Core work is popular, and it’s important. But it’s not important for the same reason that it’s popular. Often, popular core work focuses primarily on the superficial abdominals (external obliques and rectus abdominis), which makes sense. This is one of the most highly “prized” areas of the body in mass media, and “six pack abs” are often extolled as a true measure of fitness. But focusing on muscle groups separately is not only an anatomically inaccurate way of approaching movement (as no muscle exists in isolation), it also undermines a foundational idea of yoga: that we are more than just muscles and bones.
There’s More to “Core”
“Core” is likely derived from the Old French cuer or the Latin cor, which means “heart,” or from the Old French cors or Latin corpus for “body.” A core is the “crux, kernel, or quintessence of a thing.”
While “core” is often thought of as just the abdominals, anatomically speaking, the core comprises everything that keeps the extremities (that is, the limbs) connected to the trunk—including the major muscles of the back and deep-set stabilizers like the psoas and quadratus lumborum. Accessing the deep core muscles (which also include transversus abdominis, internal obliques, and multifidus) and building strength and heat in the center of the body supports and enhances functional movement. In addition, the yoga tradition holds that it enhances both our physiological and emotional digestion.
According to yoga and ayurveda, this digestive function results from the stoking of agni, an inner fire that helps us digest and assimilate not only food, but also emotions and life experiences.
Focusing on only the outer aesthetics of the core can undermine this deeper function, and an emphasis on only the physical can thus cause a kind of emotional/spiritual immobility. A strong core should allow us to stand tall and to move and live with ease. From a yogic point of view, when the core of the body is balanced, muscularly and through digestion, this can help us to experience a stronger sense of Self.
The following core-focused sequence is designed to help you get in touch with your core and to help you to activate a felt sense of physical and emotional strength, adaptability, and integration.
Contraindications: pregnancy and herniations.
Lie down on your belly and stack your forearms, resting your forehead on top of the forearms. If you sense strain in your neck, move your elbows slightly wider. As the belly presses into the floor on each inhale, the added resistance (much like a sandbag) helps strengthen the diaphragm and increase sensitivity to any areas of tension in the respiration process. Consciously smooth out your breath cycle, eliminating any gaps between inhale and exhale. By doing this, your diaphragm “strokes” the vagus nerve, like a massage therapist, enhancing the parasympathetic response of “rest and digest.”
To tap into your core, breath is the place to start. Connecting with the breath can clarify the mind, helping us to relax and ungrip from habitual thought processes. When the mind is clear we can experience greater depths of inner and outer stability.
Stay here for at least ten breaths, perhaps feeling an activation at the solar plexus (the area associated with the third chakra, the chakra that is said to be responsible for digestion).
Breath of Fire
Come to a comfortable sitting or kneeling position. Allow your mouth to hang open by relaxing your jaw and your tongue. Keeping your mouth, throat, and chest soft, begin to pant. It will probably feel silly at first, but then close your mouth and notice the steady, sustainable breath you’ve established. Continue to “pant” with your mouth closed for one minute (active exhale, passive inhale).
Then slow down and establish ujjayi breath for one minute before moving on. If you’d like, you can practice breath of fire two more times. If breath of fire is making you feel dizzy or agitated, you can just stick with ujjayi.
This slightly sped-up pranayama practice generates heat by toning the muscles of respiration in short bursts, and by focusing movement at the solar plexus, the seat of your inner radiance. It allows us to connect to the core more dynamically than some traditional strengthening exercises may.
Cat-cow helps us to consciously engage our core as well as release tension in the abdominals. From table position, inhale, then exhale and flex your spine (lengthening the back body, hollowing out your belly, and drawing your tail and head down toward the floor and closer to each other), then inhale into a baby backbend (lengthening the front body by reaching your tail and head away from each other and slightly toward the ceiling).
As you exhale into cat, press your hands into the mat, feel your shoulder blades separating, and draw your navel gently in toward your spine. As you inhale into cow, feel your collarbones broadening and your belly relaxing. Repeat for at least ten breath cycles.
Stabilized Down Dog Splits
Working with asymmetrical and weight-bearing poses is a great way to establish both core strength and stability. Come to downward facing dog and lift your right leg, but not as high as possible, which will twist the pelvis to one side. Instead, attempt to level your hip points (anterior superior iliac spines, or ASIS), which will help to engage the deep abdominals. This may require a slight bend in the knee of your standing leg to facilitate a slight anterior (forward) tilt of the pelvis. Start with five breaths on each side, then practice it again on each side for up to ten breaths.
Recall the quality of breath you established in crocodile pose. Don’t fight yourself, instead connect to the intrinsic strength of the inhale/exhale. Understanding ourselves on a deeper level sometimes involves identifying where we either push too hard or collapse under the weight of challenge.
