Modern life means many of us are desk bound or spend a considerable proportion of our day sitting down, driving, watching TV, playing with tablets/phones or whatever it is……… this can cause our abdominal muscles to become weak and lazy which compromises our posture which can ultimately lead to lower back pain, or even worse compromised discs and nerve damage (namely sciatica).
There are many benefits we can reap by strengthening our core, namely improved posture, efficient digestion, and increased strength and stability for holding and transitioning into our yoga asanas.
Our core is a complex series of muscles which comprise much more than just our abdominals, they are incorporated into pretty much every movement we make, enabling us with the ability to flex, side bend and rotate.
So here are some of the many benefits of cultivating a strong core in our yoga practice;
Improved Posture – The abdominal muscles support the curves of the spine, which supports us from the inside out, how we walk, how we sit how we hold ourselves when we stand.
Centre of balance – Core abdominal strength supports us in literally every yoga posture, it holds us up in our balancing poses like Tree and Warrior 3. It gives us stability for our standing poses and literally stabilises us from the inside out. Beginning from deep within the Pelvic floor by engaging and lifting Mula Bandha and moving up spine into Uddiyana Bandha by drawing the navel towards the spine and utilizing these engagements with the breath will enable us to hold our poses stronger and for longer. A strong healthy core improves all aspects of our practice, twists, lifts, forward bends, backward bends, inversions.
Minimises lower back pain - the lumbar spine tends to over compensate during back bending and lifting if the core is weak and can also result in over rotations of the vertebrae in the lower back which may lead to degenerative discs and arthritis over time
Aids Digestion – Having a weak core can mean a weak digestive fire (Agni), therefore we maybe not absorbing as many nutrients as we could. Core work and forward folds provide lots of stimulation to the internal organs ensuring plenty of oxygen and clean blood moving throughout the organs and blood stream.
Yoga poses for Core Strength
Here are some basic poses which will get you started building a connection to your core
Boat pose - Navasana – Ardha Navasana
Balance equally on both sitting bones, make sure your lower back does not collapse and lift the chest and the heart up continuing to lengthen the front of the torso between the sternum and the pubic bone. Begin holding onto the back of the thighs just behind the knees
Exhale lift the feet off the floor keeping the shins parallel, remember to keep the bandhas engaged (lift the pelvic floor up and pull the navel towards the spine). If comfortable there you can release the arms parallel to the floor, spread the shoulders wide, squeeze the scapula towards each other down the back, reach strongly through the fingertips energizing the arms. If this is comfortable and the lower back is not collapsing try extending the legs straight raising the toes in line with the eyes. Traditionally we would hold for 5 deep ujjai breaths, however try holding for a minute perhaps working your way up to two.
Ardha Navasana is a great test of core strength, try inhaling while leaning back so feet and shoulders are hovering off the floor, hold for 5 breaths working your way up, makesure the belly and lower ribs are being sucked in and up.
Plank Pose - Kumbhakasana
Make sure your shoulders are directly over your wrists, try to make sure that your wrist creases are parallel to the front edge of your mat, pull your shoulders away from your ears and squeeze the scapula down the back, push the floor away. Suck the belly in and up and squeeze the lower floating ribs towards each other, strong bandhas make sure the pelvic floor is lifted and the full length of the thigh is engaged pushing the heels back creating length in the spine. Make sure the tailbone is reaching towards the heels and reach out through the crown of the head ensuring that the neck is relaxed. Gaze beyond your hands keep the eyes soft and the jaw relaxed. Hold for anywhere from 5 breaths to 2 mins.
Forearm Plank Pose – Phalakasana
On your knees take hold of your elbows and then extend your forearms parallel out in front of you, this will ensure that your forearms are shoulders width apart. Firm the elbows into the floor and pull the shoulders away from the ears. Suck the belly in and up and squeeze the lower floating ribs towards each other, strong bandhas make sure the pelvic floor is lifted and the full length of the thigh is engaged pushing the heels back creating length in the spine. Make sure the tailbone is reaching towards the heels and reach out through the crown of the head ensuring that the neck is relaxed. Gaze beyond your hands keep the eyes soft and the jaw relaxed. Hold for anywhere from 5 breaths to 2 mins.
Side Plank – Forearm Vasisthasana
Right wrist grabs left elbow, then roll onto the outer edge of your right foot and stack the left foot on top, keep the hips lifted and let the left arm rest on the left side of the body or reach up.
Cat & Cow – Majaryasana & Bitilasana
Start in neutral spine on hands and knees, hands directly underneath wrists and knees directly underneath hips.(Cow) Inhale as you let the belly dip the sitting bones rise and move away from each other, chest broadens and heart lifts remember to look up. (Cat) Exhale chin to chest look towards your navel push the floor away, round the upper back, magnetize sternum to pubic bone, pull the belly in and up and feel the sitting bones move towards each other. Take anywhere between 5 and 20 rounds
Tiger Pose – Eka Hasta Pada Vyaghrasana
In neutral spine on hands and knees, extend right leg back and left arm forwards, squeeze everything in towards the midline, energetically squeeze the inner right thigh, flexing the foot will give you more stability. Hold for a minimum of 5 breaths, swap sides.
Then inhale reach through the extended foot, exhale hug the knee into the chest and repeat 3- 5 times on each side.
Counter pose - Bridge pose - Setu Bandhasana
Core followed by bridge helps train the muscles to become responsive and flexible through relaxation after intense engagement. Lie flat on your back knees bent with soles of the feet firmly grounding into the floor about hip distance width apart. Arms alongside the body palms facing down, inhale as you press down firmly through the arms and the feet to lift the pelvis off of the floor in line with the thighs. Energetically squeeze the inner thighs in towards each other while keeping the thighs in line with the hips. Engage the glutes, Keep the core engaged don’t left the lower ribs flay out, wiggle the shoulders underneath for more support, tuck the chin towards the chest and don’t move the head and the neck whilst in the pose, take 5 long deep ujjai breaths then exhale slowly lower the pelvis back towards the ground vertebrae by vertebrae, then repeat by inhaling up, try to aim for at least 3 rounds
Always take rest in Savasana when finished, this is where all the good work you have just done begins to integrate within.
Developing core strength goes way beyond cultivating a taunt tummy and rock hard flat abs…… this centre of gravity is an energetic space which contains our essence of who we really are, home to our 3 lower chakras Muldahara (I am), Swadisthana (I feel) and Manipura (I become), the pelvic and belly region is central for emotional healing.
Listening and learning to tap into this wisdom and energy contained deep within the centre of our being will enable us to harness this power and innate intelligence which will improve our life beyond our yoga mat.
Core work is a great start way to start a yoga practice, for me it brings a deep central awareness in each of the asana's to come, we begin to feel from the inside out and break the habit of moving from the outer body. It creates heat with in the body and can set an intensity for the practice.
Be sure to listen and honour all of the sensations that arise in the body and your mind, we are then creating a space for the union of yoga to occur……….. your ego maybe screaming “I can’t hold / do anymore” but the body’s intrinsic intelligence is doing everything it can on a cellular level to ensure that it is prepared for “more”, this then can radiate out for the remainder of the practice
So before or after (or both) we begin core work I invite you to place your hands on your tummy, close your eyes and just take a few moments to express gratitude for everything the core does do for us already in our lives
It is very sad that many of us (myself included) see our abdominal region as something that should be controlled or crunched into shape. We judge it by its appearance, if it wobbles, we feel ashamed and want to hide it or work it harder. This creates an air of dualism between “me” and “my body” insinuating that you are separate from a part of yourself. This is counterproductive to our practice, our life but most importantly it is the complete opposite of yoga.