yoga and belly fat.supta baddhakonasana

Who knew that working on your abdominals could be so relaxing?

Belly fat has been more than usually on my mind for the past few weeks.

First Style Craze, an Indian style and beauty blog, asked me for my “Three Best Yoga Tips to Lose Belly Fat” for a yoga expert roundup.

My purist side wanted to say: “don’t practice yoga for anything, especially not for tailoring your body to beauty industry standards.” But my broader and more optimistic side thinks that any path to yoga will do, as long as you keep walking it. Besides, there are very clear health benefits to keeping your waist measurement on the smaller side. In this case, society’s norms for beauty coincide with good health. So I sent them off an answer, and haven’t heard back.

Meanwhile, I can’t clean out my junk email folder without finding invitations to “blast” my belly fat. Far too often, I open a page on the internet and find an animated cartoon of an undulating belly, or a drawing of a banana under the headline: “Five foods never to eat for a flat belly.”

Even when I’m reading about yoga – in this case Edwin F. Bryant’s translation of the Yoga Sutras, – belly fat keeps popping up. Here’s an image of Lord Vishnu, described as a subject for meditation so beautiful that the mind resists ever being drawn away: “his navel is deep and his belly has three folds.”

What? Not a six-pack? Perhaps he’s been eating too many bananas.

So here are my thoughts on yoga and belly fat:

• What you eat is much more likely than yoga to influence your belly fat. If like me you are a naturally apple-shaped person, who carries any extra weight in their abdomen, then the best way to reduce belly fat is to avoid eating sugar and other simple carbohydrates. My own belly fat expands and contracts depending on how many cinnamon buns, custard Danishes and other forms of Scandinavian comfort food I eat. The strongest connection I’ve found between yoga and belly fat: a balanced practice takes away my need to self-soothe at the bakery.

• Your “belly fat” might have more to do with your posture than it does with slack muscles or extra weight. If you habitually round your upper back, a posture that’s encouraged by computer use, cooking and driving a car, then your belly is likely to protrude.

The same thing will happen if you tip your pelvis forward when you sit and stand. Imagine your pelvis as a bowl full of cherries. If you let the front of the bowl tip down toward the floor, the cherries (or in this case, your belly) will fall out. If you lift the front rim of your pelvis until the bowl is level, you’ll feel your belly move in and up, all by itself.

• What we really want in a yoga practice isn’t so much a flat belly as a functional belly. We want core muscles that will support us as we move through the poses. That includes the deep muscles of the back as well as the abdominals. We want awareness and connection. We want a belly that is strong, but relaxed, capable of work, but not gripped.

• Abdominal work is useful only when it’s based in relaxation. You want connection, not strain. When your belly puffs up and you can’t breathe well, you’re in the mindset of cutting out, getting rid of or “blasting.”
Instead, work from curiosity and respect. Bring awareness to your abdominal muscles, and to learn how to engage them in a healthy way in all postures. Instead of taking on the obvious abdominal strenghtening poses, look at what your belly does in all categories of poses. One example: we don’t normally think of seated forward extensions as poses to work the core body. In fact, they’re a great way to connect with your abdominal muscles, because the work is moderate enough that you can gain strength without strain.

Today’s pose is perhaps the most relaxed way I know to feel how a lively, activated belly works in asana practice. It will do you more good than a thousand grimly determined but mindless crunches.


Put the smaller of your two bolsters under your chest.

Set up a mat with two bolsters and a blanket. (If you have only one bolster, put a stack of blankets or chip-foam blocks under your feet.) Place the blanket so it will be under your head, and put the smaller of the two bolsters closer to the blanket.
Lie down with your shoulder blades on the smaller bolster. Slide backwards so your head comes to rest on the blanket and your arms fit between the bolster and the blanket. Your shoulders will not be resting on the floor.

If your head doesn’t reach the blanket, add another blanket. You want your neck to feel neutral, not arched so your chin lifts to the ceiling. If your shoulders are stiff, try supporting your arms on chip-foam blocks or folded blankets.

Bring your feet onto the second bolster. Lift your pelvis away from the floor very slightly, and draw your buttocks toward your heels. Then slowly lower your buttocks back to the floor, keeping the length in your lower back.

Put the soles of your feet together and let your knees release apart. If your inner thighs feel strained, bring a looped belt around your outer knees, just tight enough to support your legs while allowing your maximum comfortable stretch.

Then relax. This is a great pose for letting tension go from your belly.
For five minutes, settle into your breathing, relaxing your face, eyes, ears and brain, and watching your natural breath come and go.

