Core Work Is More Than You Think

I was teaching a private yoga session recently in which my student did great work to strengthen, stretch, and engage her body and mind. The work was challenging and fun. But at the end, after a few moments of relaxation in savasana, she sat straight up, dropping her head back slightly, and straining the muscles in the front of her neck to recover her balance. To me, it looked stressful.

I asked her to lie back down and took her through some steps for moving more smoothly back up to sitting:

• Roll onto your right side, with bent knees, embryo-like, using your right arm as a pillow for your head.

• Turn your chest and face toward the floor so that you can use both hands to press yourself up.

• Let your head hang while rolling up to sitting from the base of your spine, with your head coming up last.

She followed my instructions and then asked what the point was.

This gave me a golden opportunity to share what I’ve learned and what I am passionate about—everything is core

There’s not a lot of clarity about what core actually means. Some people use it interchangeably with abs and other people include more muscles in their definition. Some use it in a more metaphorical sense, to mean the center of the body. My view is that because the whole body is so interconnected, and everything moves out from the core to the periphery and in from the periphery to the core, you can potentially think of the core as including everything in the body.

My idea that the core is big, deep, and encompassing has come through years of working with my body.

As a young dancer, I sprained my ankles a lot. It was a chronic thing. One time, this happened in a ballet class. The force of landing a jump on a twisted ankle also broke my fifth metatarsal, a bone in my foot. After healing and physical therapy, Pilates was recommended to me as a way to become stronger and more physically organized. Pilates is an intelligent system of exercise using special apparatuses, designed to improve flexibility and strength through engaging the torso-stabilizing muscles of the abdomen and lower back. Since that intensive Pilates work so many years ago, I haven’t sprained an ankle again. How is it that becoming stronger in my core also made my limbs more integrated into my whole body, helping me to resolve the chronic problem of twisting my ankles? Maybe it's because the core and the limbs are so deeply interconnected. 

Later as a professional modern dancer in New York City, I learned how to initiate movement from my core in a fluid way, by understanding the core as an area I could release and flow from as well as an area to work, integrate, and activate. 

Realizing that my own understanding and experience of “core movement” is not universal has inspired me to create practices for my yoga students to make them aware of how their cores can be incorporated into every pose. After that private lesson where my student sat up in a way that didn’t engage her core, I was inspired to go back and dig through the sequence of poses and exercises we had done in order to find all the opportunities we’d had in the practice to incorporate her core, so that we could focus on them more in the future and she could develop a greater awareness of power in her own body.  

One by one, I unpacked the ways the core could be the focal point of each pose we had done. The idea was not to tighten the abdomen in every moment, but rather to find a range of relaxation and engagement originating in the core, as if the engine of the body resides there.

Core Connection in Every Moment

Here are three poses that may illustrate for you how you can allow greater movement and freedom in your own body from connecting to the deep intelligence of your core. In the descriptions below, when I say “anchor,” I mean grounding downward by letting go, and when I say “ascend,” I mean lifting upward by engaging all of the muscular strength and energy of your body.

1. Easy Pose 

To Anchor:

For this practice, you can sit cross-legged on the floor or in a chair.

First, let your body weight settle onto your sitting bones, legs, and feet. Relax your lower abdomen. If you’re used to pulling in your belly, it might take some time to relax these layers of muscle. Release the circumference of your waist and let go of the feeling that you need to hold yourself up.

Imagine that you’re an hourglass and sand pours through you into the ground (or chair), freeing you of tension with each grain and creating a feeling of being fully present. The structural posture of your body, like the hourglass with sand flowing top to bottom, doesn’t collapse. But there’s an internal movement of letting go. This isn’t so easy when you’re in a yoga class anticipating what’s going to happen next. Keep tuning in to the sensations and thoughts of your body and mind, even though this can be challenging.

To Ascend:

Once you feel grounded, begin the process of lengthening your spine, expanding with your breath, feeling your ribs float over your pelvis, and your head balance on the very top of your body.

The Potential:

Take time to feel the separate actions of letting go (anchoring) and lifting up (ascending), which both originate from your center and move out to the periphery of the body. Maintaining the qualities of this polarity, step by step, helps us to generate, adjust, and fulfill each pose before moving on to the next one. Over time, these actions can be coordinated into a kind of balance, like the rise and fall of an inhale and an exhale. After much practice, we become more naturally attuned to these actions, without having to think about these opposites all the time.

