Our abdomen is the center of our body and houses most of our vital organs. To say the least, this is a busy place and of great importance to our health and well-being.
Within this center, we have a busy lymphatic system made up of multiple lymph vessels and oval shaped lymph nodes. This is also where the body’s largest lymphatic organ – the spleen – is located. The lymphatic system is part of the circulatory system and plays an important role in the immune system. It collects and filters excess tissue fluid called lymph, before returning it to our blood circulation. This lymph fluid has infection-fighting white blood cells, which play a vital role in helping our body fight off infections from virus, bacteria and inflammation. Our lymph nodes aid in removing harmful substances from the interstitial fluid which is fluid around our cells. These kidney shaped structures also act to filter foreign particles from the blood. On average, an adult has around 400 to 450 different lymph nodes spread throughout the body – the majority located within the abdomen. Every day, the average adult can produce between 3 – 4 liters of lymphatic fluid, and this amount can increase with illness.
A dog’s lymphatic system, like ours, is complex and vital to survival. It handles most of the immune functions in their bodies. Also, a dog’s lymphatic system runs along their circulatory system (like ours) with the biggest collection of lymph vessels and lymph nodes located within their abdomen and gastrointestinal tract.
As you can see, it makes perfect sense why most dogs welcome a gentle or firm belly rub. Not only does a massage on their tummy stimulate circulation within the immune and digestive system, but it also shows that they trust you. Showing their belly is not just a sign of submission but is a special kind of bonding which is linked to social grooming. Like humans, touch produces oxytocin, the love and security hormone. It also FEELS GOOD and shows that your dog is relaxed enough to be vulnerable, feel safe, secure and stable. This is also a sign that they are well socialized. This is not common in wild dogs who generally have to be on guard most of their lives.
I was trained as a massage therapist ten years ago and further specialized in Maya abdominal massage. I knew the importance of keeping the circulation and lymph moving freely within our abdomen as I had seen multiple disease states (in children and adults) related to increased abdominal tension. Any massage therapist trained by an accredited school learns how to do some basic, gentle massage of the abdomen. This is part of a basic Swedish therapeutic massage routine which we are all taught first. What I found as a student, as well as from my massage practice, was that most people do not want the abdominal part of a massage. I also noticed when I would get a massage, most (90%) of the therapists did not do or even offer to massage my abdomen. I recall wondering “why is this important and busy area avoided by both therapists and clients?”
While observing the reactions in my clients and the therapists I would seek care from, I concluded that this seemed to be a guarded area for most. It appeared the therapists were not comfortable touching the abdomen because they were not comfortable with their OWN abdomen being massaged. Most massage therapists will give the kind of massage they would like to get! Similarly, when I would offer to work on a client’s abdomen as part of a 60 or 90 minute session, almost all them would say “I don’t like my stomach touched.” As you can imagine, the clients who did come to my office specifically for the Maya abdominal massage which was a 90 minute focused session, generally had great anxiety related to the idea of having their abdomen touched and massaged.
What I learned over the years in my practice is that most of us protect our abdomen as a response to stress and/or fear. Much like the wild dogs who do not show their bellies, most of the population in this country is hypervigilant and exists in a “fight or flight” mode. When we experience a stress response, the muscles in our abdomen tighten up just like the muscles in our shoulders and neck! Any person (or animal) who feels threatened or not safe (whether this is a real or perceived situation) will not easily trust anyone. I also learned that many people have never learned how to feel secure or vulnerable with another human being, thus do not feel safe and secure in their general environment.
A human as well as a dog often shows their mental and emotional state through their body and body language. For a dog or a cat, the protective stance involves an arched or tense back with stiff legs and a stiff neck. Most of us have learned this is not a time to touch or pet an animal; they are in fact guarding their body and personal space. This is an instinctual response which we share with our animal friends. Most clients that came to my office displayed the same protective stance…stiff back, neck and shoulders while leaning forward as if to protect their abdominal region. I also learned quickly that the first 15-20 minutes of a massage session were devoted to calming the client. They needed time to get used to being touched, to step out of the fight or flight mode and open up their personal space, so they could feel safe and trusting.
What I observed in these clients during and after a massage was a beautiful transformation. They would take spontaneous, deep breaths while their shoulders, back and neck relaxed. Their facial muscles also relaxed as their eyes became soft. They felt safe and nurtured. This, to me, is where the real healing happened. Manipulating muscle and tissue is helpful as it releases tension and allows an increase in circulation which aid in healing and movement. Yet, the mental and emotional drop in tension are much more profound as they create a direct message to our brain and nervous system to “power down” and move out of the “fight or flight” mode. This results in a drop in heart rate and blood pressure, and improved circulation to digestion and other vital organs is restored. We have improved clarity in thinking and in our ability to make decisions. Most importantly, our ability to experience love is restored. This state is our para-sympathetic nervous system being restored which is a state of rest, digestion and reproduction. These are functions we should never have to think about, they should be automatic, just as they are for a dog. Our “normal” state of being. This is where our body is supposed to exist most of the time, not in the sympathetic state or “fight or flight” mode. Our sympathetic nervous system is vitally important as it protects us in an emergency or famine, but it should be a temporary state, generally engaged from 2 – 48 hours at a time, not for months, years or a lifetime.
