Fitness Magazine

Featured Sequence: Core Strength Practice

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Baxter

There is a lot of talk these days about developing core strength for benefits such as better posture, less back pain and better overall body strength. When I started doing yoga in the mid-90s, I never gave this much thought, perhaps because core strength was not all the rage then but also because I found that my well-balanced yoga classes were already cultivating strength in the areas that I consider “core” musculature.

So what are those areas? The most obvious ones are the focus of many an exercise or Pilates mat class. I’m referring to the four layers of the front abdominal muscles, from the most superficial and famous six-pack known as the Rectus Abdominis, the next two diagonally oriented layers, the External and internal Obliques, to the deepest corset-like layer, the Transversus Abdominis. And this is where a lot of the focus in other core strengthening sometimes stops. But I also think of the lower back muscles, such as the Erector Spinae and the Quadratus Lumborum (sometimes referred to as the QL), the deeper belly muscles, such as the Psoas and the Iliacus, and the pelvic floor muscles as all contributing to “core” strength. 

So, in addition to one or two obvious poses that will address the four layers of the abdominals, such as Boat pose, the other poses in my sequence address the other areas we should also be interested in if we truly want to focus on a strong core. As with our other strengthening sequences, working towards longer holds, somewhere around 90 seconds, is your longer-term goal. But always listen to the feedback of your body, and if you start to feel shaky, lose form and alignment, or feel weak, stop at that point and note the time and use that as your initial baseline hold. 

Core Strength Practice

1. Gentle Reclining Warm Ups: For a couple of minutes, lie down and do some simple movements to wake up your lower back and belly area, perhaps bringing your knees into your chest one at a time a few times, or from Constructive Rest pose, rocking your knees side to side. 

2. Upward Extended Feet Pose (Urdhva Prasarita Padasana): Lying on your back, stretch your legs out long on the floor and make them strong, as if you were standing on them. Find and maintain a slight natural lumbar curve in your lower back. Don’t let this space enlarge or diminish as you work. 

On an inhalation, take your arms overhead and down toward the floor and keep them there. On an exhalation, lift one leg (easier if you need to start off slowly) or both legs up about 30 degrees off the floor and try to maintain this spot for 20 seconds or so while breathing normally. Then, on another exhale, take your legs up another 30 degrees (now at 60 degrees off the floor) and repeat the hold. Finally, take your up to 90 degrees and hold there for about 20 seconds before lowering your legs slowly to the floor on an exhalation. Bring your arms back to your sides and rest for a few breaths, and see if your body seems up for trying it one or two more times. This pose activates the abdominal muscles, the Psoas and Iliacus, the pelvic floor and some of the lower back muscles.

3. Revolved Abdomen Pose (Ardha Jathara Parivartanasana): Lying on your back, bend your knees and place your feet on the floor. Take your arms out to your sides, in line with your shoulders. Then, lift your shins up and bring them parallel with the floor, keeping your knees positioned right over your hips. Keep your legs snuggled against each other as you work. 

On an inhalation, slowly drop your knees and turn your hips to the right, hovering a few inches off the floor while keeping the backs of your shoulder blades on the floor. Then on your exhalation, slowly swing your legs and hips back to center. Repeat this process on the left, slowing your breath down a bit as you work. Do this side-to-side about six times, then bring your feet down, stretch your legs out on the floor and take a brief rest. This pose strengthens the Oblique layers of the abdominals, and if you can maintain a slight arch in the lower back, also gets the Transversus in the mix, too. 

4. Locust Pose (Shalabhasana): Roll onto your belly and chest, and bring your arms along side your body, hands by the hips. I think doing a few rounds of one-legged or two-legged dynamic Locust is a good preparation for the full pose so wee Dynamic Locust Pose for instructions for the dynamic version of this pose.  After you are warmed up, on an inhalation, lift your chest and head and one or both legs up a few inches off the floor. Keep your head and neck in line with the rest of you spine (which is coming into a small backbend). Stay in the pose for 10-20 seconds, breathing normally. Lower down on an exhalation and release all effort for a few breaths. Depending on how you are feeling, repeat one to two more times. This pose strengthens the back core muscles such as the QL and the Erector Spinae.

