Strong Core, Strong Yoga Practice:
Have you ever noticed the incredible transformation that takes place when you cinch in your waist and fire up your core during plank pose (also known by its Sanskrit name, Uttihita Chaturanga Dandasana)?
One of the quintessential yoga poses requiring a strong and stable mid-section, plank pose performed with core engaged is dynamic, active, characterized by long, strong straight legs and arms, elongated neck and spine and most vitally, feels simultaneously grounded and light.
On the other hand, plank pose lacking core engagement is notoriously heavy and hard to maintain. There is undue pressure placed on the lower back as the stomach slumps and the forearms, shoulders and wrists carry the burden of extra strain as they fight to hold the body in alignment.
Drawing your abdomen up towards your spine during plank pose provides a rock solid foundation that better enables you to access extra strength to push up through your arms, biceps and shoulders, dome your upper back and extend your legs, all the way out through the heels.
While plank pose represents an obvious example of an asana requiring core strength, nearly all poses in yoga benefit from awakening the core. Core activation provides greater spinal stability to prevent excessive flexion or extension of the spine, and holds your hips in a well-aligned position which in turn leads to sustained and safer progress in your practice.
Where is the core and how can it be engaged?
With respect to physical anatomy, the core cannot be isolated as one, specific anatomical component. Different schools of yoga identity distinctive series of muscles and structures as constituting the core: some argue the core runs in a straight line through the centre of the body from the bottom of the pelvis to the tongue, whilst others point to the core as the muscles at the front of the trunk working harmoniously with the muscles at the back of the trunk.
Rather than concerning yourself with locating the core on a geographical map of the body, what is more vital is to become familiar with the feeling of an activated core. You will often hear your yoga teacher encouraging you in class to “draw your bellybutton towards your spine”, “draw your pubic bone up towards your navel” or “pull in around your midline like you are cinching a belt”. These are all effective and useful metaphors that will help guide you towards core engagement. However, there are some other techniques you can practice that can also help you to locate and activate your core.
Lie down on the floor, bring your feet to your buttocks, knees hip-distance apart and facing the ceiling, and place a block width-ways between your thighs. Make sure the fronts of your thighs are facing directly forward, and not turning in or out. Use your leg muscles to squeeze the block, and try also to squeeze the outer edges of your hips into the block. These movements provide stability for your hip and lumbar region, and you should feel your lower back pressing towards the floor. Now place your hands on your waist and cough. As you cough, you will feel a muscle tighten. Feel that muscle contracting towards your midline all the way around your waist, as if you were tightening a belt, and then feel the muscles above your pubic bone drawing up towards your navel. This sensation is your core turning on.
Another method that leads to core activation is locking the “mula bandha” or root lock, one of the three “locks” utilized in hatha yoga to contain the flow of energy or prana. Mula bandha not only helps to build core body strength, enabling the body to use less energy to sustain the posture, but also increases your energy and vitality and improves concentration. To engage mula bandha, breathe out slowly and then contract the muscles between the pubic bone and the tailbone, pulling the perineum up in towards the abdomen. As you pull the pelvic floor up, you will feel the deep lower abdominal muscles engage and move towards the spine. Continue deep breathing while sustaining the lock.
Why is a strong core so critical?
Most critically, a stable core works to protect the lower back or lumbar spine. Modern life means many of us are office-bound during the day, spending the majority of our day seated. This action, or rather, inaction, places immense stress on the lumbar region of the back. One of the most effective ways to prevent and address lower back strain is by developing core strength on our mats to safeguard our lower backs, which in turn reinforces and improves our practice.
Core strength is indispensable in handstands or arm balances such as crow or crane (kakasana and bakasana, respectively), where an engaged core signifies more efficent limbs. The asana is supported from your core body, meaning more effective distribution of energy throughout the distal muscles.
Standing poses such as the warrior series also benefit immensely from the spinal stability arising from core strength. The sweeping motion made by the arms in the transition from warrior two (Virabhadrasana II) to reverse warrior (Viparita Virabhadrasana) is rendered much easier and more balanced with a strong core, helping the whole body to move as a unified entity. When the core is engaged, you are more likely to experience the asana as a whole body phenomenon, and less likely to observe pain or tension in one particular area.
Moreover, the establishment of a strong core through yoga practice is accompanied by other physiological benefits, such as:
Protection of the central nervous system and internal organs
Gentle but supportive mobilization of the central organs
Improved circulation, assisting the movement of blood and lymphatic fluid around the body.
The internal symbolism of a strong core
Finally, awakening and activating your core during practice also holds symbolic consequences for your internal spiritual and emotional state. Engaging your core teaches you how to communicate with your body, and access your spiritual center or core. Becoming familiar with your spiritual center helps with achieving inner power, a foundation for your practice with benefits that translate to your everyday life as well.
A straight and healthy spine supported by a strong core is also significant for a freer flow of energy throughout your body, allowing you to access higher levels of asana practice and breath. As Paramhansa Yogananda once said, “A bent spine is the enemy of self-realization.”
The core represents the luminous center of your body. By maintaining awareness of your core as you move through your yoga practice, you will bring more harmony to your movements.