Abdominal Strength And Yoga
Regardless of how much we may try to resist, the urge to use yoga to get a “good body” is pretty much drummed into us before we even get started and one of the strongest desires or ideas we have about what constitutes a beautiful body is having a flat stomach, or strong abdominal muscles. Sometimes we may even wish to mix in some traditional abdominal crunch exercises to hurry things along a little.
Traditional crunch exercises target rectus abdominus muscles (the infamous 6-pack), which are the muscles that flex the trunk forward. However most of us flex the trunk forward all day through sitting, driving, leaning forward, bending down or even when standing if the tailbone has become tucked under. Over time, this repetitive spinal flexion can compromise the natural lumbar curve, causing spinal compression, displacement and herniated discs.
Healthy abdominal muscles are not actually intended to work as prime movers but together with many layers of muscles, are there to work as spinal stabilisers. These muscles make up what is called our “core” muscles because they form the foundation of our inner stability, supporting not only our physical posture, but our sense of presence and being.
So the first step in yoga is to develop this awareness of having a core, and this is done by “being” in the body whilst practicing. Breathing deeply into what ever shape we are making and experiencing every minute sensation as we rotate the awareness through the body, we naturally develop both core awareness and thereby core strength.
Push Through The Pain?
Both the beauty of yoga and what differentiates it from just plain exercise is the amount of presence we bring to the practice. Those from a sports background may have learned to push through the pain, counting repetitions whilst grimacing; the mind firmly fixed on finishing and getting it done! Perhaps, even unconsciously holding the breath.
Yoga is the opposite of this. Each movement is initiated by the breath, deliberate, slow, intentionally prolonging each moment with awareness. Ironically enough, the more we focus on the entire body and the various sensations that come and go during the practice, the more strength we will develop at these deep core muscles.
Who Needs Anatomy?
Those who have looked at old yoga books from India have probably noticed a distinct lack of anatomy images or instruction. It seems the ancient teachers felt it unnecessary to gain any knowledge that wasn’t experienced inwardly. However in our modern world we have the benefit of giving the mind a little food to help us conjure an image in the mind’s eye. Sometimes a few anatomy images and understanding can be motivational. So here are some Core Clues:
If you imagine cutting yourself in half from front to back, at the level of the waist, you would see a number of layers of muscle tissue that wrap around your abdominal organs and enable the movement of the trunk. Each has a primary function, but they also help each other in many ways.
Building Awareness Of The Transversus Abdominis
Transversus abdominis is the deepest muscle and wraps around the abdomen between the lower ribs and top of the pelvis, functioning a bit like a corset which narrows the waist slightly when contracted. Its function is to stabilize the lower back and pelvis before movement of the arms and/or legs occurs.
If you want to feel it lie on your back, knees bent with your spine in neutral position. Imagine a line connecting your two hip bones and then consciously draw them towards one another like they are connected with elastic. Then lift up the pelvic floor muscles together like a draw string bag.
You can do this in any yoga posture to help develop awareness and stability in your core.
The next layers of abdominal muscles are the internal and then the external obliques. The internal obliques originate on the iliac crest (the top of the pelvis bone), the inguinal ligament (a ligament in the groin area) and the fascia that covers the mid and low back. They insert on the 9th and 12th ribs and the linea alba (a large tendinous tissue that runs down along the centre of the abdomen).
Their action created by these muscles depends on whether one or both contract at the same time. When both contract together they create a forward fold and increase the pressure in the abdomen and thorax. When one contracts alone it creates rotation to the same side and also a side bend to the same side.
The external obliques run on top of the internal obliques and originate from both sides of the ribs (ribs 4 through 12) and insert in the iliac crest and the linea. Like the internal obliques, their joint contraction flexes the trunk, or causes the tailbone to tuck. When just one contracts, it creates rotation to the opposite side and also a side bend to the opposite side.
Both of the obliques have a protective function in twisting, ensuring that the spine twists evenly, so that the vertebrae do not turn too strongly in any one place and injure an intervertebral disk.
Triangle and revolved triangle uses these muscles to side bend and then to twist at the waist to open the chest. You can actively engage these muscles during your practice by lengthening the two sides of your body and also by not putting any weight on the bottom hand.
The rectus abdominis lies at the most superficial layer of the muscles and also flexes the trunk. This can be felt easily by contracting up into an abdominal crunch when lying on the back. As I said at the beginning, we shouldn’t do this too much without balancing it out with other actions. This muscle comes into play in any asana where we flex the trunk and can be actively engaged, for instance in a seated forward bend, to assist in pulling the spine forwards over the legs.
Another Core Player
Another important muscle is the erector spinae that runs along the length of the spine. Their job are to return the body to an upright position from the forward bend and are also engaged in backward bending. Because we spend so much time sitting, backward bending in yoga is very important, but can be challenging for many people both physically and emotionally. Backward bending challenges us to feel vulnerable and open and requires a certain amount of strength in these muscles that needs to be built slowly and carefully.
The key in backward bending is to distribute the curve throughout the back instead of pivoting at one point. This way you will strengthen the muscles evenly. Using the arms to push yourself into the poses (like Cobra for example) will interfere with the strengthening of your back muscles and can cause painful compression in the lumbar spine.
Don’t worry, Do Yoga!
So these are the main muscles when it come to you core musculature. If you practice with presence, remaining conscious in the body and breath during your yoga practice, you will use most of the muscles as you bend forwards and backwards, turn and twist. So if you make sure that your yoga practice is balanced in terms of the directional movement of the spine, you will automatically be strengthening your core, and those tummy muscles will get nice and strong without having to puff out 20 rounds of crunches!
Our upcoming yearly 200 hour yoga teacher training program in India and Bali. If you can deepen your presence at the same time of building your core muscles in a organic manner.