When you think about how you can increase your core strength, you probably think sit ups, crunches and leg lifts, right?
Many people understand that core strength gives your physical body support, but it is important to also know that this physical component is also the structure that supports your journey toward freedom in your emotional and spiritual self.
It is true that there are many wide-reaching physical benefits of core work. One example is strong abdominal muscles, which ultimately support your lower back and help prevent back pain and stiffness. Strength in the core also helps to prevent the effects of age and gravity on our bodies. Toning of the abdominal wall helps to keep the organs pliable and supplied with a fresh flow of blood.
But while core work may seem at first like simple “physical therapy,” the results slowly begin to include an assessment of your life’s core: your beliefs, your strengths, and your ability to find balance.
During the first few years of a regular yoga practice you will find yourself working through layers of your physical self, melting away tension, realigning your spine and strengthening areas of your body that have been neglected. After peeling off a few layers, sometimes without even noticing it’s happening, you become more confident and able to live your life with direction and purpose. Yoga is about learning to pay attention: attention to your movements, your breath, and your reactions in particular poses. With practice, you can learn to pay attention to engaging your core in a way that will strengthen not only your back and abs, but your emotional understanding of yourself as well.
Imagine if you went to your first yoga class and the teacher instructed you to sit in one position and mediate for an hour. Most of us would feign sudden illness or sit through the hour in pain, both mental and physical! The practice of asanas (the physical practice of yoga postures) meets you at a place that is visible and tangible. The physical postures are presented first because this is where one can actually see alignment and feel a muscle stretch and release tension.
Next, attention is placed on learning to breathe fully and deeply—in and out without strain. Each new technique that is added to the practice moves the practitioner to a deeper level of conscious awareness. This awareness allows us a glimpse of the moment as it is, applying no judgment, past experiences or expectations.
To fully engage your core, you must first bring awareness to the muscles of your pelvic floor and learn to use these muscles to bring energy upward and inward towards the spine. Lay your thumbs on your navel and make a triangle with your thumbs and index fingers. Beneath your index and middle fingers is the second area involved with engaging the core. As you exhale, draw this area of the lower belly in toward your spine then bring this lifting sensation up the front of your spine, so that you increase the space between the front of your pubic bone and your heart center.
With practice, your breath becomes smooth and you will perceive a slight pause between your thoughts, and also between your inhale and exhale. In the space your breath has created comes the capacity for compassion, understanding and a willingness to accept this body and mind as they are, right now, at this moment.
As your yoga practice evolves, your understanding of your thoughts and feelings sparks a transformation within. When you are able to observe your feelings in a calm and objective manner, you may notice that they are often intangible and fleeting. Just as you practice holding a difficult posture in class and learn to breathe through it, you will also learn to hold your pose in life—to breathe and integrate the techniques you practice on your mat to bring awareness to your core both mentally and physically.
Incorporate the following pose into your practice to deepen your understanding of using the core, both physically and mentally.
Side Plank Pose – Vasisthasana
To begin, do a few rounds of Sun Salutations to warm up the hamstrings and the spine. From a Downward Facing Dog pose, step your right foot a little closer to your left. Roll to the outside of your left foot and try to stack your right foot on top of your left so your feet look like they are flat on the floor. Spread through the fingers of your left hand and be sure your elbow doesn’t lock and hyperextend. Create an invisible but straight line from your left hand to your left foot and align your hips along this line. Reach your right arm up to the ceiling for balance, creating an open chest and a smooth breath. Lift the outer right hip toward the sky to avoid any sagging in the waist, maintaining integrity in your core. For an easier variation, place your left shin on the floor so your toes are pointed toward the back of your mat. Or to challenge yourself, try raising your right leg up off the foot or grab the right big toe and extend the knee straight. Variations are endless, but a steady breath is the key to comfort in any pose.