Why We do core work!
By Katie Nassiff
If you’ve been to a class at Highland Yoga, you know that core engagement is an essential part of the physical practice in high power Vinyasa yoga. Each class incorporates an element of dedicated core work as part of the hour, but you may also hear cues throughout the warm up and standing sequences calling your attention to your core. For beginners and seasoned yogis alike, a strong core is essential to supporting a strong body both on and off the mat.
When you think about your core, what comes to mind? Six pack of abs? Toned belly? The core is made up of so much more than the visible (or not) abdominal muscles. In fact, in addition to those “six pack” rectus abdominus muscles, which help flex the spine, there are two other major abdominal muscles called the transversus abdominus, which is deep in the core and supports your organs and torso, and the obliques, which help you bend and twist. Aside from these abdominal muscles, there are other supportive muscles that are considered part of the core: the iliopsoas (part of the hip flexor), erector spinae (which supports the spine), deep gluteal muscles, and the pelvic floor (the triangular group of muscles near the anus and genitals). All of these muscles together help create your foundation, wrapping around your entire torso, and supporting different movements, muscles, and organs.
As the foundation of your body, the core provides stability, strength, and control for the rest of your body’s movements. It stabilizes the spine and torso, protects your organs, and allows other parts of your body to move. Having a strong core can improve your posture, reduce back pain, and improve digestion - low back pain is an especially common side effect of having a weaker core.
A strong and flexible core also allows your body to adapt to changing circumstances in the studio and in life. In yoga, the core is a key player in almost every asana, and especially important in balancing and intense strength postures like arm balances and inversions. In life, having a strong and flexible core can protect you by allowing you to adapt quickly when you start to fall or make sudden movements. As your center of gravity, the core becomes a control center for your movement.
So how do you engage your core and build strength and flexibility in these muscle groups? Every posture has the capacity to engage the core, even breathing exercises. For the most part, effective engagement can start from the bottom: engage your inner thighs, then pelvic floor, and then make your way up through the other abdominal muscles. This kind of bottom-up engagement helps activate the core muscles and protect and align the spine.
It’s also incredibly helpful to begin your practice with core engagement - by powering up your core from the start, you’ll be more aware and inclined to keep core engagement throughout the class, especially through transitions. Use the core as the foundation when you begin a movement, and then bring your attention to it to stabilize as you find stillness in your postures.
To start, at the beginning of your practice when you’re connecting to your breath, think about squeezing in the sides of your torso as you exhale, and hugging your low belly in toward your spine. As you start to move, keep noticing this engagement. As your begin to move toward more challenging postures, and you hear the teacher cue you to “engage” or “squeeze” your core, think about wrapping your obliques like you’re cinching a belt (especially in twisting postures) and pulling your low belly in and up toward your navel.
Then when you pack up your mat and head out of the studio, see how you can bring your awareness to your core throughout your day. When you’re standing in line, think about squeezing your outer thighs in, pulling up through your pelvic floor, and hugging your obliques in as you exhale. Bending over to pick something up? Squeeze your low belly in toward your navel and notice how your core supports your spine as you bend forward and return to standing.
With this mind to muscle connection, you’ll start to incorporate core-strengthening mindfulness into your life and yoga practice, resulting in fewer injuries, a lift in your posture, and more strength in your movements. You might even notice that as you build a stronger physical foundation, your attitude strengthens with it.