It seemed reasonable when I read the flier: “Six-pack abs by Christmas.” The trainer-to-be advertised that she wanted her former hard body back. We could join her for sit-ups and variations for a half-hour three times a week. In three months we would gain much-coveted midriffs of steel.

I signed on. The first day I walked into the gym, I saw that some men and women crunching away might indeed have flat stomachs by the holidays. For me, I wondered how I ever deemed all this grunting a good idea.

I did sets of clean crunches, oblique circles and crossover reaches. I sucked my belly in and up and breathed as the trainer instructed: shallow, rapid, short. “Focus on the exhale, navel to spine, abdomen in and up.”

She barked orders: “Two more reps — go for it.”

I went for it.

Then I drove home, showered, stretched out the abdominal muscles I had just contracted, and started my day.

But starting the day was tough because I can’t tighten my rib cage and torso and still breathe fully. If I pull hard in and up, how do I let down? How do I take it easy?

My day mostly involves listening to people, empathizing with peers, friends, clients, students and family. I need (I would argue we all need) what AIDS worker, meditation instructor and poet Stephen Levine calls “soft belly.”

He says, “The belly is an extraordinary diagnostic instrument. Pay attention deep in the body. You will learn a lot.”

What else is there besides shallow-rapid-short? What is this countercultural soft belly?

You have to practice soft belly. Here’s how: Let the muscles around the waist relax. Let your breaths enter the body and go down into a soft belly. Deep, slow, long breaths. Each inhale raises the abdomen and expands the musculature. We round, make space. With each exhale, the abdomen falls, the strain of uptight dispels.

Here’s what I’ve learned with soft belly practice: To go through life with ease, facing joy and pain, yours and others, you may have to practice soft belly 10,000 times a day.

Luckily, I am not always caught in the latest, greatest, most effective way to flatten your stomach. When I dress, I heed the advice of writer Anne Lamott, who told Berkeley graduates in her 2003 commencement speech, “Refuse to wear uncomfortable pants, even if they make you look really thin. Promise me you’ll never wear pants that bind or tug or hurt, pants that have an opinion about how much you’ve just eaten.”

I can soft-belly breathe in my clothes. Good thing. A friend told me recently about her trouble getting through the day with her abusive partner. She tries to avoid conflict and needs to hide from her partner’s rage. I listened. I nodded. I said, “You’ve been through so much.”

Softening the belly is a good beginning if we want to hear others, to take in what they say. So while she spoke, I listened and checked my belly. Moving, responding when she described verbal assaults, I could hear her.

My belly clenched when she told me about the locking of their bedroom door, of not daring to show her face while her partner yells, “Get out!”

I remembered, “The belly is an extraordinary diagnostic instrument.”

I checked again. Sometimes as she cried, I noticed my muscle tonus tightening up, anxious, breath racing. I didn’t want to believe her. But she was telling me her truth, so I reminded myself, “Softening the belly is a beginning.”

I inhaled down into my belly. I exhaled past my heart. Levine teaches, “The softer the belly, the greater the capacity to stay present and awake. Soften to receive. … We are implored to be hard-bellied … (we) confuse hardness with beauty. It is a dangerous way to live if one wishes to be fully alive.”

Perhaps still confused about what is beautiful, I might go abs-busting tomorrow. If I do, I’ll wear comfortable pants. If I do, after squeezing my belly dozens of times in the half-hour, I hope I remember in the rest of my day to deepen soft belly. I wish to be fully alive, to stay present and awake.

As we train our abs physically, we can at other times soften the belly and deepen the breath to ease our minds and open our hearts. Here’s something else I’ve learned with soft belly practice: In order to comfort you and help you comfort those around you, even as you tone up, don’t underestimate the power of toning down.

Susan Lebel Young teaches mindfulness and is the author of “Lessons from a Golfer: A Daughter’s Story of Opening the Heart.” She can be reached at: [email protected]