Welcome back! I hope you are still smiling from last week – Charlotte’s added touch of the John Lennon video first brought tears to my eyes as I remembered the day he died, then smiles and even laughter at the honesty to self and love he radiated into the world. A perfect ending to my less than perfect writing skills!
This week’s article is focused on a very small but most important part of your musculature known as your Core. I use capitals because your Core deserves the usage. All muscle action involving movement begins here. Yes, Yoga does strengthen the Core and Yoga is invaluable; but especially for the beginner, it is not enough to simply talk about exercising the Core – one must learn to be consciously aware of it and understand what the benefits are in its strengthening, as well as what may happen if it weakens.
Adding conscious awareness of your Core in your Yoga sessions will also benefit your flexibility and strength, as well as assist to prevent pulls and strain injury. It really makes sense: The Core of the human body is much like the trunk of a great oak – all motion is firmly rooted in the trunk of the tree which is assisted and held in place by the roots (legs.) When we root ourselves to the ground, and begin the motion of the particular asana we are performing in the Core, true harmony of motion occurs. Harmony of motion leads to harmony of body, which in turn leads to harmony of mind, and finally soul.
What is the Core?
The Core of the human body is a corset of muscles that surround the abdomen and lower back and includes the transverses abdominus, multifidis(s), diaphragm and pelvic floor. In order for smooth contraction and movement to occur in the arms, shoulder, and legs – as well as all twisting motion – this protective girdle needs to be strengthened and exercised properly in order to protect us from injury. In cases where injury already exists (or general weakness), strengthening and stabilizing the core provides superior rehabilitation, and improves overall performance enhancement in all sports and daily usage.
Feeling your Core
Feeling your Core is also commonly known as independent Core contraction, but there is a second and deeper element that as a Yoga practitioner one must consider: Feeling your Core is more importantly a state of conscious awareness of the Core muscles and focusing on allowing all movement to stem or well up from this area. The first step is to feel physically and then learn to pay conscious awareness to the feeling of the Core contracting…
When performing isolated Core contractions, you will be simultaneously contracting the pelvic floor, diaphragm, multifidis, and transverses abdominus – contraction of the whole core provides maximum stability and balance for the abdomen and lower back area, and occurs naturally through co-contraction. Below are three of the most commonly used techniques or methods through which you can isolate your Core. The Core is not a group of muscles we are used to contracting through conscious will, so take your time and repeat whichever of these methods works best for you until you can easily contract your Core through mind-full effort.
Hands on hips!
Palpitation of Transverses abdominus:
In order to become aware of your Core muscles and know that you are actively contracting the muscles to the proper degree – you have to be able to feel them in action. To do this, place your hands on the bony part of the front of your hips (known as the anterior superior iliac spines, or ASIS.) Move the fingers of both hands in towards your naval one inch, and then move your fingers down one inch – you are now pressing lightly on your transverses abdominus muscles. As the Core muscles are co-contractors and therefore always work together, you will know when your Core is contracting through the contraction of these muscles. Keep your hands in this position as you try each of the three methods of feeling your Core.
Oops! Almost forgot!
With your fingers in the above noted position just in and down from your ASIS, you will feel a gentle tightening when the Core is contracting correctly. If it feels like your fingers are being pushed upward away from the muscles – you are contracting too heavily. The Core muscles require contractions at roughly twenty-five to thirty percent of maximum in order to handle repetitive contractive exercise. If you prematurely tire the Core muscles, the larger muscles surrounding the Core take over and draw focus away from your center. Only contract the Core until you feel the transverses abdominus muscles tighten, then relax and release in between each contraction.
Carry out the following postures on your Yoga mat, or on the carpet at a minimum. Lie down on your back, and place your feet shoulder width apart while bending your knees to a comfortable position so that your back is well grounded to the mat or carpet. Relax your shoulders and allow your breathing to turn into gentle lateral expansions to relieve the diaphragm of effort. Avoid breathing into the abdomen or into your upper chest as this causes contraction of the larger muscles surrounding the core. Breathe normally and lightly and avoid the tendency to hold your breath while contracting your Core independently.
Core contraction method one –
Without moving your hands away from where they are located, imagine that there is a leather belt with ten holes is cinched around your abdomen. Take a deep breath in and as you exhale, visualize the belt being drawn tight – right up to the tenth hole. Do you feel a tightening under your fingers? Remember – you don’t want outward –directed pressure pushing your fingers away. Now release the belt down to the third hole in your mind’s eye.
Core contraction method two –
Take a deep and steady breath in. On the exhale, focus trying to allowing your belly button to lower down towards the floor. Check again for gentle tightening in the transverses abdominus muscles. If you feel it, imagine releasing the contraction down to about twenty-five or thirty percent and feel again.
Core contraction method three –
Still lying in the same position with bended knees, take another deep breath, and on the exhale, focus on pulling up from the pelvic floor. If you feel a tightening using this method, again imagine reducing the contraction to roughly thirty percent of maximum.
Spend a little time with each of these methods until you can easily feel your Core working. Developing awareness and consciously contracting the Core will develop over time as you learn first to recognize when your Core is active, and then the ability to contract it at will. Learning to move from the Core builds grace and ease of movement, protects your body from injury, and will allow your Yoga to be that much more effective. Adding Core strengthening movements to your own Yoga routine such as Utkatasana, Vrksasana, Vasisthasana, Chaturanga Dandasana, or Plank pose will also be of great benefit. Note: It has been proven in many studies using methods including electromagnetic imaging that show Plank pose is the only pose which if done correctly actively engages all four layers of the abdominal cavity musculature.
Until next week, my friends!