Whenever I ask my students if there's anything in particular they'd like to work on in class, pigeon pose and "core work" are requested most frequently. But while there's generally a certain sense of excited anticipation that accompanies the pigeon requests, I sometimes notice that core work is requested with some resignation, or even dread. Much like eating raw kale or going to bed at a reasonable hour, we hear that core work is good for us, but it doesn't exactly sound like the most exciting way to spend our time. This may be partly because for many people—even in the yoga world—"core work" is code for "crunches" (or worse, sit-ups!), evoking memories of high school fitness tests, sore necks, and a repetitive movement that's, honestly, pretty boring. Still, we believe the "burn" at the end of a marathon crunch session indicates they're "working," and we reluctantly crunch away.
Crunches and sit-ups are becoming somewhat passé, with many fitness experts considering them outdated, ineffective, and potentially injurious.
But here's the good news: Core work doesn't have to mean crunches! In fact, crunches and sit-ups are becoming somewhat passé, with many fitness experts considering them outdated, ineffective, and potentially injurious.
Still, these exercises remain surprisingly common in yoga classes—but they don't have to be! The truth is, there is so much more to the "core" than the superficial abdominals (primarily what crunches target). There are better ways to activate not only those muscles but also the other important, amazing muscles that make up your core. There are core-focused practices you can do—both in and out of yoga class—to enhance your asana practice, develop ways of moving more comfortably and easily through daily life, and build your confidence to boot!
Wait, so what is the "core," anyway?
Many people associate the word "core" with abs (thanks at least in part to misleading media that correlates "core health" with flat stomachs and air-brushed images of six-packs). But happily, it can be a lot more interesting than that. Depending on who you ask, the "core" can refer simply to the muscles of the midsection/trunk of the body, or specifically, to the muscles that support and stabilize the spine (especially the lower back). Some teachers and experts even include the shoulders, upper arms, hips, and thighs when referring to "core muscles." As far as I know, none of these definitions are wrong. "Core" is simply a very appealing yoga and fitness buzzword, and teachers and practitioners (myself included) often use it to describe the centrally located muscles that we believe are important to work with.
Perhaps my personal favorite definition of "core" might be one I heard from a Pilates teacher: "the muscles that stabilize the spine, and the muscles that move the spine." That definition, coupled with a practice goal that many of my favorite yoga teachers have offered: "stabilize what's too mobile and mobilize what's too 'stable' (or 'stuck'/'tight')," is, I think, a pretty good framework when it comes to selecting yoga-related "core" exercises.
This often means practicing core work that focuses on the transverse abdominis (TVA, our deepest abdominal layer) and coupling that engagement with exercises that emphasize fluidity and movement in places that feel tense, stiff, and stuck.
The transverse abdominis draws its name from the fact that its fibers are horizontal (i.e., transverse), wrapping around your abdomen. It's sometimes compared to a corset, which is maybe not the most pleasant of associations, but can be a useful point of reference when first developing familiarity with the TVA. Because the TVA is so deep (deeper than the rectus abdominis and the external and internal obliques), it's often outside of our everyday awareness. And even if we know where it is and what it does, consciously engaging and connecting with it can still be challenging. But it's a challenge worth undertaking! For one thing, when you engage the TVA, the psoas doesn't have to work so hard. This deep core activation allows the psoas to "un-grip," releasing tension. And perhaps most important of all, the transverse abdominis stabilizes and protects the spine—allowing us to practice asana, or even just go about our daily activities, more safely and more effectively.
Going a Little Deeper
In yoga, unlike in a fitness class, talk of the "center" or "core" often goes beyond the anatomical. In fact, if you're attending a core-focused yoga class, the odds are pretty strong that you'll hear at least some mention of the manipura (literally, "city of jewels") chakra, or "navel center," which is often associated with self-confidence, willpower, and assertiveness.
When we approach core work as a practice of cultivating self-understanding, self-acceptance, and even self-love, it has the potential to empower our yoga practices and our lives.
But even if you're not interested in chakras, there might still be something to be said about the core/confidence connection. Core-focused exercises in particular are fairly "inward focused." They're not generally big, expansive, or showy like impressive backbends or arm balances. Core work requires us to "be with ourselves" in a unique way, and often specifically with parts of ourselves that we've been conditioned by society to reject, "get rid of," or change—and that's not always (or maybe ever) easy. But when we build strength from the inside out (both literally and metaphorically) and approach core work as a practice of cultivating self-understanding, self-acceptance, and even self-love, it has the potential to empower our yoga practices and our lives in ways that trying to "whittle away our waistlines" never could.
Here are a few suggestions for "crunch-free" core work, composed primarily of asanas and exercises that activate your deepest abdominals, stabilize areas of the body that tend to be less stable, and bring a little more fluidity and movement to places that tend to feel "stuck." You can practice this sequence on its own, include it as part of a longer practice, or pick out a few of your favorites to sprinkle into your next yoga session.
