When you’re in yoga class and the instructor starts talking about core work, is all you hear blah blah blah core strength blah blah blah? Well, time to tune in to the center of your body’s energy because if you want to improve your practice and its benefits, it all starts with your core. That arm balance on your asana wish list? Chances are, the more you strengthen your core the easier it will be.
As women, so many things happen in our abdominal area, both on a physical and emotional level. We cannot afford to be weak there. But core strength does not necessarily mean a rock hard six-pack; not all of us are engineered for that. We can still be strong in our center, without the musculature that our culture obsesses over. So don’t be attached to flat abs; focus on strength. Consider this parallel: if you feel centered, you are strong and grounded in your mental state. Everything feels smoother, easier, more graceful. The same applies to your physical body – if you are strong and centered in your body’s core, you can direct the movements of the rest of your body with ease.
I lead retreats that combine yoga with activities like hiking and horseback riding. On retreat, I often talk about the importance of connecting to your core whether we are on the mat, on the trail, or in the saddle. You are shutting things down energetically when you lose the connection to the center of your body; your breathing becomes more shallow, and your movements lack precision. You could trip hiking, or confuse your horse while riding. Think of your core as the conductor for the rest of your body and its movements. So we start everything – yoga, hiking, riding – with fostering a continuous core connection.
Much has been written about the bandhas – the sometimes-elusive muscle locks taught in many styles of yoga, especially Ashtanga and Vinyasa Flow. Uddiyana bandha is usually the most talked-about, not to mention the easiest to access; it is essentially created through the action of drawing your navel in towards your spine to engage your core. I particularly like what Baron Baptiste has to say in his book Journey Into Power, “A ‘bandha’ is a lock that anchors you into your stability and strength. This bandha is a static muscular contraction used to focus attention, stimulate heat, and control the life force within us…Through uddiyana you draw attention to the core of your body, the epicenter of all movements. Making this core the focal point causes you to move, breathe, and have your being from your center. Thus grounded, your body roots and can then lift into a state of weightlessness.”
It’s simple, but also subtle. It takes lots of practice. Cultivating uddiyana and combining it with core strength is how you will get into crow pose with finesse, how you will float (vs. kick) up into headstand. The essence of uddiyana is creating a constant core connection through awareness. Because without that, as Baron puts it: “In the same way that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, you are only as strong as your core.”
Now the hard part – the actual core work. Simply put, there’s no easy way. It’s intense. But the payoffs will radiate way beyond your body’s physical center. This targeted practice will strengthen your core, but not if you only do it once a week. Commit to core work at least 3-4 times weekly, especially when you are first building (vs. maintaining) strength. It’s one of the best things you can do to improve your yoga practice. And just as the benefits of yoga spill off our mats into other areas of our lives, the benefits of core work will show up where you might least expect it.
Plain Plank – The Ultimate core strengthener
Within the first 10 minutes of the first yoga class I teach on retreats, I ask everyone to hold plank. For a long time. It tells me a lot about each person’s practice. If plank is hard to hold, one of the first things that happens is the hips fall. The core is not engaged. You need to use your core to help stabilize plank work, and not ask your upper body to do it all.
Try holding plank for 20-25 breaths, focusing on drawing your navel in towards your spine. Don’t overdo it and lift your hips – try to keep everything one straight line. Breath deeply. If you start to shake, that means it’s working. If you start to sweat, even better. This is a perfect warm up for targeted core work.
For a challenge, lift one leg up and take 10 breaths there before you switch legs.
You can also try holding plank on your forearms.
Plank leg variations
These variations that incorporate the legs also speak volumes about your core condition. The harder they are for you, the more you need to do them. If I had to pick just one, these would be my top choice for the most effective core work. All start from plank, and it’s important to keep your shoulders over your wrists, to maintain the integrity of plank pose in the upper body.
From plank, draw your right knee towards your nose as much as possible. Round your back. Hold for a slow count of 10. When you finish, feel your core working as you slowly lift your right leg up and back into a three-legged downward dog. Lower the right leg and repeat on the left side.
From plank, take your right knee to the outside of your right elbow (or as close as you can get to it). Hold for a slow count of 10, take it back to three-legged down dog, and repeat on the left side. (Hello hips!)
From plank, take your right knee to the inside of your left elbow (or as close as you can get to it), in a twist. Hold for a slow count of 10, take it back to three-legged down dog, and repeat on the left side.
Neutralize with downward facing dog pose, then rest your shoulders with child’s pose.
Don’t use momentum for this vinyasa, or you’re missing the point.
Start in tabletop position. Make sure your hands are a little wider than shoulder width. Inhale here.
Slowly, controlling with your core, move your hips back to hover between your hands on your exhale.
Hold the hover for a full breath, and fully engage your core here. Keep your gaze lifted (don’t drop your head). Return to tabletop on your inhale.
Repeat this vinyasa 10 times.
(Say that 10 times real fast!)
Sink your boat with core control.
Start in navasana, full boat pose, or the modification with the knees bent.
Slowly lower to hover (sink your boat), and hold the hover for a full breath. Return to navasana on your inhale.
Repeat this vinyasa 10 times.
What core work would be complete without crunches? I like these because you can’t commit the crunch faux pas of pulling on your head and neck with your hands. Plus it’s fun to do eagle pose lying down, even if you have to crunch.
Lying on your back, cross your right arm under your left and you right leg over your left, like you would in eagle pose. Inhale.
On your exhale, use your core to lift your knees and elbows up and bring them together. Hold the crunch for a full breath. Keep your navel drawing in towards your spine. On your inhale, return to the start position.
Do 10-15 eagle crunches, and then switch the arm and leg that is on top and repeat on the other side.
Consider this a break. It’s about engaging your core in a soft way. If you try too hard, you’ll lose your balance. Stay steady on those sit bones, send your energy upward, and you can stay here forever.
Bend your knees and separate your legs. Engage your core to help lift your feet up; take hold of your feet with your hands. Balancing on your sit bones, lift your chest and gently push your feet into your hands. Straighten your legs as much as possible. Hold. And hold. And hold. Feel the core energy build.
Well-rounded core work includes the obliques, those long, supportive muscles on both sides of your torso. There’s no faking it with this isolated oblique strengthener.
Start in side plank, on your forearm. Align your elbow under your shoulder. Stack your feet, and draw your navel in towards your spine. Inhale here.
As you exhale, push down through your forearm to lift your hips straight up. Imagine someone was poking you in the side, from below.
On your inhale, lower your hips to hover above the floor, slowly and with control. Don’t let them touch the floor! Exhale back up to the hip lift. Repeat 10-20 times on each side, moving with the breath.
Finding your center takes on new meaning! When you’re done, vinyasa through a few plank-chaturanga-up dog-down dog cycles – be sure to linger in up dog to stretch out all those muscles you just strengthened.
Photo Credit: Larry Stanley, Big-Sky-People.com
Yoga & Reconnecting with Nature in Yellowstone Country! Join Margaret at the at the B Bar Ranch in Tom Miner Basin, just north of Yellowstone National Park, for three days of yoga and reconnecting with yourself and nature. September 5-8, 2013 (Thursday-Sunday) and October 3-6, 2013 (Thursday-Sunday). Visit BigSkyYogaRetreats.com for details »