Yoga and Your Core
Over the last 10 years or so I’ve noticed a shift in yoga classes towards emphasizing the “core”. I’ve seen this both in the inclusion of specific abdominal exercises as well as more frequent mention of how the core works in more traditional yoga poses.
However, often in faster-paced vinyasa classes like Ursula and I teach, there is not time to discuss the core in detail, possibly leaving students with misconceptions and confusion. So, today I’d like to take a bit of time to remedy that.
First, it is important to know that your core is composed of the abdominal muscles and the muscles of the lower back, hips and buttocks. Together these muscles support your spine and keep you stable and balanced.
A strong core can make it easier to stand or sit and can allow you to perform more dynamic activity such as running, jumping or perhaps balancing on a slippery surface.
Weak core muscles lead to poor posture, particularly over-arching in your low back. In most people the postural imbalances are small, so that when you are young you don’t usually notice the strain placed on your spine. However, as you age (starting as early as your late 20s or early 30s), the strain caused by weak core muscles becomes more noticeable and can lead to low back pain, loss of mobility and decreased ability to maintain balance. Many problems of old age can be traced to weak core muscles.
Beyond allowing you to maintain a natural curve in your spine in all yoga poses, a strong core allows you to properly practice chaturanga (low plank/low push-up), inversions, arm balances and backbends. Many of the intermediate and advanced poses are simply not accessible with a weak core.
So, how do you strengthen your core? I have two favorite exercises that I will describe below and then a simple sequence that can be practiced in less than 15 minutes.
This pose is most effective if done in front of a mirror. Especially if you are new to the practice, it is difficult to know if your body is properly aligned without being able to visually check. If your body is not in the right position, you will not work your core muscles properly.
- Begin on your hands and knees and then come down to rest on your forearms, making sure that your elbows are directly underneath your shoulders. Sink your spine down between your shoulder blades so that you are not pushing your upper back away from the floor.
- Extend your legs out behind you a comfortable distance, curling your toes under. Extend your tailbone down towards your heels, lengthening your spine. Lift the weight of your torso with your thighs and abdomen so that your entire body from your shoulders to your heels is one straight line — like a plank.
- Hold this pose without lifting your buttocks, bending at your hips, or sinking your belly to the floor. Begin by holding for a count of 10-15 and work up to a minute or more.
Throughout the exercise it is important that your neck and shoulders as well as your thighs and hip flexors (the muscles at the crease of your hips and thighs) remain relaxed and as disengaged as possible. Hardening these muscles will cause you to perform the movements incorrectly.
Beginners or students who have trouble relaxing their thighs and hip-flexors should practice curl-ups with the soles of their feet at a wall such that their shins and thighs make a 90 degree angle (shins parallel to the floor). This contracts the hip-flexors making it more difficult to use these muscles to perform the movement.
- Place the soles of your feet on the floor, bending your knees comfortably. Try to relax your hips and thighs.
- Bring your hands, face-in, to either side of your hips/thighs.
- Extend your arms as you roll your head, shoulders and shoulder blades up off the floor, leaving your mid-back, lower back and hips on the floor. Relax your neck and shoulders! If you have a mirror, check to make sure that your back is rounded.
- Hold the pose for a 5 to 8 breaths. Then roll down coming back to the floor.
In class I typically have students do two curl-ups to the center, two to each side (with both arms to the outside of the legs), one back in the center and then add variations extending the legs. If you extend your legs in this pose it is important to make sure that your heels are 1-2″ off the ground so that your hip flexors are not engaged.
A Simple Core Sequence
Here’s a short sequence of exercises that you can perform a few times a week to strengthen your core.
- Cat/Dog Tilts – From your hands and knees round your back up towards the ceiling and drop your spine to the floor a few times. This will warm up your spine and core muscles.
- Half Plank – Come into half plank as described above and hold until you are tired, but can still maintain the proper position. Rest for a few moments on your belly and then repeat.
- [optional] Salabhasana (Locust) – Come into locust pose and hold anywhere from 10 seconds to 30 seconds. Although I did not discuss this pose in today’s post, this pose helps to strengthen the core muscles in the back.
- Balasana (Child’s Pose) – Rest in child’s pose for a moment.
- Curl-ups – Perform a few curl-ups according to your ability. Remember that it is important to tire your abdominal muscles but only to the point that you can still perform the exercise correctly. Be honest with yourself and stop when you begin “cheating”.
- Stretching – Bring your arms over your head and extend your legs (as long as it is comfortable to do so). Lengthen your entire body. Lengthen through your right side. Lengthen through your left side. Lengthen your entire body again.
- Lunges – Roll to your side and come up and perform one or more lunges on each side to stretch your lower front body.