Crunch-Free Core Sequence
Start lying on your back in “constructive rest pose” with both feet on the floor, as if preparing for bridge pose.
Take a few moments to observe. Settle into your breath, relaxing into a rhythm that's smooth, even, and continuous. Notice the fullness and expansiveness of every inhalation, and with each exhalation, see if you can find a bit of engagement in your low belly.
Bridge Rolls from Constructive Rest
This is a great exercise to "wake up" your core and begin to mobilize places in your body that feel "stuck."
From constructive rest, keep your gaze looking straight up, and lift your hips up into bridge pose. (It doesn't have to be your highest bridge pose. The focus here is mobilizing your spine, not getting a super-deep backbend.) Make sure there’s a little space between the back of your neck and the floor. If the back of your neck is flattening, lift your chin slightly.
From here, aim to lower down "one vertebra at a time," placing your upper back, your middle back, and your lower back on the mat. When you reach the bottom, tilt your pelvis forward a little bit, so that you create a small arch in your low back. Then tilt your pelvis back, gently pressing your lower back into the floor. Lift your tailbone up off of the floor, and peel back up, vertebra by vertebra. When you reach the top, lower down one vertebra at a time.
Continue a few more rounds like this, and notice if there’s any place you get “stuck” or that you tend to skip over (for many of us, this is the upper part of the lower back/lower part of the midback). This time, instead of skipping over it, press your feet down and forward like you're pushing the floor away. This will help you to activate your abdominals, and you might then discover that you have a little more mobility to work with.
Practice a couple more bridge rolls like this, pressing your feet down and forward as you approach the "stuck places." Then return to constructive rest.
Finding and Activating the Transverse Abdominis
From constructive rest, stretch your legs out one at a time so that you’re in supta tadasana (mountain pose on your back), with your feet a few inches apart from each other. Point your feet, but flex your toes back toward you (you may have heard this referred to as a “flointed” foot—halfway between a flex and a point).
Now place your hands over your "hip points" (technically, your anterior superior illiac spines—also referred to as "pelvic points" or "frontal hip bones." These are super-important landmarks for yoga practice that we'll return to often during this sequence).
As you exhale, engage the muscle between your hip points (your transverse abdominis), drawing them toward one another. It may help to imagine “cinching a drawstring” here. See if you can keep that engagement as you inhale. Because your low belly is working, the movement of the breath will be mostly in your rib cage and upper abdomen here. Reestablish the engagement, “re-cynching the drawstring” with every exhale.
(It really is possible to move the hip points closer toward one another, but the movement will be very slight. It’s also okay if you don’t notice any actual movement at first. Just attempting to narrow them, and visualizing this action as you do so, is a good first step).
Leg lifts from Supta Tadasana
For this next part of the exercise, it might be helpful to elevate your head—which allows you to see your hip points, making sure your pelvis stays level and stable. You can do this by bringing your right hand behind your head (resting your left hand on the floor alongside you, with palm down). Lower your chin toward your chest slightly and curl your head and shoulder blades off the floor, just so you can see your lower belly. You can let your hand support your head (this is not a crunch, I promise!).
Keep the engagement in your low belly, and lift your left heel only an inch or so away from the floor. Notice if your hips start to roll to the left when you do this. If so, press your left hand down and resist it to the left, helping you to "wrap" the left side of your belly toward the right side of your belly in order to re-level your pelvis. Release on an exhale, and repeat on the other side. Notice if it’s more difficult to keep your pelvis level on one side than the other.
Practice two to three rounds of leg lifts on each side.
Marching in Place
This is a fun way to check in and “test” your transverse abdominis. It’s an especially great tool for measuring your progress as you continue to work with these exercises.
Place your feet back on the floor and return to constructive rest pose. Bring your hands to your hip points, and lift your hips about three inches from the floor. Engage between your hip points, and keep that engagement as you breathe. Then march in place, lifting and lowering one foot at a time. Try to keep your hips level as you do this. The less your hips rock around, the more active and engaged your TVA is!
Rolling Like a Ball
This core-focused balance exercise, borrowed from Pilates, is a great way to transition to seated—and get in some bonus core work in the process!
Hug your knees into your chest, and rock forward toward your sitting bones and back toward your shoulder blades (avoiding rocking all the way back to your neck and head). When you rock up to your sitting bones, see if you can balance for a moment before rocking back again. Be sure to let your back round as you roll (lower back included, not just your upper/mid back!). The more you round, the easier rolling back will be.
Rock back and forth eight to ten times. After you’ve balanced for a moment at the end of your last roll, place your feet on the floor and come to hands and knees.
Knee Hover to Hand Lift
From hands and knees, tuck your toes under, shift your weight forward toward your hands a bit more, and pick up your knees so that they hover just a couple of inches away from the floor. Remember here to, to engage between your hip points. (You’ll really have to activate your deep abdominals for the next part!)