2. Triangle Pose

To Anchor:

Stand with your legs wide and your feet parallel. Place your hands on your hips. Turn your left foot in slightly and turn your right foot out about 90 degrees. Deepen your connection to the floor by spreading your feet downward, like the roots of a healthy tree interweaving with the network of other tree roots in a forest.

Release the bracing in your abdomen that you might normally use to create “good posture.” Without collapsing, allow your body weight to flow downward along your spine and psoas (the muscle that runs from your lower back through your pelvis to your inner thighs) into your heels, and the balls of your feet and toes.

To Ascend:

With the support of the floor, begin to draw your leg muscles and bones upward, consciously lifting your spine, abs, and back muscles as well. Open your chest, ribs, and lungs and spread your arms out to shoulder height. With this supportive foundation, your head rests easily at the top of your spine. Bend sideways toward your right leg, placing your right hand on your right shin or on a block placed on the outside of your right lower leg. Allow your energy to ascend, moving along your spine as if you could rise upward and outward infinitely. Lengthen and stretch your waist. Look up toward your top hand. Notice how your spine opens and your lower back feels spacious. Ah! Keeping your feet firmly planted makes coming out of the pose steady and smooth.

The Potential:

With practice and skill these opposites can converge simultaneously to support us on every level. We adjust appropriately, by softening and surrendering toward gravity and/or taking definitive action to fully empower ourselves. Through this ebb and flow, we can feel more at ease. Challenges become less exhausting because we’re not holding on. Our attention to each step of our experience creates a profound sense of presence. We’re not all over the place.

We’re living and breathing, grounding and growing, moment by moment.

3. Handstand 

To Anchor:

From all fours, move into downward facing dog with the intention of extending the stability of your core down through your arms and hands and planting yourself into the core of the earth. As the skin of your hands makes contact with the floor, create a bond with the earth, committing from deep within yourself to being rooted there. Work on establishing a stable foundation. 

To Ascend:

Still in downward dog, narrow your hips, waist, and ribs toward your midline. Engage the muscles of your arms, drawing them up toward your shoulders. Move the bottom of your sternum up toward your navel and pubic bone, which can help to “knit together” the front of your body. Finally, direct your pelvis and legs up toward the sky for handstand, coming up into your pose. You can also come to the wall for an L version, or stay in downward dog, maintaining these actions. 

The Potential:

For any balancing pose, including hand balances, the body needs to make micromovements to adjust itself. Unlocking your hold on the core and letting core awareness flow through your limbs can help you find your optimal balance.

Stabilizing ourselves downward (anchoring), and integrating and organizing the entire body while lifting up and out toward the heavens (ascending) means that we are not only connecting to ourselves, but to our environment as well.

The Core and More

Your body parts are interwoven into one, amazing, articulate whole. Your core is part of that interconnected whole, not something separate to isolate and obsess over. 

There are more ways to work with your core than just tightening it. You can brace yourself in a protective mode, firming and compacting your abdominals. Some poses, like chaturanga, really do require an almost absolute and total muscular engagement of the whole body—including our core muscles. You can also relax and release your core muscles, letting your belly billow, like it’s a water balloon being filled. Do this when you want to “open” your hips—because tightening the low ab muscles, which are located very near the hips, might be counterproductive in that instance.

One of my yoga students read in a magazine that she should hold her belly in 70 percent of the time. When she told me this, I thought, “Wow, that’s a lot of time.”

Just as there’s not one “right” way to do things all the time, there’s also not one part of our body that requires constant engagement and monitoring. Everything within our body is connected to everything else. So releasing habits of holding, especially in our deep core, can affect every cell in our body and give us greater range of motion. Facilitating different movement possibilities in our body is a good thing, like the flow of life itself. 

When we realize that our core is inherently connected to every part of us, we can fully experience the balance of effort and ease, both anchoring and ascending beyond our usual reaches. To me, it’s fun to explore different qualities that originate from my core—the capacity for everything from infinite relaxation to maximal activation—and every stage between.

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About the teacher

Jennifer Brilliant, (C-IAYT, E-RYT500,) has been teaching for over 30 years as a master dance teacher,... Read more

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