This article was originally posted in elephant journal, which is an amazing online journal about yoga and meditation. You can see the original article here, or read on:
Secrets to the Warrior Power in your Belly: Exploring the Core through the Chakras
by Julie (JC) Peters
Have you ever been in a yoga class where the teacher is making you go through a series of crunches, or core planks, or boat pose, and you start to feel your belly burning, and you just get this image in your head of punching that teacher in her smug little face? Really, really hard?
I have. Core work does that to me sometimes. And I love it. (Though i don’t usually follow through, of course.)
There's something about working the muscles of your core that is different than working other areas of your body. Feeling your thighs burn is just not as psychosis-inducing as a few innocent-looking little crunches.
One of the things asana yoga can do is stimulate centres of energy in your body called Chakras. There are seven of them (depending on who you ask) and for the purposes of this article, we will be focusing on the lower three, all of which reside in the belly: Muladhara, the root chakra, Svadisthana, the sacral chakra, and Manipura, the solar plexus. These lower chakras have to do with ourselves as individuals: our basic needs and instincts, our emotions, our desires, and our egos. All of our crap is located in our lower chakras (and not just theoretically). The belly holds all of our anger, our desires, our shame, our fear, and our unresolved issues. Poses that work the belly, our bodies know on a deep instinctual level, could create some seismic shi(f)ts.
Engaging the core must always start at the beginning: the root. According to yoga philosophy, we have a magical little spot in our bodies called mula bandha. Located at the pelvic diaphragm, the pelvic floor, the perineum, that special area that we contract when we want to keep shit to ourselves, this magical little spot is the key to the door of our inner power. Reema Datta and Leza Lowitz describe it this way:
“‘mula’ means ‘root,’ ‘origin,’ or ‘source.’ [...] Many yoga practitioners consider mula bandha to be the secret to maintaining strong life-force energy. Mula bandha is a grounding, centering force that helps to create heat, protects the overstretching of muscles, and increases the functioning of the parasympathetic nervous system that is responsible for relaxation. Engaging mula bandha thus creates a relaxed state in the midst of deep movement” (Sacred Sanskrit Words).
They make it sound so easeful. It can be. What’s happening from a physical perspective is this: when we engage the pelvic floor, we can set off a chain reaction in the body that becomes the Deep Core Line. This is a series of muscles that run from the inner arches of the feet, through the inner legs, mula bandha, the low belly, middle belly and diaphragm, through the chest and into the palms, and all the way up to the tongue itself. The belly becomes the brain of this physical connection, the control centre. Did you know that the digestive system has as many neurons as the spinal cord? It has its own unique intelligence, and one that most of us spend our time overriding with the crazy reasonings of our overworked brains. Turning on this deep core line can create access to a completely new kind of intelligence that runs through the whole body, and through several other bandhas, or locks, in the upper belly, the throat, the hands and feet, and the tongue. If you could actually see this electric current turning on, it might look like something out of the anime TV show Avatar: the Last Airbender, when the magic of earth, air, fire, and water come together to create a mythical beast of power. Anyway it feels that way when I do it. Like a skinny, gangly yoga teacher turning into Optimus Prime. It's awesome.
Part of the reason turning on your core can feel so supernatural is because when you turn on the Deep Core Line through your lowest chakra, you get each one of those seven wheels spinning, right up to the Crown, where we connect with the universal or the divine. But first, we must plant our roots: Muladhara is the chakra that connects your feet to the earth. It connects us to our most basic selves that need nourishment, shelter, and protection. It's where we hide our fear. Svadisthana Chakra, located on the level of the sacrum, is our centre of pleasure, desire, lovemaking, creativity, romance, and emotion. Our shame is hidden here. Manipura Chakra is located at the solar plexus, around or above the navel itself. Though core engagement begins at Muladhara, the chakra that is often most stimulated is actually Manipura, the solar plexus.
Manipura is our centre of personal power. This is where we feel determination, willpower, the ability to manifest our desires, our ego, and yes, anger. Its Sanskrit name means "lustrous gem" and it is represented by a bright yellow sun. This is the fire that can distill diamonds from coal. It is what can sort through the shit and find the gems. A lot of us, women especially, have issues with the solar plexus chakra: issues of speaking up, standing up for ourselves, and self-protection. Working the physical core can often bring up those feelings of weakness, inadequacy, fear, shame, and then that familiar desire to punch the teacher in the face or yell at the father with his adorable daughter riding in front of me on a bicycle built for two going TOO SLOW YOU ASSHOLES! (I didn’t actually say that. Just so you know.)
I discovered that the more I could access the power in my centre, the less unstable those red hot emotions started to feel. I started to feel powerful. I started to do the things I had been planning on getting to for months. I started to speak up when someone wasn't treating me right. I was able to channel that anger into confidence, finding my own inner power, as a woman, yes, but as me, which is a big part of what Manipura is all about: your sense of yourself.
I also learned that as important engaging the pelvic floor is, releasing it is equally important. If the power you access through core work stays in the solar plexus and can’t move out, the anger and the ego start to burn you up from the inside out. Being on fire is sometimes necessary, but at some point we need to hose that baby off.
The pelvic floor is the key to turning on the core, but also the key to releasing energy that needs to move on. Because our issues of control are stored in the belly region, we tend to walk around with tension there unconsciously, which blocks the flow between the chakras. Consciously activating the core can also teach us how to consciously let it go: this is the secret to the power in your belly. By wading into the mystery waters of our bellies and exploring them on our own terms, we can begin to access the courage of the true warrior. My favourite Persian poet Hafiz describes the warrior this way:
Wisely sits in a circle
With other men
Gathering the strength to unmask
Like a great illumined planet on
In other words, It takes real bravery to get to know your own shit and find diamonds. It takes even more courage to then let them go.