Our belly could be a source of warmth, inner connection, and flow. Our gut feelings could help guide us on when to move forward and when to back away. All too often, trauma disconnects us from our inner core. Our belly tightens against pain, fear, and misery rather than relaxing into pleasure and comfort.
For many of us, our belly is a mysterious mass of unknown organs, often the source of uncomfortable sensations and emotions that we avoid. We can begin to reconnect through kind touch and specific knowledge about the organs inside.
As you explore your belly, keep your hands soft and open. You can sense more and go deeper if you approach with kindness than if you poke or push hard. Go slowly, and respect any barriers or resistance you encounter. If it is not comfortable to touch your belly, you can imagine the touch instead, or sense your organs from the inside.
Bend your knees to give your abdominal muscles some slack and allow them to relax.
Bring your hands gently to your belly. Listen to the sensations both in your hands and in your belly. Say hello to any judgments, emotions, or stories that come up as you listen.
Your abdomen is the lower part of your torso from diaphragm to pelvis. With soft hands, find your lower ribs along the sides of your body, hard ridges with gaps between them. Follow their lower curve around to the front and feel the space between them, below the bottom of your sternum (breastbone).
Now find your rounded pelvic bones (“hip bones”) at your sides below your waist and follow their curve around to the front. Also touch your navel (belly button), about halfway between your pelvis and ribs.
In addition to sliding and shifting with the breath and other body movements, organs have intrinsic motility: a gentle swell and deflation 4-5 times per minute, as described by Jean-Pierre Barral in his book Visceral Manipulation. Motility can also mean the waves of contraction that move food through the digestive system. This is a different use of the same word.
In general, organs swell away from the body’s midline and deflate back toward it. You can sense motility by letting your hand connect with an organ and feeling for subtle movement. An organ’s motility can be restricted by tension or adhesions. If you do not feel movement, gently suggesting movement and amplifying what you feel can loosen restrictions and help the organ move more freely. Remember to soften your hands, and believe your subtle sensations.
As you visit individual organs, notice how easy or difficult it is to connect with them. How do the organs respond when you offer contact? Are there any specific emotions or stories associated with each one?
Your liver is a large solid three-dimensional wedge under your lower ribs on your right side. The narrow part of the wedge extends across the left side under the diaphragm, overlapping with the stomach. The liver is deep as well as broad, filling your upper right abdomen from front to back. See the large brown triangle in the illustration. (Click through for a larger image.)
The liver produces bile to digest fats, breaks down toxins in the blood, and synthesizes required proteins, among other functions. It is our largest internal organ.
Put a gentle hand across your right lower ribs and check for your liver’s motility, swelling slightly toward the right side of your body, and deflating back to center. You can sink your attention through skin, past the bones to the organ. If you feel your body tighten or push back at you, try softening your hand and pushing less.
Under your left lower ribs, across from the liver, the stomach is a hollow sack which grows much larger when full of food, sometimes extending below your navel. The stomach and liver overlap below your sternum. The rounded fundus of the stomach nudges up against the diaphragm, keeping the stomach from being pulled through by the esophagus. See the pink oval next to the liver in the illustration.
The stomach chemically and mechanically breaks down the food we eat into a liquid called chyme.
Sense for the liver’s motility with one hand, and then sense the stomach swelling to your left with the other hand just below your lower left ribs. Gently encourage the stomach and liver to move away and together in sync.
Folded small intestine
From the stomach, partly-digested food exits into the duodenum, a semi-rigid tube that curves around the pancreas (not shown). From there food goes into the jejunum and ileum (not to be confused with the ilium bones of the pelvis), which together form a long (3.5 to 5 meters) soft tube folded up on itself like too many shirts crammed in a drawer. The small intestine fills the space below the liver and stomach. See the smaller beige folded tube in the illustration.
The three parts of the small intestine absorb water and nutrients from the food we eat.
Place one or both hands near your navel to sense small intestine motility, which is a circling expansion up and rightward, and then deflation down and leftward. You might also feel the rumbles of digestion.
Spacious large intestine
The small intestine connects to the large intestine at the ileocecal valve, slightly above and to the right of the navel. The large intestine (or colon) is a wider tube running along the edges of the area filled by the small intestine with three relatively straight segments and a fourth curved one: the ascending colon on the far right, the transverse colon running just under the liver and stomach, and the descending colon on the far left. The sigmoid colon makes the final curvy connection to the anus behind the bladder. See the larger tube surrounding the small intestine in the illustration.
The large intestine extracts remaining water and salt from digested food and excretes the rest via the anus. It hosts up to 100 trillion symbiotic microbes that help with fiber digestion and produce vitamins, as well as intestinal gas.
Place one hand on your lower right side toward the front and the other hand on your lower left side toward the back to sense large intestine motility. It has a circular motion similar to the small intestine, expanding along its path toward the ileocecal valve, and then deflating back toward the sigmoid colon.
The intestines are living tissues that need a blood supply and a way to transfer out digested nutrients. Rather than running along the tube, blood vessels nourish every part of the intestines from a fan-folded sheet of tissue called the mesentery. The mesentery attaches to the back of the abdomen on the right side on a surprisingly short (15cm) diagonal line called the mesenteric root and fans out from there to the whole small and large intestine.
Rest and digest
How does your belly feel now, after some gentle contact with specific organs? Has your sense of your belly as a whole changed?
Our digestive system is crucial to our long-term health. When we are in Emergency Mode (fight, flight, or freeze), our parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) is less active and digestion slows down. The more we can calm our nervous system, the better our guts will feel, and the better we will feel overall.
- Image from wikipedia Abdomen article, Anatomy of the human abdomen by Ties van Brussel, public domain.
- The book A Pathway to Health by Alison Harvey is a friendly introduction to Visceral Manipulation bodywork, including client stories as well as information about the organs.
- The book Visceral Manipulation by Jean-Pierre Barral and Pierre Mercier describes Visceral Manipulation bodywork in technical medical language.