When your eyes are soft, your front throat is soft, and your breath is quiet and regular, start to direct your inhalations. Be gentle. Rather than “doing” try seeing your inhalations move from the sides of your pubic bones, down toward your spine, then rising up the front of your spine, in line with the sides of your navel, toward your diaphragm. As the breath travels up your belly, notice how it also moves deeper, down toward the floor, and broadens.

Stay for as long as you have time. Ten minutes would be lovely.
Roll to your right-hand side to come out. Stay on your side for at least two relaxed breaths, then slowly sit up. Sit in Sukhasana on one of the bolsters. See if you can maintain the feeling of your soft, broad, lifted belly as you sit.

Next: How a simple strap can help you tame two of the most demanding abdominal poses.

If this was your kind of post, you might also like:
Backbend in a chair: let two chairs be your umbrella on a rainy rainy day
Supported bridge pose: cross over into quiet
Five-Minute Yoga Challenge: Lie Down and Stretch Your Outer Hips

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downward-facing dog on bricks2

Yes, you get marks on your hands, but the work in your arms is worth it.

How do you walk your downward dog?

I’m tempted to say, “let me count the ways,” but there are so many. Let’s just look at one breed of dog, the group that uses height to get a specific effect.

downward-facing dog on bricks1

Put your hands on the bricks as close to your wrists as you can.

If you’ve spent much time in Iyengar yoga classes, you already know that raising your feet on bricks or a stool eases your hips in downward dog, but makes your shoulders work harder. Putting height under your hands, on bricks or a chair seat, eases your shoulders and helps you put more weight into your legs.

But lift your fingers, and you’ll feel the effects all the way up your inner arm – in the same way that lifting your toes in Tadasana brings your legs alive all the way to the tops of your thighs.

Our inner arms tend to be shorter than our outer arms. When you lift your fingers, you can increase the work of your inner arm, lifting and lengthening your biceps.


In the preparation, focus on pressing your inner hands down and pulling your inner upper arms up, all the way to your collar bones.

That’s especially useful for all of us who have overly flexible joints – “leaky elbows” that move too far toward each other when we straighten our arms.

Here is the raised fingers dog pose that Jawahar Bangera taught in his recent Vancouver workshop – a pose he prefaced by saying: “This is painful.”

I don’t find it so myself, at least in a moderately long holding, although the word “uncomfortable” certainly springs to mind. And you do end up with impressive lines on the heel of your hand.

Place two wood bricks on their lowest side at the wall. (we took the picture with the bricks away from the wall, because it’s easier to see the work in my arms.)

Place your hands, as close to your wrists as possible, at the front edge of the bricks. Come onto your hands and knees, lift your fingers as much as you can away from the brick, and begin to work your arms. From your thumb mounds, lift up your inner arms toward your collarbones. Broaden across your collarbones, then firm your outer shoulders in toward the shoulder joints – without losing the width of your collarbones.

downward dog on bricks 3

Keep the actions in your inner arms as you slowly move into the pose.

Keep those actions as you lift your pelvis. Move slowly, keeping your awareness on the actions of your inner arms as you move more deeply into downward dog.

If you do find the wooden brick painful on your hands, there are a few work-arounds. You might, for example, pad the edges of the bricks with sticky mat – mini-stickies made from cut-up old mats work well.

Or you could use a chair, as in Eyal Shifroni’s excellent book, A Chair for Yoga. (Buy it. You’ll love it.)

The chair back goes upside down against the wall, with the bottom side of the chair seat facing out. You’ll get the same effect of lifted fingers, without the sharp-edged pressure into your wrist.

downward dog on chair

Using the chair gives you much of the the same effect as lifting your fingers, but without the fancy marks on your palms.

No matter how you set up the pose, spend plenty of time working your arms with your knees still on the floor. It’s more important to feel the lift of your inner arms all the way to your collar bones than it is to “complete” the pose.

Besides, in the preparation, you can focus on one arm at a time. I find it hard to get the action in both arms at once. It helps to look at one arm and focus on lifting that inner arm, then hold the action as I transfer my gaze to the second inner arm. It’s rewarding to see the muscle elongate and lift.

So how does this work for you? Do you know an especially enlightening breed of downward dog? Do tell.

If this was your kind of post, you might also like:
Get a leg-up on downward dog
Step Forward from downward dog: Five-Minute Yoga Challenge
Spend a week walking your dog: Five-Minute Yoga Challenge

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