From corsets to liposuction, for centuries, we have been conditioned to believe that the perfect body must have a small waist. Modern day workouts tease us with the promise of “abs of steel” and “washboard abs.” Our culture shames belly fat to the point where we are obsessed with obtaining a flat stomach. All my life, friends, family and even teachers would encourage “sucking it in” to maintain a more slim and attractive physique.
When I was only 7 years old, I remember going to ballet class and the teacher having us lie on the floor and practice sucking our stomachs in so that our lower backs would touch the ground. I continued taking ballet classes for the next 20 years, practicing this sucking in of my stomach. As a professional dancer, I have been conditioned to be physically active while limiting my breathing to my chest so that my stomach never protrudes.
In dance, keeping a tight core is essential for optimal performance, but there was a big problem…I never learned how to breathe properly.
It wasn’t until I started meditating that I realized this. When I had to sit there for 20-30 minutes in silence, bringing awareness to my breath, I realized that I was not taking a proper deep breath. My meditation teacher instructed me to pay attention to the rise and fall of my belly, but my belly was barely moving.
Proper, healthy breathing comes from deep in the diaphragm, which causes the belly to rise on the inhale and fall on the exhale.
Most people have become accustomed to the opposite of the proper way of breathing, pulling in the stomach and expanding the chest on the inhale. When one breathes from the upper chest all the time, the body’s sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the fight or flight response, is constantly initiated.
This means that our bodies go into a high-stress mode, originating from prehistoric times where we very likely could be chased and killed by a saber-toothed tiger. Our heart rate and breathing increases, constricting blood vessels and tightening muscles. Our digestive systems shut down as our bodies prepare to either fight or run. This is all necessary if a killer animal were really chasing us, but in modern times, that doesn’t happen often. Instead, a difficult boss, performing in front of a crowd, fighting with our spouse or constantly breathing from our chests, can activate our high stress mode. This constant level of stress is harmful to our emotional and physical health.
Having already had a history of anxiety, the fact that I breathed from my upper chest did not bode well for me. Why encourage my body’s fight or flight response even more when I was still recovering from the unhealthy consequences of a childhood filled with anxiety?
I literally had to re-learn how to breathe. Mentally, I had to get over the superficial concern that my belly would protrude as I allowed it to expand with each breath.
It took months of consciously breathing correctly to get to the point at which I was no longer taking shallow chest breaths. I still catch myself breathing the old way, but I then slow down, put my hand on my belly as a reminder and take a few deep breaths.
When I first realized how anti-ballet this sort of breathing was, I stopped dancing just so that I could get myself out of the habit of breathing from my chest. I even became angry that the dance and fitness industry that I had belonged to for so long promoted such an unhealthy aesthetic and way of living. It wasn’t until I had control over my own breath that I felt I could return to dance and working out.
Having control over my own breath gave me power and I knew when and where to use it.
Now I’m all for “sucking it in” when you want to show off your hard earned abs, but it’s critical to always return to breathing correctly. “Sucking it in” shouldn’t be a way of life.
Breathing properly gave me a tool I could use at any time or place to center, calm and relax myself. It saved me many times from stage fright, stressful days and insomnia.
Try it for yourself and see what benefits you get from proper deep breathing.
My hope is that we start to realize that true freedom doesn’t come from a “perfect” body, but from a healthy one.
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Photo: Ballet Zaida