Forearm Side Plank Pulses
Start by lying on your left side with legs extended, right leg stacked over left; your left forearm is resting on the earth (palm down), parallel to the top (short edge) of your mat. Press your left forearm into the ground, engage your core and lift your hips, balancing on the pinky-toe side of the left foot. Hug your thighs together and keep your hips stacked (rather than tipping your pelvis forward or back).
Then pulse your hips up and down, lowering as you inhale and squeezing your left outer obliques to lift your hips as you exhale. You can go as low as one inch above the floor—but lower less if you feel any strain or pain. Do this a handful of times, up to about one minute, and then repeat on the right side.
If having the forearm down doesn’t work for you, you can do a more traditional side plank with a straightened arm. Just be sure not to lock out your elbow.
Once you feel complete, rest in a kneeling position. If you did a traditional side plank in lieu of a forearm side plank, make soft fists and rotate your wrists (in both directions).
Glutes! Inner thighs! Psoas! Each of these is essential to the “core complex.” From your kneeling position stand up for tadasana (mountain pose). Step your right leg back, coming into a high lunge. Bend your front left leg, tracking your left knee over your left ankle; keep your back leg extended, heel lifted. Reach your arms up alongside your ears.
Inhale, and bend your back right leg until the knee hovers just above the floor; then exhale and re-extend it.
Repeat five to ten times, and then change sides. Notice your mental and emotional response to activating and building heat in your legs. Recall your soft wave of breath from crocodile. Down dog or child’s pose can be a nice place to rest between sets.
This practice allows you to spread and stretch without losing your sense of center. It’s also an amazing way to build heat through laughter!
Come to a sitting position and bend your knees into your chest until your feet come off the floor and you're balancing on your sitting bones. Breathe deeply as you begin to use your arms to “swim” through space.
You may shift your weight off-center or experiment with lowering your torso and your legs closer to the floor. Feel free to play!
You may want to do this for a full minute or two. Pay attention to any strain or gripping in the neck and throat. If you feel the urge to grimace, see if you can instead find a smile.
This is a great counterpose for cosmic swimming. Remember that a stable core is also supple. By reclining in a supported spinal extension you give the belly muscles a chance to lengthen.
Place two blocks on your mat: one at the spot where your upper back will be and one where your head will be. If you want a deeper backbend, place the upper-back block at its medium height and the head block at its lowest height. Otherwise, both blocks can be placed at any height you desire.
Sit in staff pose and begin to walk your hands back behind you, gently lowering yourself over the blocks. Position the upper-back block just below the shoulder blades. The head block should be positioned above the occipital ridge (the base of the skull). Your legs can be active (feet flexed) or relaxed. Rest your hands at your sides.
Notice a gentle opening along the front body; your chest broadens and your shoulder blades drop down toward the earth.
Stay here for eight to ten breaths. To come out of the pose, use one hand to lift the weight of your head and roll toward the opposite hand to press up to sitting. If at any point you feel strain in your neck, come out sooner and re-adjust the height or position of the blocks for optimal comfort and ease.
Reclining Bound Angle Pose
This is a great way to recalibrate the natural curvature of your spine, which is part of the mobility/stability relationship needed to stay connected to your core. When examining the spine, you will see complementary curves (convex and concave in relationship to the core of the body), which give us the capacity to not only stand and move outwardly, but to stabilize and focus inwardly. Too much spinal extension (backbending) can be agitating to the nervous system, and excessive, unsupported flexion (rounding) can impede our breath and increase the risk of disc herniation. (For more information on spinal curves, check out this article.)
Lie down on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the floor. Slowly open your knees out to the sides, and bring the soles of your feet together. If you sense strain rather than ease, use props such as blankets or blocks to support your outer thighs. These serve to encourage a softening in your low belly, inner thighs, and lower back. Place a folded blanket over your low belly and pelvis for grounding. As this is our final posture before savasana you can really take your time. Set a timer for two minutes, or stay for fifteen deep and full breaths.
To come out of the pose, use your hands to guide your knees back together, then extend your legs onto the mat for final relaxation.
End in savasana—because no core work would be complete without rest (aka integration time). There’s a reason the parasympathetic response is referred to as the “rest and digest” response. When you are active, your body can’t expend energy on assimilating nutrients. When you rest, your body can integrate what you’ve taken in, whether food or asana, and transform it into sustenance. In order to know ourselves and participate in the world with a sense of purpose, we must know how it feels to be nourished.
Remember that the effort asked of us in yoga practice is not to move us into a particular pant size, but to help us become established in a sense of inner ease and freedom. It’s about being at peace in our own skin. In this way, your practice becomes your path to liberation.