The core is so much more than your abdominal muscles; it's your body's powerhouse. It extends far beyond your stomach including your arms and legs. It is incorporated in almost every movement of the body.
One of the best ways to keep the centre strong is by incorporating more core strength into the movements you love. Yoga does help improve flexibility and reduce stress; however, by focusing on your core in your practice, you can also target your muscles in a way that will tone your body and help you find more sukha (ease) in your practice. Using your centre works in conjunction with your breath to create agni (fire) to warm your body, which improves your posture and stabilizes your joints.
Our core has functional movement in all three planes of motion. It often works as a stabilizer and force transfer centre rather than a prime mover. People frequently think of moving their core in isolation (i.e. doing crunches instead of moving in a functional flow.) Try to incorporate the following asanas into your next practice to create your full expression of the posture, while maintaining core stability and working to find the strongest, safest practice that's right for you.
Please only try the following postures if you are practicing a regular movement program to ensure you work within your own limits.
1. Boat Pose, Half Boat Pose (Paripurna Navasana, Ardha Navasana)
Boat pose is often represented as an abdominal strengthener, and it is a fantastic one. However, it also strengthens the deep hip flexors that attach the inner thighbones to the front of the spine. Learn to anchor the heads of the thighbones deep in the pelvis and lift from that anchor through the spine. The lower front belly should never get hard. Ideally, the legs are straight in this posture, but do not hesitate to practice with the knees bent.
For a full boat, come to sit on your sit bones, lengthen long through your spine and open across your chest. Grab the back of your thighs and shift your weight back so you can lift your feet off the floor ideally with straight, long legs. Reach your arms forward in line with your shoulders. From full boat, feel free to try or transition between half boat: lower your legs and chest towards the floor with a small curve in the spine. Keep your abdominals engaged, shoulders off the floor and legs straight.
2. Tolasana (Utpluthih)
This is not a beginner’s asana, but it is a fun one to practice. In the full position, you need to have open knees and hips to get into lotus (even with that it can be a tricky posture). This is a great way to work on the abdominals and to better engage the pelvic floor. Even though you push through the arms, the lift comes from the pelvic floor. This posture ignites your centre.
If you can practice the posture in lotus, practice in that shape, otherwise come to seated on your sitting bones extending your legs in front of you. Either way, you bring your hands on the floor a little behind your hips. Lift through the top of the sternum and lean back slightly, making sure your back doesn't round. Bend your knees and lift your feet off of the floor, spread your shoulder blades wide and push your hands firmly into the floor. You’re your abdominals firm, activate that pelvic floor and see if you can lift your seat off of the ground. Once you get there, breathe deep and try to hold.
One of my teachers always referred to this as the panther, and I have definitely borrowed her name. More often referred to as 'knee to nose' or 'knee to elbow', this is a great preparation for Eka Pada Koundinyasana ll. When bringing the knee to the nose, contracting the lower belly is great for working the abdominals and crossing the knee to the elbows fires up the obliques. The key is to bring the shoulders over the wrists and keep the spine long (and buttocks down) when floating forward. It is not about actually touching the knee to the target although it will come in time.
Starting in downward dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana), wave your spine into plank position where the shoulders rest above the wrists. Round your back as you bring your knee towards your nose slightly, bringing your head towards your chest. Alternatively, bring your knee to your elbow, or play with the movement, moving your elbow from one side to the other.
4. Twisted Lunge (Parivrtta Anjaneyasana)
This wonderful posture creates stability throughout the entire body. Lunging is a wonderful way to work the glutes, but my favorite part of this posture is the activation of the obliques to get that wonderful rotation. Try to keep the focus on the twist here when we are focusing on the core, you can always add support by dropping the back knee to the mat.
Starting in downward dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana), step what will be your front foot between your hands and come into your lunge. Make sure your front knee is bent at 90 degrees, so that your knee is above your ankle, in line with your second toe, and your back leg is straight off of the ground with your heel lifted. Keep your hips square, facing forward. Raise your torso to an upright position keeping the palms together at your chest. On an exhalation, rotate your torso to your front leg; rest the opposite arm still in the prayer position to lightly rest over your front leg. Draw your shoulders back and work to keep the focus of wrapping the ribs around the spine. If you would like to challenge yourself, bring your bottom arm towards the ground and your top arm towards the sky.
5. Fierce Pose (Utkatasana)
This is a personal favorite to hold for a long amount of time. Lifting your toes while seated deep in the posture and placing your weight in your heels is a great way to fire up your glutes. You can challenge your buttocks by sinking your hips as low as you can, parallel to the floor. To start, there is the option to practice this against a wall. Again, abdominal activation helps us keep the spine long and chest open. If you include props in your practice, you can fire up your inner thighs by squeezing a block between them. This is a great posture to build heat in the body.
Start standing with your feet a little wider than hip distance, bend your knees and bring the tops of your thighs back. Make sure your knees are far back so that when you look down, you can see your toes. As well, try to keep the knees aligned straight ahead of you. Lift your rib cage as vertical as it will go, while keeping your knees bent. Keep your abs engaged so the ribs do not flare out and extend your arms long overhead.
6. Warrior 3 (Virabhadra 3)
It is tricky to find your balance in Warrior 3. Strong abdominals allow you to maintain stability and protect the lower back. Engagement of the abs will keep the pressure off of the standing leg to stabilize the pose. To keep a parallel posture, it's important to work to keep the hips from tipping. Even hipbones can be achieved with proper activation of the gluteal.
From a lunge position, stretch your arms parallel to the floor, palms facing each other. Synchronize the straightening of your front leg and the lifting of your back leg. Although the torso drops, try not to let it swing forward. Instead, as your front leg straightens, think of pressing your thighbone back. Your arms, torso and back leg should be relatively parallel to the floor. Energize your back leg, flex your back foot and extend your arms long. Look forward without putting stress on your neck. If you are still working on your balance, keep your hands on the floor or on blocks.
7. Half Moon Pose (Ardha Chandrasana)
This pose is never a popular one in a class, as it is difficult to focus on balance and often people find discomfort in the hip joint of the standing leg. We can change this by engaging the gluteal, and lengthening the lower back, avoiding any arch by keeping the lower abdominals fired up.
Find this pose by starting in triangle pose (Trikonasana). Slowly start to transfer the weight into your front leg as your back leg lifts up. Keep your standing knee bent until your right leg is parallel to the floor. Press through both of your heels. On your standing leg, feel the response in your thigh, hip and buttocks as you straighten your leg. Keep your lower abdominals strong as your thigh rolls out to keep your knee in line with the centre of the foot. If you feel balanced and grounded, extend your top arm to the sky and see if your gaze can follow. If this is challenging, keep your arm down or place your hand on the sacrum for stability.
8. Goddess pose (Utkata konasana)
I love this posture, as there are so many fun ways to play with it. Hold deep in the posture, using little pulses or play with your full range of motion. With its wide stance, the goddess posture engages the inner thighs. Core activation will also be crucial to maintain balance and a long spine. By pushing through the heel, the glutes should fire in this movement. This posture can always be practiced against a wall.
For this posture, stand with your feet significantly wider than hip width apart and your toes facing at a 45-degree angle. Lower down by bending your knees and hips. Keep your abs tight, back straight and do not let your knees move past your toes when lowering. Hold the posture while pressing your hips forward, drop your shoulders down, and bring your arms to a 90-degree angle and keep your elbows in line with your shoulders. Root through your heels and rise up slowly, making sure you stand tall. Repeat, vary, experiment or move on from the goddess posture.
by Kathryn Kearsey