The way we touch our dogs profoundly impacts the way they view and interact with the world. The same is true for humans. Nurturing touch is vital for normal growth and development and is one sense that is present at birth in both species. Of the five senses dogs and humans possess, touch is the most similar. An infant instinctually turns to his or her mother for comfort, warmth and nourishment (which all equal safety and survival). Similarly, a newborn puppy instinctually nuzzles and paws for milk from its mother for warmth and nourishment.
Twelve years ago, I experienced my first Maya abdominal massage session and it profoundly changed my life. This is when I made the decision to change direction in my career as a nurse and opened my own health and wellness practice focusing on holistic health care. I decided I no longer wanted to take part in our reactive health care system which is focused on treating symptoms of disease, rather than addressing the needs of the entire human.
I was newly divorced and experiencing some digestion difficulties such as reflux and constipation, as well as pretty severe symptoms of anxiety and depression. I was having difficulty concentrating and not able to sleep, nor was I experiencing joy in my life. During and after my session, I felt the circulation to my abdomen being restored as the tension dropped. I stopped taking medication for my symptoms the next day. What I did not expect was the mental and emotional transformation I experienced. The practitioner’s touch made me feel safe, “okay” to feel vulnerable with another human. I realized that my abdominal tension was a result of YEARS of learned mental and emotional patterns of reacting to stress. As the tension dropped in my abdomen and digestion/circulation were restored, so was my ability to process the distressing mental and emotional effects of going through a divorce. I had been living in “fight or flight” mode for years and this simple, 90-minute session of therapeutic human touch restored my body and mind in more ways than I could have ever imagined.
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Do here’s another profound lesson from dogs: GET YOUR BELLY RUBBED! Dogs know what is good for them, and they do not hesitate to partake any chance they get. Most of us have experienced that “knot” in our stomach when we are nervous or upset. That knot is actually sudden tension interfering with circulation and our ability to trust and love. Our body is responding as if under attack or in danger. Here are some facts about a good tummy rub as well as some small changes you can adopt to create big shifts in your health and well-being.
- Firmly massaging your abdomen relieves tension just as it does in our neck, back and other muscles in our body. By relieving this tension, we experience relief from uncomfortable symptoms such as heartburn, reflux, constipation, IBS, as well as difficulties with reproductive organs.
- Abdominal massage improves digestion and reproductive function by releasing spasms and can break down adhesions or scar tissue by promoting internal heat.
- Our abdomen is our “emotional center” and as it opens up, we experience more clarity, trust and love in our lives.
- Make a practice of massaging your own abdomen with any vegetable or fruit oil (coconut, olive, avocado, grape seed, etc.) in a clockwise direction at least once a week (or daily) for 10 – 15 minutes at a time. Do this first thing in the morning or at night before you go to sleep. Not only does this practice improve digestion, reproduction and clarity, but is profoundly relaxing! I generally fall asleep or drift off for a short nap while doing this.
- Try allowing a trusted friend or loved one to “rub your belly” in a clockwise direction occasionally. This strengthens our bonds with other humans by allowing us to feel safe while vulnerable and to trust, all of which are vital for continued growth and development.
- Get regular massages and ask to have your abdomen included. This is one of the biggest and busiest sections of your body and should not be ignored.
- Massage or “rub your belly” firmly on an empty stomach or at least two to three hours after a meal. Rubbing a full stomach may not feel comfortable.
- Experience a Maya abdominal massage if you are able. This is important preventive and holistic health care, much like getting a regular check-up or getting your teeth cleaned!
- Observe the reaction in your dog when you rub his or her belly; it is a beautiful thing to share with them!
Lisa Adams is nurse, Health and Wellness Coach and Certified Flowtrition Practitioner. She has combined over 25 years of experience as a registered nurse with training in Flowtrition and health education to provide her clients with the most comprehensive and holistic approach to preventive healthcare and wellness. Lisa believes that wellness starts from within and that if we trust in our body’s ability to heal as it is designed, amazing things happen. She also believes that optimal health is achieved in a multi-system approach that includes not only physical wellbeing, but also mental and emotional wellbeing. Lisa’s passion and objective in coaching is to increase awareness in individuals about the way their body functions and especially how it responds to stress.
“The body cannot begin to heal
while in a constant state of tension.”
~ Lisa Adams ~