For Yoga Teachers – Don’t Call it a “Belly”

Ilonka Michelle O’Neil
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This is for my fellow yoga instructors.

There are parts of the body that we are more sensitive about than others. No one is offended if a teacher says “hug your quad muscles to the bones” while students are in plank pose. No one thinks twice about “lift your chin” or “pull your knees in toward your chest.” But the belly? That’s different.

I am a mother. I am a mother who underwent two c-sections, one of which was very traumatic, after a long drawn-out labor. The surgeon that did my c-section left me with a very pronounced (to me) ledge/bulge above the scar line. Unless I have plastic surgery, I’m never going to be able to “suck that in.” There is muscle underneath it. I am strong. But I cannot tell you how many times a yoga teacher has looked right at this area of my body, and instructed the class to “draw in your belly.”

Teachers likely mean nothing by it, but it feels like I’m being personally insulted every time. It’s defeating.

Technically, there is nothing wrong with telling a class,

“Draw in your belly.”

“Engage your core.”

“Tighten your abdominal muscles.”

But please don’t do it when you are looking directly at a particular student’s belly, core, or abs. If you need to say it, turn your head. Walk away. Be casual.
 

 
Or perhaps rather than cuing a “drawing in,” why not cue toward strength? Would a warrior give a shit about sucking in her tummy to live up to a cultural ideal? Or would she stand firmly rooted to the ground, bracing herself, drawing all her muscles to the core? Think of the difference between saying, “draw in your belly” (which to some might imply, “suck it in you cow”) as opposed to “brace yourself like a warrior, as if someone were about to punch you in the stomach,” (which might instead imply, “damn you are fierce!”). Cuing this way might actually prevent injuries as well.

I have two children with special needs. I am a yoga teacher, yes. I practice regularly. Yoga informs my whole life, but it isn’t my whole life. I have responsibilities and priorities bigger than making sure my abs are super tight or that my body looks “perfect,” as if that’s a thing. If I have an extra ten grand, it’s likely going toward treatments and therapies and education for my children, not a tummy tuck. If I have an extra ten pounds, it speaks directly to how overwhelmed I often feel. Having an instructor eyeball me and find my belly “not okay” doesn’t help.

Teachers, be sensitive when referring to the belly. Have some respect for where we all came from.

You don’t know what’s going on under those yoga pants. You don’t know what that belly, (or the heart above it), has been through, or what it carries.

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Ilonka Michelle O’Neil

Ilonka Michelle O’Neil is a writer, with a background in nursing. She teaches Vinyasa and Yin in the Boca Raton area. She volunteers for Yoga Gangsters and also Connected Warriors, a free yoga program for veterans. She is interested in healing trauma through yoga, and her passion is teaching yoga to parents of children with special needs. She blogs for Leslie Glickman's Yoga Journey.

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