It is coming close to summer time now and our bodies are screaming to come out and play in the beautiful sunshine and blue skies. It’s at this time of year that we start to get thinking about our bikini bodies, and panicking over how quickly we can get back into shape after a long drawn out winter of covering everything up in the darker shades of colder days. Or maybe it is just that you have set yourself a kick ass goal of getting uber fit for a triathlon, marathon or some other personal challenge and you recognize the value in having a strong core. I dare any one of you reading this article to say that you have never given a seconds thought to how awesome it would be to have a fabulously lean and toned stomach. We are all guilty of thinking there’s nothing sexier… even if only for a nano-second. I don’t mean a showy 6 pack, you know the guys who parade up and down the beach flexing their muscles to show off what they have under their shirts… those 6 packs only work on a superficial level. What I mean is that we want the kind of 6 pack that combines the rectus abdominus, transverse abdominus, external, and internal oblique’s, and allows our bodies to move in all possible directions through its sheer strength and flexibility. Strength and flexibility that comes from yoga.
“Engage your core….”
So, what does a 6 pack have to do with yoga? In yoga everything comes from our core. Every action, movement, thought, and intention comes from the very center of our being – whether that is literally our core muscles, or the center metaphorically speaking.
You will often hear your teacher tell you to “extend you heart”, “engage your core”, “use your core to” move from Warrior 1 to Warrior 3 or when moving between the boat series, for example. The core is the center of a yogi’s world. The teacher is always, always reminding their students about the importance of engaging their core in a whole range of poses, or transitions between poses. All the time! And, have you noticed how as soon as you do actually firm up your belly, it completely changes your pose? That’s the absolute power of core strength!
[bctt tweet="The core is the center of a yogi’s world."]
Core strength = chakra strength
As a bit of an aside, there is also research to suggest that the core is connected to our third chakra – Manipura. This chakra is connected to our confidence and self-esteem. The more robust our confidence, the more likely we are to be able to survive the curveballs that life can sometimes throw at us. The more readily and easily we will overcome obstacles, self-doubt, fear and our deepest, darkest, inhibitions. The outcome of this is that we become lucky enough to live an extraordinary and empowered life that allows us to follow our goals, our dreams and start to move in the direction that makes us come alive.
Why is core strength important in yoga?
Stop for a moment and think about just how many poses on your yoga mat require you to activate your core.
When you go into Tree pose, activating your core at the start of the pose enhances the stability that you feel, which guides you to a safe and secure place in which you can raise your hands to the sky and find a sense of balance. Chaturanga requires core strength to keep your body aligned as you form a perfectly straight line to support your torso as you lower yourself towards the ground.
I could go on, but I think you get my point.
You can truly think about the impact that a strong core has on every single posture practiced in a yoga flow. A strong core adds grace and stability during simple transitions from Warrior 2, to extended side angle, and back to reverse warrior. And that’s nothing compared to the core strength needed for arm balances and inversions like crow pose, or headstand. Poses that would be virtually impossible without engaging the core.
Reasons to work your core:
If you regularly read my articles, you know that my stance on yoga is most definitely that yoga is more than just stretching and relaxation! Daily yoga practice includes a comprehensive system that builds strength in the body and mind. And as all of that strength is from the core, guess what ends up looking like a kick ass core? Yep, you got it, your stomach muscles. Without even realizing that you are working half of the muscles in your core, yoga significantly tones and strengthens your belly region.
Strengthening your core also has knock on effects and benefits for the rest of your body and mental well being too. Toning the abdominal muscles is vital for good posture and protection from lower back pain.
If you introduce a regular practice of these key poses into your yoga practice, you will experience a steady development of strength that will last your entire life. Strong, flexible muscles help keep your body youthful and your mind energetic.
[bctt tweet=" Strong, flexible muscles help keep your body youthful and your mind energetic."]
The 10 postures outlined below will help you develop the strength and stamina needed to truly build core power in your yoga practice. You can easily sprinkle them throughout your class to spread them out, or go for an all out killer core session and attack them one after another.
1) Superman Holds (Tabletop extensions and curls)
Begin in tabletop pose with your hips above your knees, and shoulders above your wrist. Lift the right leg and extend behind you, flexing the heel. When you feel stable, raise your left arm and extend it forward (keeping both limbs and your core parallel to the floor).
Inhale the extended limbs away from each other, and then draw the right knee and left elbow towards each other on your exhale.
Complete 10-20 times, and then switch to the other side.
