Core strength is something of a hero in the yoga world - healer of lower back pain, enabler of impressive yoga postures and champion of self esteem. Whether you want to improve your core strength for aesthetic, therapeutic or spiritual reasons, there are plenty of benefits to reap from targeted work on your core.
I like to think of the core as the pillar of strength at the centre of your body. It's more like the shape of an apple core than just the superficial “six pack” of the rectus abdominis at the front. When you consider that your core forms the central axis from which all the movement of your limbs emerges, it’s no wonder that core strength is so vital.
But just how do you go about improving your core strength? The good news is that if you’re intentional about it, it doesn’t take long. Try this 15 minute sequence three times per week, and you’ll soon feel the difference.
Step One: Awaken and Engage
“I’ve got no core strength,” is a complaint I often hear my yoga students make. And it’s simply not true. If you’re able to breath, then don’t worry, you most definitely do have some core strength! What you might be lacking is the mind-body connection to really feel into your core. The following exercises will help.
Kapalbhati - Breath of Fire
As its name suggests, this pranayama practice builds heat in the body, so it’s the ideal warm up. It is a fantastic way to awaken your core, especially the transversus abdominus, a deep muscle that is often weak or underactive. You can think of kapalbhati as stoking your digestive fire, as well as kindling the flame of your personal power. (Learn more about kapalbhati in Better Than Coffee: Drink in the Benefits of This Yogic Brain-Boosting Cleansing Technique.)
Sit cross legged, lift through the crown of your head and relax your shoulders. Close your mouth and breath through your nose throughout. Take a half inhale, then forcefully exhale by sharply drawing the belly back towards the spine, as if you are pumping the air out. You’ll find the next inhalation happens effortlessly, then you repeat the process, pumping the air out again.
Take 30 rounds of this breath initially, then switch the cross of your legs and repeat. With practice you can build up to 50 or even 80 rounds. If you feel dizzy at any point, stop and return to normal breathing until it passes.
Supine Diagonal Extensions
Often the hardest muscles to consciously connect with are those of the lower abdomen. To feel them engage, perform the following sequence very slowly, keeping your lower back in contact with the mat throughout.
Lie on your back lifting your legs so that your knees are stacked over your hips and your shins are parallel with the floor. Reach your hands up towards the sky, palms facing one another. Exhale to reach your left hand back behind you at a diagonal and extend the right leg in the opposite direction, also at a diagonal. Only extend the leg as far as you can keep the lower back pressed into the mat. Inhale to return to centre.
Repeat on the other side, and take 10 slow rounds of the whole sequence.
Step 2: Target and Strengthen
"If the core is weak, abs aren't doing their work and other parts of the body are adversely affected." ~ Ana Forrest
The following exercises are inspired by Forrest Yoga, whose creator Ana Forrest is known for her invigorating abdominal work. They are fantastic for enlivening sleepy areas in your core.
Elbow to Knee
Once you have mastered keeping your lower back in contact with the mat throughout the supine diagonal extensions, you are ready for this more challenging sequence.
Clasp your hands behind your head. Pick your feet up, aligning your knees over your hips. Press your lower back into the mat throughout the sequence, just like in the last exercise.
- Inhale: Lift your head and shoulders up.
- Hold your breath: Curl your tailbone up.
- Exhale: Reach both elbows towards your right knee and straighten your left leg, extending it at a diagonal. Pull your lower belly down.
- Inhale: Come back to the centre, with both knees bent.
- Hold your breath: Curl your tailbone up.
- Exhale: Reach your elbows towards your left knee and straighten your right leg. Pull your lower belly down.
- Inhale: Come back to the centre with both knees bent.
Start with five slow rounds of these, and build up until you can do 12.
Abs With a Roll
Still lying on your back, place a rolled-up mat, towel or block between the tops of your thighs and clasp your hands behind your head. Lift your legs straight up, keeping the knees bent if your hamstrings are are tight or you have any lower back issues.
- Inhale: Press your lower back into the mat.
- Hold your breath: Curl your tailbone up and squeeze the roll between your thighs
- Exhale: Lift your head and shoulders up. Pull your lower belly down.
- Inhale: Lay shoulders and head down.
Repeat this three to five times, staying connected with your slow, steady breath throughout. It will engage the inner line of your legs which can grant better access to your deep core muscles.
Bridge With a Roll
This is the perfect counter-pose to release the abdominal muscles. It also activates the posterior chain, the muscles of the back body, after a lot of focus on the front body.
Keep the roll between your thighs and step your feet in close to your sit bones, keeping them parallel and hip width apart. Relax your arms beside your body, palms facing up.
- Inhale: Press your feet into the ground and lift your hips
- Exhale: Keep your hips raised and lengthen your tailbone towards your knees
- Inhale: Expand your ribcage.
- Exhale: Lengthen your thighs away from your pelvis, squeeze the roll.
Take five to ten breaths here.
Step 3: Integrate
Once you’ve connected with your core, you’ll find that any asana can be core strengthening if you use it as an opportunity to plug into your central pillar of strength.
As you hold each posture, draw energy into your core, then send it out into the edges of your physical body.
Be especially mindful of your core as you move between postures, visualising the movement coming from your centre.
Keeping the Momentum Up
Core strength isn’t something you can just build and then forget about. This kind of work can, and should, become a consistent feature of your yoga practice. The more you practice it, the more readily you’ll find yourself able to access your own personal foundation of strength, both on and off the yoga mat.