I have a distinct memory of a particularly sweaty & hot yoga class in which I faced a dilemma: Do I take my shirt off or not? It was soaked and weighing me down, but in a room covered in mirrors the last thing I wanted to do was expose myself. I didn't want to see it and, surely, neither did anybody else. My belly. My totally imperfect, less than toned, roundish belly. Delirium soon set in though, I think, because next glance in the mirror my shirt was off.
The class more or less went to shit from there. I remember being sandwiched between two beautiful, shirtless, and toned ballerina/swan hybrids. They flowed beautifully through postures as I limply tried to move my limbs from one place to the next. I lost my focus and became consumed with insecurity. I obsessed over how my stomach looked in the mirror from pose to pose and I was less than pleased with the image I saw. I engaged my core and I sucked in my belly button, but it didn't change what I saw. The class was crowded and hot and I was in a bind - literally. Baddha Utthita Parsvakonasana had me. I was struggling and straining my breath so I had no choice but to let it go and unwind into child's pose. There I panted and agonized as I tried to find comfort, but I was still tense and resistant. I was still holding onto something. My belly. Whoah.
No revelation yet, though. The rest of the class still kind of sucked. I got out of child's pose just in time to join the class in dancer's posture and immediately went down for another round of child's. I felt nauseous in savasana and my mind was racing - dwelling on what the hell had just happened. Why did I care so much about how I looked in my yoga class? Why did I let it consume me and tense me up? Why couldn't I just love my belly in all its round, funny glory?
I didn't even realize the lesson I learned until one of my students pointed it out to me years later. She said "I love it when you tell us to let our bellies go." And that's when I started to notice I said that in almost every class I taught. And started to own it. And started to get excited about it. The core is incredibly important in yoga - engage it and strengthen it and you can do amazing things. But as people in a society obsessed with one pretty specific version of beauty it is just as important to disengage it, to let it go, to make it big and round and full.
It has become a personal practice of mine to love my belly and to let it stick out whenever possible. I like to see it as a way to let go of attachment and to sort of stick it to "the man." (You can't tell me what's beautiful and what isn't!) Sometimes I even give it a good rub - in front of other people. So stick your belly out, rub your belly, and just take some time to let go every day. You might be holding on to more than you even realize.