Keep that engagement as you lower your knees down, rock back a little, and see if you can pick your hands up off of the floor (which can often be harder than it sounds!). Then place your hands back down, shift forward a little, and hover your knees again. Then lower your knees, shift back, and pick up your hands.
Repeat a few more times, then return to hands and knees.
From hands and knees, stretch your right leg back behind you, with your right toes tucked under (as it will be for plank). Press your hands down and forward a little, as if you’re trying to push the floor away from you. Then see if you can hover your left knee and left foot away from the floor, keeping your left hip level with your right hip. From here, stretch your left leg back to meet your right, coming into plank pose.
Keep your head in line with your spine (your head is not dropping down, nor is your chin jutting forward). Aim to lift your thighs up toward the ceiling without sticking your butt way up in the air, although it’s okay if your hips are lifted a little high at first. It’s safer to have them too high than to go too low and collapse into your lower back. It's also always okay to lower your knees to the floor in plank. Keeping your lower back happy and healthy is far more important than making the pose look a certain way.
Stay for a few breaths (or less, if you no longer feel strong and supported in the pose). Then press back to downdog, lowering your knees (gently) to the floor. Then repeat, this time stretching your left leg back first.
From hands and knees, come onto your forearms with elbows stacked underneath your shoulders. You can join your palms together in a prayer-like position (which may feel more stable), or keep your forearms parallel to each other.
Keep your shoulders stacked over your elbows and press down into your forearms a little, as if you’re pushing the floor away from you. Stretch your right leg back (toes tucked under), then your left leg, coming into a forearm plank (again, you can err on the side of having your hips a little higher so that you don’t drop into your lower back).
Want to really geek out on your core here?
Try this: Press your forearms down and don’t actually move them, but resist them forward (like they were glued to the floor but you were trying to push them forward). When you do that, you might just feel the engagement between your two front hip points (hello, deep abdominals!).
Keeping that engagement, press your forearms down and resist back a little (toward your feet). You might just feel the engagement between your pubic bone and navel (the lower part of your more superficial rectus abdominis).
From here (yes, still in forearm plank!), place your right hand on the floor, then your left, walking back up to “regular” plank. Lower back down to your right forearm, and then your left, returning to forearm plank.
Repeat once more, this time beginning the "walks" by straightening your left arm and planting your left hand on the floor first.
Press back into downward dog, lowering your knees to the floor for a rest.
Knee to Elbow from Forearm Plank
Return to forearm plank. Inhale, lift your right foot up off of the floor; exhale, place it back down. Inhale, lift your left foot up off of the floor; exhale, place it back down.
Stick with a few more rounds of lifting and lowering one foot at a time. For an additional challenge: Inhale, lift your right foot up off of the floor; exhale, bend your right knee, bringing it forward to touch your right upper arm. Inhale, extend the right leg back; exhale, place the right foot back down and return to forearm plank. Repeat on the left side.
You can do a couple more “plank walks” here before returning to downdog and lowering down to your knees. Or simply lower your knees and take a rest where you are before returning to supta tadasana in preparation for the final pose.
Ardha Navasana (Half Boat Pose)
Lie on your back, stretch your legs out long, point your feet, and spread your toes. Place your left hand behind your head, and bend your right knee in toward your chest. Clasp your right hand behind your right thigh and press your hand into your thigh, your thigh into your hand.
Then lower your chin toward your chest slightly, lifting your head and shoulder blades off the floor, and gazing toward your low belly. Engage between your hip points, and also between your public bone and navel (this will activate your more superficial abdominals and help you to round your back, which is actually pretty important in ardha navasana!). Lift your right heel an inch or so away from the floor (higher if your lower back is arching away from the floor).
Keep pressing your thigh and hand against each other. Stay here, or extend your right leg out to meet your right for “full” half boat. Again, if your lower back is arching away from the floor, lift your legs a little higher. Draw your belly in and round your back. If both legs are extended, hug your arms against your legs. Stay here for another breath or two and then release down. Take a full breath in and out, and then repeat once more on the other side, bending your left knee in first.
Alternate Half Boat Entry
If you want to try the “full” half boat, but have difficulty coming into it from supta tadasana—perhaps finding it next to impossible not to arch your lower back—you may find the following variation more accessible.
Begin by lying on your back, extending both legs up toward the ceiling. Point your feet, and flex your toes back toward you. Hug your legs together, and lower them down only as low as you can without arching your lower back and jutting your low ribs forward. Extend your arms forward. Curl your head and shoulder blades off the floor and gaze toward your low belly. Draw your belly in, and round your back. Narrow your pelvic points toward each other to engage your transverse abdominis, preventing your hip flexors from taking over. Engage between your pubic bone and navel to activate the more superficial abdominals.
If your neck hurts or feels like it's working hard in this pose, place a hand behind your head for support. For a less challenging variation, bend one knee in toward you, and hold onto the back of your thigh with that same-side hand. Press your thigh into your hand and your hand into your thigh for stability. Stay for a breath or two before releasing to the floor for shavasana (corpse pose).
Go here for a video version of this practice.