Yoga is well-known for stress relief, but it's also a great way to tone your middle. If you're new to yoga, you may be surprised how much abdominal strength dynamic Vinyasa and Ashtanga classes require.
Your "core" is made up of not only your abdominal muscles, but also your lower back and pelvic floor. While we don't need to get too in depth with the anatomy right now, note that all of these muscles work together symbiotically to create strength and flexibility throughout the center of your body. As you strengthen your abs, your lower back gets stronger, too — as you strengthen your lower back, your abdominal muscles get stronger.
In yoga, it's not about getting a six-pack or sucking in your belly for total flatness all the time. In fact, abdominal flexibility and elasticity is one key to maintaining a supple spine. It's as important to learn to relax your belly as it is to build muscles that support your organs and keep your bones stable.
Toned abdominal muscles are vital for protecting your low back from pain, but a strong core has other benefits, too. It improves digestion and elimination, supports good posture, and energizes the whole body. In many Eastern healing traditions, the belly is believed to be the center of life! Learn to tune into your center with this brief overview of some basic core toners.
One of the most well-known yoga poses for core strength, Navasana (nah-VAHS-uh-nuh), tones the abdominal organs while strengthening the low back.
- Begin seated with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, hands resting beside your hips.
- Keeping your spine straight, lean back slightly and lift your feet, bringing your shins parallel to the floor.
- Draw your low back in, lift your chest, then extend your arms forward, in line with your shoulders, with your palms facing each other.
- Balance on your sit bones, keeping your spine straight. Take care not to let your lower back sag or collapse your chest.
- To deepen the pose, straighten your legs to a 45-degree angle, bringing your body into a “V” shape. Lift your arms and interlace your fingers behind your head, with your elbows wide.
- Gaze at your toes.
- Hold for up to ten breaths, then rest and repeat.
Cat Pose – Marjaryasana
Marjaryasana (mahr-jahr-ee-AHS-uh-nuh), commonly known as Cat Pose, is a great warm-up, as it stretches the back of the torso while massaging the internal organs and spine.
- Begin on hands and knees, with wrists in line with your shoulders and your legs and feet hip width apart. Gaze at the floor.
- Inhale through your nose. As you exhale, press through your hands and round your spine toward the ceiling, letting your head release toward the floor. Gaze at your navel.
- Hold the exhalation for a second as you draw your belly in deeply toward your spine.
- Slowly inhale as you return to the starting position.
- Pause for a breath or two, then repeat up to ten times.
Sometimes also referred to as High Push-Up Pose, Kumbhakasana (koom-bahk-AHS-uh-nuh) tones the abdominal muscles while strengthening the arms and spine.
- Begin on hands and knees, with your wrists directly under your shoulders.
- Spread your fingers and press down through your forearms and hands. Do not let your chest collapse.
- Gaze down, lengthening the back of your neck, and draw your abdominal muscles toward your spine.
- Tuck your toes and step your feet back, bringing your body and head into one straight line.
- Keep your thighs lifting, taking care not to sink the hips too low. If your butt sticks up in the air, realign so your shoulders are directly above your wrists.
- Draw your pelvic floor muscles toward your spine as you contract your abdominal muscles.
- To deepen the pose, try lifting one leg at a time.
- Hold for five breaths, then slowly lower your whole body onto the floor and rest.
There are approximately 639 skeletal muscles in the human body. These are the voluntary muscles attached to your bones, that help you move fluidly through your yoga practice!
Although it's an advanced core pose, Tolasana (toh-LAHS-uh-nuh) is a fun one to work towards as you gain arm strength and hip flexibility.
- Begin in Lotus Pose (Padmasana), legs crossed with the top of each foot resting on the opposite thigh, hands on the floor next to your hips.
- Exhale as you press your palms firmly on the floor, draw the abdominal muscles in and up, and lift your legs and buttocks off of the floor.
- Beginners can place each hand on a block to help lift off the floor; or sit in a simple cross-legged position, instead of in Full Lotus. Draw your knees in toward your chest to help lift.
- To deepen the pose draw the pelvic floor inward and up as you lift.
- Hold for up to ten breaths, then release. Change the cross of your legs and repeat.
Core strength-building exercises can benefit your body and internal organs in many ways. Remember to take it slowly and build on your experience to further develop your abilities.
Always consult a teacher on the proper technique and alignment of a particular pose before attempting it and stop if you're feeling any kind of pinching pain in your joints or ligaments. With practice, you'll learn to control these core muscles and your practice will reach new depths.