By Laura Waite,
When we hear the phrase “core strength,” often we envision our belly fat melting away as we develop strong abdominal muscles. However, to build core strength you must expand your view beyond the belly. The core is made up not only of the abdominal muscles, but includes the diaphragm and pelvis. Therefore, it is important to strengthen the core from all angles, top to bottom.
The upper part of the core, the diaphragm, sits above the abdominal cavity and is the main muscle of respiration. The abdominals, the core center, act as an accessory muscle to breathing by providing support to the diaphragm. The abdominal muscles also support the internal organs and are responsible for spinal flexion, back stabilization and rotation of the torso.
The lower part of the core, the pelvis, connects to the deep muscles of the abdomen and back, acting as a foundation for the core body. It supports the organs of the lower abdominal cavity and stabilizes the low back.
In order to build core strength, it is necessary to target these three components.
It is also important to consider all of the abdominal muscles that play a role in core strength and stability, not just what is visible to the eye. The transverse abdominis, the deepest abdominal muscle, wraps around the lower torso supporting the internal organs. It is considered a prime core stabilizer as it runs from the hip bones up to the ribs. It also connects to the diaphragm, assisting in inhalation. The internal and external obliques are a pair of muscles on either side of the torso that rotate and laterally flex the spine. The rectus abdominis is the most superficial abdominal muscle and is often associated with “six-pack” abs. It flexes the spine, provides postural support, and assists with breathing.
Yoga postures paired with breathing allow for increased blood and oxygen flow through the body. The breath deepens and expands as the support to the diaphragm builds. By strengthening the core from all sides, the curves of the spine are sustained, reducing back pain and improving overall posture. Plus, the increased support to the internal organs provided by the abdominals and pelvis helps improve digestion and elimination.
The core is considered the energetic power center, as you build more physical strength; you bring more mental and emotional strength to your life. Here are six poses that bring power and energy to your core.
1. Standing Pose: Stabilize the torso and spine by strengthening the transverse abdominis and stretching the obliques.
Parivrtta Trikonasana: Revolved Triangle Pose
Stand with your feet 4 feet apart. Turn your left foot in slightly and your right foot 90 degrees. Align your torso over the right leg by squaring your hips forward. Inhale, bring your right hand to the hip and reach the left arm up lengthening through the fingers. Exhale; bend forward from the hips with straight legs and twist your torso to the right. Rest your left hand on your right shin or ankle. Stretch the right arm up toward the sky, directly above the shoulder with palm facing forward. Gaze upward or toward the floor. Draw the right hip down and back and rotate the upper torso open while lengthening through the spine. Stay for five breath cycles, inhale to center, and switch sides.
Core Benefits: Stretches the hips and spine. Opens up the chest to improve breathing. Can relieve mild backache and improve sense of balance.
2. Folding Pose: Target the visible belly, or rectus abdominis, by drawing your thighs and chest towards each other like when doing a sit-up.
Navasana: Boat Pose
Sit on the floor with your legs straight in front of you, hands slightly behind the hips. Lift through the chest and lean back. Bend your knees and lift your feet 45 degrees off the floor. If possible, straighten your knees, allowing the toes to point toward the sky creating a “V” shape. Otherwise, keep your knees bent with shins parallel to the floor. Reach your arms forward aligned with the shoulders, palms facing each other. Lengthen through the spine; do not round your back. Firm the lower abdomen, tuck the chin slightly, and gaze forward or up at your feet. Stay for five breath cycles and repeat two or more times.
Core Benefits: Strengthens the abdomen, hip flexors and spine. Helps Improve digestion.
3. Arm Balance: Create definition in the superficial muscles by isolating the rectus abdominis.
Dolphin Plank Pose
Come down to your hands and knees. Place your forearms on the floor with your shoulders directly above your wrists. Inhale, spread your fingers, and firmly press your hands and forearms into the floor. Exhale, turn your toes under and lift your knees away from the floor. Walk your feet back until your shoulders are over your elbows and your torso is parallel to the floor. Lift the front of your thighs toward the sky and reach through the heels. Lengthen your neck and reach through the crown of your head. Gaze down at the floor. Stay for five breath cycles and come down.
Core Benefits: Strengthens and tones the core, arms and legs.
4. Seated Twist: Extend and rotate the obliques while lengthening and stretching the deep back muscles.
Ardha Matsyendrasana: Half Lord of the Fishes Pose
Start in seated position with straight legs. Inhale, bend your knees. Bring your left foot underneath your right leg and drop your left knee to the floor facing forward. Secure your left foot next to the right hip, point your toes back. Cross your right leg over the left, bringing your right foot to the outside of your left knee. Exhale, bend your left elbow and place your elbow or left shoulder on the outside of your right knee. Place your right hand underneath your right shoulder. Inhale, lift your torso and lengthen your spine, exhale, twist gazing over your right shoulder. Press your left shoulder into your right leg and draw your right hip down. Stay in pose for five breath cycles and switch sides.
Core Benefits: Stretches the shoulders, hips and neck and energizes the spine.
5. Inversions: Lifting and lowering legs strengthens the abs.
Salamba Sarvangasana: Supported Shoulder Stand
Lie on your back with straight legs and your arms along sides, palms down. Inhale; press your arms and hands into the floor and lift your feet up, drawing your thighs toward your torso. Continue to lift by curling your pelvis and back away from the floor. Curl onto your upper back and begin to lift your legs up. As you lift, place your hands behind your low back, fingers pointing upward to support yourself in coming up to a straight leg position. When your legs are fully extended, walk your hand down your back to assist in lifting up and to draw your shoulders under to stabilize. Gaze upward and stay for 10 breath cycles or lower your straight legs towards the floor behind you and back up again 10 times.
Core Benefits: Stretches shoulders, neck and spine. Strengthens abdominal muscles. Stimulates abdominal organs and can improve digestion.
6. Pranayama: Strengthen the transverse abdominis and create support and expansion in the diaphragm with breath control.
Ujjayi Breathing: “Victorious Breath”
Inhale slowly through the nose, feel the breath move through the back of your throat and fill up your lungs. Exhale fully through your nose, moving the breath from your lungs, up the back of throat and back out through your nose. Allow the breath to be relaxed as you constrict the back of the throat while breathing to create a gentle “ah” or hissing sound. Lengthen the inhale and exhale out as long as possible and allow the sound to be consistent and smooth. Use this breath while practicing your yoga poses or in a comfortable seated position.
Core Benefits: Helpsfocus the mind, calm the body, and generate internal heat.
Laura Waite is a certified massage therapist and yoga teacher at Pacific Ashtanga Yoga Shala in Dana Point, California.