After one of my recent bodywork trainings for women's health I asked a fellow massage colleague if I could give her some abdominal massage in exchange for helpful feedback. She was open and willing and we did about 30 minutes of abdominal work. To my surprise, she told me only after that she hadn't received work on her belly since attending massage school almost 18 years ago! I really shouldn't be that surprised, though. It has taken me almost ten years in my bodywork practice to feel confident and bold enough to invite clients to consider abdominal work. I was worried about making people feel uncomfortable or vulnerable with an area of the body that many women are self-conscious about. Over time I started working in a more therapeutic context versus general relaxation. I realized in order to really support and serve my clients through menstrual issues, fertility, pregnancy, postpartum healing, miscarriages, back pain, pelvic alignment, emotional stress, etc. it is essential to integrate abdominal massage in the healing and embodiment project. The good news is that women repeatedly report that they are surprised by how good and relaxing it actually feels! Personally, I now feel a little unsatisfied when my therapist doesn't at least offer to include abdominal work when it's my turn to receive. It may have taken me ten years to embrace abdominal massage but now it is just as important and enjoyable as massaging the back, neck and shoulders.
Here are some reasons to get in touch with your belly:
Your belly is also the “front of your back”! The back is the most common area of tension that people ask me to spend time working on in massage. There are so many myofascial layers and connections that wrap around from front to back, back to front as well as connecting your torso to your hips by way of the (in)famous hip flexors or iliopsoas muscles. These muscles can be accessed via the belly for deep release!
Healthy digestion. Ever feel bloated, sluggish or like digestion isn't moving along as smoothly as it should? Your digestion moves along through something called peristalic action (picture inch worm movements through the intestines). Manual massage can improve slow or impaired digestive flow. Has your belly ever made bubbly sounds during a massage? That's a good sign!
Menstrual health. Both digestion and menstruation can be baseline indicators for our overall health. If our cycles are generally on time, in relatively predictable rhythm, not too heavy, not too scant, healthy shades of red... then your hormonal health is likely in good balance. If not, then regular abdominal massage can deeply nourish and support the womb space and positioning for optimal flow. Fertility and postpartum healing are embedded in this concept as well.
What's the opposite of “Fight or Flight”? “Rest and Digest”. The relaxation response of the central nervous system resides in the belly or gut. We can communicate with this via the vagus nerve that travels from the brain down into the belly as well as from the belly to the brain cueing relaxation, safety and a pleasant experience.
Breathe better. Most of us breathe rather mindlessly and rather short and shallow (chest breathing). Poor breathing can result in anxious feelings, low immunity and neck tension to name a few. I often feel decent amount of tension when gently massaging the upper belly region under the borders of lower rib cage. In fact, I suspect that most of us hold a lot of emotional stress in our bellies an don't even realize it. It's pretty amazing how simple touch and increased awareness can release tension and invite that deep, full, belly breath back in and out...
After thinking about it, it's kind of funny how often our bellies are ignored in terms of supporting our health and well-being. I love how massage therapy offers such a relaxing way to heal and feel so deeply. If you've never received abdominal massage before, ask your therapist and give it a try next time you're on the table!