Featured Sequence: Core Strength Practice
5. Hunting Dog Pose: Come up to hands and knees and do Hunting Dog pose once on each side, keeping close attention to maintaining the natural curve in the lower back. See Hunting Dog Pose for instructions. In addition to the back core muscles, this also works the Transversus and the pelvic floor muscles if you can maintain your back arch without wobbling! And feel free to release your wrists by giving them a quick shake out before proceeding to the next pose. 
Featured Sequence: Core Strength Practice
6. Plank/Forearm Plank Pose: From all fours, come into Downward-Facing Dog pose, and then shift your shoulders forward until your shoulder joints are directly over your wrist joints. Keep your ribcage lifting up towards your shoulder blades and your elbows strong and straight. The rest of your body should be in a Mountain pose-like shape, so you need to keep your core and legs engaged, while maintaining a natural curve in your lower back. To come out of the pose, swing back to Downward-Facing Dog, then to hands and knees. Afterward, give your wrists a good shake out and brief rest. Similar to Hunting Dog, the core muscles are strongly engaged, but much more so in Plank and Forearm Plank.
Featured Sequence: Core Strength Practice
To get a whole different experience and give your wrists a nice break, you can also do Forearm Downward-Facing Dog and swing into Plank pose with your forearms on the floor.  
7. Arms Overhead Pose (Urdhva Hastasana): In our Opening Tight Shoulders Sequence, we showed you several variations of this pose, but the one I want you to try today is different. From Mountain pose, on an inhalation, take your arms overhead alongside your ears. 
Featured Sequence: Core Strength Practice
While firming your leg muscles and simultaneously pressing your fingertips as high as they will go, notice what happens in your lower belly and pelvic floor. If you get the up-down action of your arms and legs going, your lower belly often hollows a bit towards the spine without flattening the spinal arch, and your pelvic floor muscles will firm and may even slightly lift. I call this a natural belly and pelvic floor “lock,” known in Sanskrit as Uddiyana and Mula Bandha.  It is “natural” because it arises as a result of the physical effort of the reach of Arms Overhead pose, and strengthens the Transversus and pelvic floor muscles nicely. You can also make those locks happen for your pranayama practice separately, but we won’t get into that today. (Shelly Prosko has some information in her post Treatment of Incontinence if you want to learn more about locks.)8. Triangle Pose (Utthita Trikonasana): As I had you do in our Lower Body Strength Sequence, you may want to start by coming in and out Triangle pose dynamically a few times to warm up for full Triangle pose. Then hold full Triangle for 10-20 seconds while breathing normally. To engage your side core muscles, such as the Obliques, more fully, try this variation: Bring your palms together in front of your heart in prayer position, and keep your arms and hand like this as you side-bend into Triangle pose. Notice how much more your leg, hip and side waist muscles have to work when your bottom hand is not supporting you. Repeat on second side.
Featured Sequence: Core Strength Practice
9. Half-Downward-Facing Dog Pose at the Wall (Ardha Adho Muka Svanasana): This is a great counter-pose for the asymmetric standing poses like Triangle pose you just did. See Half Dog Pose at the Wall for basic instructions.   While you are in the pose for 20-30 seconds, draw you lower abdomen up towards the spine without changing the arch of your lower back.
Featured Sequence: Core Strength Practice
10. Extended Side Angle Pose (Utthita Parsva Konasana): From Mountain pose, step your feet wide apart, turn your right foot and leg out 90 degrees and kick out your back heel an inch or so. Bring your arms up parallel with the floor and bend your front knee. Then side-bend your hips and torso over your front leg and put your right hand on a block on its highest height, placed snug up against the outside of your front shin. Swing your top arm up and overhead, completing the side angle from your back leg through your torso and into your top arm. Push down firmly into the block with your bottom hand and feel your right shoulder blade firm into your chest and slightly down toward your waist. Reach your top arm and shoulder blade strongly forward towards your fingers. Inhale as you come up, relax your arms at your side and repeat on the second side.
Featured Sequence: Core Strength Practice
Doing the pose this way can start to work the side core muscles, but for this practice, I’d like you to try Extended Side Angle pose with your hands in prayer position as you did with Triangle. After side-bending into the pose with your hands in prayer position, line up your spine with your back leg so you create one long angle. Your side core muscles will have to work quite a bit harder to keep you in position then when you use your bottom hand for support, so you may have to shorten your time in the pose initially. Repeat on the second side.11. Repeat Half Downward-Facing Dog at the Wall here if you like.12. Boat Pose (Paripurna Navasana): Come to a seated position, with your knees bent and your feet on the floor in front of you. Tip your torso back a bit, keeping some good length in the spine, but not overly back bending it. Hold onto the back of your knees and rock back to balance on your buttocks with your feet just off the floor. See how long you can stay before your front thighs begin to tire. If Version 1 is easy, try Version 2, which involves bringing your shins parallel to the floor and holding there. If Version 2 is easy, try Version 3, letting go of your knees and stretching your arms forward. Finally, if Version 3 isn’t challenging enough, try Version 4, straightening your knees so your upper and lower body forms a “V” shape. Start with six breaths and work up from there.13. Marichi’s pose 3 (Marichyasana 3): Start by sitting in Staff pose (Dandasana) with your legs extending forward. Feel free to place a folded blanket or other lift under your hips if your hamstrings or lower back are tight and stiff. Then, keeping your left leg straight, bend your right leg so your knee is upright and the toes of your right foot are facing forward. Then, move your right foot close to your right sitting bone. Place your right hand on the floor to your right and a bit behind you and support your torso with that arm. Turn your upper belly and chest towards your right knee and wrap the crook of your left elbow around your right knee. Maintain a nice vertical lift up through your spine, and, using your arms simply to keep you in position, focus on your abdominal muscles firming and contracting to take you a bit deeper into the twist. This pose focuses mostly on the diagonal Obliques. Stay for 20-30 seconds to start, then release and repeat on the second side.14. Reclined Cobbler’s Pose (Supta Baddha Konasana): As a treat for your core and all the hard work it has done, this restorative pose is a great way to release tension from your abdomen and all the muscles around it. It’s the first pose in our Mini Restorative Sequence  and you can watch me teach it on YouTube here:Stay for a minimum of 10 minutes, if your schedule permits, and focus on softening the core area of your body as you feel your natural breath enter and exit. Subscribe to YOGA FOR HEALTHY AGING by Email ° Follow Yoga for Healthy Aging on Facebook 

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