When I was a kid, we were told to stand up straight. That meant we were to supposed to become stiff and armored, our chests puffed out, bellies sucked in hard, shoulders yanked backwards, chins lifted and jaws tensed. It was a military posture that was advocated at that time. They didn't tell us to make our jaws tense, but when you stand like that, it's kind of hard not to clench. Give it a try and see.
Then the 1960s arrived. Suddenly we were told to let it all hang out, get loose. We were supposed to let our bellies be soft. Our bellies softened, oh yeah. We over softened our bellies, because we in the U.S. tend to go to extremes. It is our way and I don't think we need to blame ourselves.
At that time, not very many people even knew what yoga was. The martial arts, too, were mostly unknown in America. If you doubt that we had no concept of the martial arts, watch any of the early James Bond movies. The fight scenes are kind of hilarious. No one even bothered to try to make it look real. Thank god for Bruce Lee! He showed us that martial arts are about core strength, balance, poise and awareness.
The practice of yoga, Pilates, Alexander technique and/or any of the martial arts will help develop what is now called core strength. Core strength means the spine and internal organs are supported by the muscles that surround the spine as well as all three sets of abdominal muscles. Core strength also refers to a self awareness, grace, and authenticity. With strong cores, we are neither too soft nor too hard. We are vivid and real. Does that make sense?
Please don't yearn for a hard body. Those who have pronounced six packs, for instance, have overdeveloped their rectus abdominis muscles. That can impair functioning of the organs and result in back strains or sore shoulders because the muscles are over-engaged. I can't figure out why anyone thinks that's sexy. A boyfriend you can kick in the stomach. He won't even notice. Is that sexy? A six pack indicates external armoring of the type that was once so popular. A hard body is not flexible or resilient.
Also, if I were you, I would avoid any exercise program called "boot camp." You wouldn't believe how many people come to me with strains and sprains caused by doing too much, too fast, in these over-ambitious exercise programs. I think these "boot camps" are our culture's version of spiritual austeries, meant to make people stronger through punishment. I think of those saddhu guys I saw in India, sitting within a circle of fires, meditating fiercely.
Do you want to improve your core strength? Here's a simple practice, borrowed from Pilates. Practice as often as you remember to do so. Your abdominal muscles will respond and over time become healthy and resilient, holding your spine and organs without squeezing them.
Core strength is neither hard as a rock nor soft as jelly. It isn't external, but arises from flexible, resilient, engaged muscles close to the spine and surrounding the trunk of the body. The Tao of Goldilocks is what you're looking for.
Stand up and take a couple of deep breaths. Now imagine you've just put on a pair of jeans straight from the dryer (they will be rather snug). Not tight, just snug. Imagine zipping up your jeans. As you visualize, feel your lower abdomen pull inwards as it would in that situation.
Now imagine buckling your belt. As you imagine, engage the muscles around your waist. Feel it in your back as well as in the front body.
Finally, button your vest, engaging the muscles towards the center line from your navel to the bottom of your breastbone.
Let your belly be engaged but not tight. You shoulders will be relaxed, neither curled forward nor yanked backwards, and your head will align itself on your spine. It's kind of amazing to feel everything line up at the conclusion of the exercise.
Take a couple of breaths, smile and go on about your day.