Navasana – Boat Pose Variations
One of my favorite core exercises in my personal practice! A combination of core strength, hip flexion and mental steadiness, this posture has many different variations so that all levels can practice it. Holding for a minimum of five breaths daily builds powerful core muscles and aligns the spine.
2) Boat pose and lower boat pose
Every little (and big) muscle in your abdominals is engaged during boat or low boat pose. Low boat engages the transverse abdominals particularly well as well, those ones that contribute to a super flat belly.
Starting in boat pose, bringing the legs straight up to a 45-degree angle (or keeping knees bent to modify). The torso will naturally fall back, but try not to let the spine collapse. Bring the arms out straight in line with your shoulders.
Lower halfway to your mat with your inhale. Then rise up and return to boat pose on your exhale.
Continue for 10-20 reps. To challenge yourself try to extend the hover period between breaths, and complete this exercise as many times as you can.
3) Boat Twist
Starting in boat pose as above, bring your hands together interlacing the fingers except the index fingers.
Inhale at center, exhale take the hands and twist to the right (hold for 2-5 breaths), inhale back to center (hold for 2-5 breaths), and exhale to the left (hold again for 2-5 breaths. Your inhale brings you back to center.
Plank is a key pose within our yoga flow classes, as it is one of the basic tools for combining our core strength with our upper body power as we power between poses in our vinyasas. Directing the mind to remain steady and calm in plank helps calm the nervous system in even more arduous movements. Try to hold plank for one minute to really build strength.
Challenge Variation: Try lifting one leg from the floor while you hold plank, then move to the other side after 20-60 seconds.
5) Side Plank
Here's a fabulous arm-balancing pose that will target the oblique’s, the sides of the torso, making them uber lean, slim lined and gorgeously toned. Side plank strengthens the obliques, while the abdominals work to stabilize the entire body.
From plank, bring your weight onto your right arm as you roll onto the outside of your right foot.
Keep both feet flexed and stack your left foot on top of the right. Slowly raise your left arm towards the sky and let your gaze follow your fingertips, or the side of the room.
Modify: Simpler: Bend the knee of top leg and resting sole of foot in front of straight leg. To intensify take hold of the toe on the top leg and extend the leg towards the sky.
Hold for 3-5 breaths then move to the other side. Keep the hips and shoulders stacked on top of each other.
6) Forearm Plank
This pose is similar to the plank pose, except you bring your forearms onto the ground and stack your shoulders right above the elbows.
Hold for 1-3 minutes before moving to the next side.
7) Forearm Side Plank
As above but resting on right forearm, while raising left arm to the sky. Hold for 1-3 minutes before moving to the next side.
8) Bicycle Flow
Begin by lying on your back, with your fingers interlaced behind your neck.
On your exhale bring your right elbow to meet your left knee as you twist to center lifting your right shoulder up. Use your inhale to come back to the starting position. Continue the flow from left to right for 30 second to 2 minutes.
9) Pilates Core Taps
Lying on your back, extending both of your arms over-head. On your exhale, peel your arms and torso off the floor, lifting your right leg at the same time. Bring your fingers to tap behind the right leg. On your inhale slowly lower yourselves down to your mat.
Continue this flow for 10-25 times each side.
10) Double Leg Raises
Lying on your back, extend both legs towards the sky with both feet flexed. Bring your arms alongside your body
On your exhale slowly lower both legs to 60 degrees, holding here for 2-5 breaths. On your next exhale lower both legs to 30 degrees, holding again for 2-5 breaths. Then lower both legs to hover just above the floor as you exhale, holding for 2-5 breaths.
Continue this flow 5-10 times.
Counter Pose - Half Bow
This is a fabulous tool as a counter pose to all of the poses above, which primarily targets the abdominals. This pose strengthens the muscles that surround the back of the spine and helps to create a super strong core – both front and back.
Begin by lying on your stomach. Place your arms alongside your body. Inhale here, and then on your exhale lift the chest from the mat, and draw the hands towards the feet turning your palms to face outwards with the thumbs lifting to the sky. Gaze follows to the front of your mat.
Hold for between 30 seconds and 2 minutes.
A strong core is the center of a strong, healthy and happy yogi
A strong core stabilizes your entire body, both in yoga and outside of your practice in your daily life. Our core is what holds it all together – our physical and mental strength. So roll out your mat and get started on this kick ass core workout!
[bctt tweet="Our core is what holds it all together – our physical and mental strength."]
Images via: @laceytcufitchick