my mind feel settled and in control, but all that was doing was drawing on my already depleted energy levels. The more I planked, the less stable I—and my core—became. I might have looked stable on the outside, like I achieved the ideal (depends on who you ask there), but holding myself up was taking everything I had—and eventually took more than I had.
Maybe this scenario sounds familiar (and I’m sorry if it does). I’m not going to describe the five things I did or tell you about the magic herb I took to heal myself—these things don’t exist, and I’m not totally healed to be honest. Instead, what I want to offer is a new image of “core stability”:
An abdomen that moves freely without pain, including in the spaces above (in the ribs/chest) or below (in the hips/pelvic floor).
An appetite that enjoys as much as it wants, and knows when it’s had enough, and when to share.
A spine that reaches upright and regal, suspended by and with gravity, without effort or pain, or a need to curl into itself or jut itself forward as a mode of protection and self-defense.
A heart that feels with others, not for them.
A mind that sees the world for its beauty, and is not compelled to take from it, change or improve it, or deny it.
A spirit that feels at home, satisfied, and worthy of occupying not only the space of an outstretched palm, but everything and everyone that palm touches—and more.
Achieving this state will not happen with core stabilizing exercises (alone; they can help, but it depends!). It requires the kind of stability that won’t make your belly muscles shake or shrink. It requires going into the core of your earth—the molten, alive, dynamic, mysterious core—and finding stability there, in the heat and the intensity and solitude that is life.
This is the practice we need to be doing every minute of every day, not sucking in our bellies.
For in returning to our core—our spirit—we find the answer to everything, that which is both formless and the most nourishing substance of all, that which transforms and is produced by its transformation, that which is constant and free, profitable and useful, more than us and of us: love.