Core and Yoga
In hatha yoga, nearly all yoga poses require some engagement in core so you keep the integrity and being safe performing the asana. Some poses require more than others. We recommend practicing core yoga poses in order to progress and always include in practice at some point.
In this article we will be taking an in-depth look at the anatomy of the core, it’s significance in yoga, and the best practices for making the most of your core conditioning.
What is the Core?
Contrary to popular belief, the core is a complex series of muscles that includes much more than your abs. Your core consists of every muscle in your body that is not part of your arms and legs. Here is one of the most widely accepted definitions of the core:
“The core is a 3-dimensional space with muscular boundaries: diaphragm (superior), abdominal and oblique muscles (anterior-lateral), paraspinal and gluteal muscles (posterior), and pelvic floor and hip girdle (inferior).” (Anderson & Huxel Bliven, 2013)
Almost every movement that you carry out involves your core. Your core muscles deliver the following functions:
- They act as an isometric or dynamic stabilizer when you move your body,
- They can initiate movement, and
- They can transfer force from one extremity to another.
Your core has three-dimensional functionality and is movable in all three planes of motion. While many people typically only train the exterior muscles, the core also consists of the deeper muscles that, among others, include the transverse abdominals, diaphragm, pelvic floor, and multifidus.
To ensure that you train for optimal core functionality, strength gain, and active core movement, keep in mind that the core is primarily a stabilizer during movement and force transfer center and, to a lesser extent, a prime mover.
Instead of training your core in isolation as a prime mover by doing back extensions and crunches, you should focus on functional movements and closed chain exercises like push-ups and deadlifts. Also, you should see core strength as the ability to exercise force while maintaining core stability so that, as a result, you can control the force that you carry out.
Core stability consists of five components, namely, strength, flexibility, motor control, functionality, and endurance. (Keil, 2018)
The first two components that you should work on are control and function. Without these components, you will not be able to achieve strength, endurance, and flexibility.
Origins and History
It’s not clear who first used the term “the core,” despite being commonly referred to by athletes, dancers, yoga practitioners, and therapists.
There are, however, three influential 20th-century yoga practitioners that shed some light on the concept of the core. Considering their unique perspectives may help you understand why core strengthening is such an integral element of yoga. The three people were Joseph Pilates, Ida Rolf, and Sri T. Krishnamacharya.
Pilates referred to the core as the “powerhouse” and developed a method for building and increasing flexibility to allow for natural functional movement. Pilates practitioners consider core muscles to be essential for optimal strength, spine stabilization, and graceful movement.
Ida Rolf created a primary integration method of bodywork that is often referred to as “Rolfing.” This method is based on the idea that the body consists of a core and a sleeve. People who study and practice Ida Rolf’s method believe that the abdominal muscles and other outer layers of the myofascial constitute the sleeve while the iliopsoas and other deeper layers of the myofascial is the core.
According to Ida Rolf, the iliopsoas is critical in connecting the spine to the pelvis and strengthening the iliopsoas is crucial for adequate support to the body’s optimal structure in gravity.
According to Krishnamacharya, there is a connection between the core muscles and the bandha. The bandha can be loosely defined as the energetic element within a human being. This approach focuses more on control over energy and concentration and not as much on toning and conditioning.
Krishnamacharya’s mula bandha description involves using the same muscles that Ida Rolf implicated in the myofascial sleeve and core relationship, and those included in Joseph Pilates’ description of the “Powerhouse.”
Core strengthening yoga pose: Plankasana - Plank pose
The Core Muscles
All three influencers offered three different perspectives on what we widely regard as “the core,” and all three of them viewed the pelvis and myofascial muscles as the essence of movement in the body. They also emphasized that the spine should be strong, flexible, and rooted in the pelvis to achieve dynamic movement.
When considering the areas of the body that Krishnamacharya, Joseph Pilates, and Ida Rolf describe, one can include the following muscles in the core:
- Erector spinae
- The internal and external obliques
- Transverse abdominus
- Rectus abdominus
- The small, deeper-lying multifidus muscles
- Psoas major
- Quadratus lumborum
- The pelvic floor muscles
- Serratus anterior
- Latissimus dorsi
Core strengthening yoga pose: Lolasana - Pendant pose
How to Engage Your Core in Yoga
Yoga for core and back is one of the most effective ways for you to develop an established relationship with your core. With yoga, you can create a well-toned abdomen, even if, as someone starting, you can’t find your abdominal muscles to do a basic pose.
Almost every yoga asana (body posture) requires core strength and stability. Inversions, twists, standing postures, and balancing yoga poses do require abdominal strength, but they also enhance your core strength and condition the abdominal region for movement and stability, making them easier to carry out as you progress.
When you lift and lower your legs while doing inverted poses like head, shoulder, and handstands, your core is working hard. In a seated twist, you give your oblique muscles a workout as they lift and rotate your torso. Standing postures are also excellent to strengthen your internal and external obliques and transverse abdominus as these muscles contribute toward stabilizing the torso and spine.
Folding positions are equally effective in strengthening the core. When you draw your chest and thighs together or carry out sit-up movements or arm balances, you put your rectus abdominus muscle to work, which is the muscle that plays a crucial role in how your abdominal area looks.
Yoga for core strength and flexibility as well as motor control, functionality, and endurance is not only limited to body postures and movements. With traditional breathwork called Pranayama, you can do exercises that will strengthen your transverse abdominus as well as your diaphragm. Although the diaphragm is not an abdominal muscle, it is a critical component of your core as it interacts dynamically with your heart, lungs, and other organs as you breathe.
To optimize core strengthening from yoga, and to give your core muscles a workout from every angle, you should include inverted poses, yoga for obliques, standing postures, and folding positions in your yoga sequences. If you are a novice, you should master core strengthening yoga poses for beginners.
Core strengthening pose: Purvottanasana
Benefits of Core Strengthening with Yoga
Together with traditional breathwork and core warmup in Yoga, you will not only firm-up your belly, but you will also enable your abdominal muscles to support the natural curve of your spine and, therefore, improve your posture and eliminate back pain.
There are countless benefits to building core strength. If the abdominal walls that hold abdominal organs are strong, it will improve your digestion and elimination. Strengthening the pelvic floor muscles that are located at the base of your core can also increase sexual fulfillment.
Enhanced core strength will also allow you to access your third chakra, which is the power center above your navel, which will result in increased muscular strength and higher energy levels throughout the day.
Yoga strengthening pose: Paripurna navasana - Full boat pose
Does Yoga Give You Six-pack Abs?
Many people associate core strengthening and abdominal conditioning with six-pack abs. In reality, there is only one muscle that gives your abdominal area the washboard look, and that is the rectus abdominis.
Apart from being the most visible muscle and responsible for flexing the spine, the rectus abdominis doesn’t have the same contribution to your health as the deeper-lying abdominal muscles and is, therefore, not as important to put to work.
One of the essential core muscles to concentrate on while doing yoga is the transversus abdominis, as it is necessary as a support muscle. The transversus abdominis also helps you breathe. This muscle supports your internal organs and, together with your oblique muscles, stabilizes your torso.
The short answer, then, is yes, including all the asanas in your practice can give you six-pack abs, but you should prioritize your deeper abdominal muscles. You should also twist your obliques to stretch your back muscles which can eliminate chronic tightness and alleviate back pain.
Yoga strengthening pose: Virabhadrasana iii - Warrior 3
Why is the Core so Important?
There is a lot of emphasis on building a relationship with the core, especially in yoga practice. This is primarily because your core muscles stabilize your entire body.
Also, your abdomen is a pretty specialized area of your body. It’s the only part of your body that receives no protection or support from your skeleton. Your abdominal muscles keep you upright, provide enough space for your organs to do their work, and counteract your back muscles.
Your core muscles are, therefore, pivotal when it comes to posture, balance, and spinal stability. Another reason why your core is essential is that it harmonizes the movements of the upper and lower body, allowing you to carry out the different yoga poses with steadiness and grace.
Core strengthening yoga pose: Chaturanga dandasana - Four limbed staff pose
Should You Focus on Core Strengthening?
Core strengthening is a crucial element for enhancing your posture, spinal stability, and balance. Strength should not be your only objective, however. You should also work towards improving motor control over your core as well as enhancing its functionality. Then, you can start building core strength, flexibility, and stamina.
Too much core strength can be suboptimal to an extent, as it can inhibit other vital elements such as flexibility and control. Your goal should be to develop all aspects of your core instead of reaching hardness and rigidity.
Many yoga teachers are aware of this yoga anatomy today and are planning their yoga sequences that will work the entire core so you will develop both strength and stability.
Core strengthening yoga pose: Bakasana - Crow pose
Many yoga practitioners may be forgiven for believing that since yoga is their primary form of exercise, they don’t have to engage and improve their core muscles. This is not the case, however.
If you start incorporating core muscle training into your yoga routine, your yoga practice and poses will improve significantly – along with your body. The most significant difference, however, will be the way you feel. Not only will your yoga practice be more fluid, but you will also get in touch with your inner strength and experience a profound connection with your body.
With yoga, you can improve your core stability by incorporating inverted poses, seated twists, standing postures, folding positions, and traditional breathwork into your yoga practice to work your core from every angle.
While many people focus core training to develop six-pack abs, your objective should be to improve your spinal stability, balance, and posture by working on your deeper-lying abdominal muscles, Your inner core. This does not mean that you can’t develop six-pack abs by incorporating core training in your yoga practice, however, as long as you train your transverse abdominus in the process.
You should not only train your core to enhance muscle strength. You should also do core training to improve flexibility, control, endurance, and functionality.
Your core is a comprehensive and multi-functional part of your anatomy. Incorporating core training in your yoga practice will not only improve your poses and your transitioning between body postures, but it will also alleviate back pain, increase your inner strength, improve your posture, allow for better flexibility, and ensure that you stay balanced while carrying out complicated yoga poses.
What’s your relationship with your core? Being aware of your core muscles while doing yoga poses can be nothing short of life-changing.
Here at Yogateket, you can practice Pilates and yoga classes for a strong core and make your daily life a little bit easier. Try one of our online yoga courses.