How to Make the Most of Your Plank Pose

June 25, 2015    BY Kathryn Ashworth

Ever heard the phrase: “The pose you avoid is the pose you need most”? This saying came to life for me when I examined my relationship with plank. For so long I viewed this posture simply as a transition from one uncomfortable pose to another. Back then, yoga classes were just something I went to every now and then, and when it came to plank, I figured you just pop into a straight line for a few seconds, cringe, and move on. (Easy as that, right?) That is, until I was asked to hold the pose one fated day—for 60 grueling, yes, grueling seconds. “Agh! This is a bit more complex than I had thought,” I cringed, as sweat dripped down my forehead onto the mat. But maybe, just maybe, I could learn to like this. (And hell, it might even be good for me.) What helped me appreciate plank pose was starting small—learning where I was unnecessarily tense, and how to adjust for this. Here are some tips (and a fun plank prep!) I have learned through my experience in 200-hour yoga teacher training.

For so long I viewed this posture simply as a transition from one uncomfortable pose to another.

What Does This Pose Do, Anyway?

Turns out, plank is a pretty well-rounded pose. Physically, it’s a helpful posture for strengthening the core muscles, arms, quads, and wrists. Emotionally, it’s said to build willpower and determination. Energetically, it draws a line of vibrant energy from the top of the head out through the feet, and ignites the solar plexus (the third chakra). But we don’t feel these effects until we learn how to set up, align, and refine the pose. All of which involves identifying any source of discomfort, and creating space to release tension.

From Tabletop to Plank

To avoid unconsciously moving into plank (like I used to do, and usually from downward dog), I made sure to begin my practice of this pose slowly and deliberately from table pose. While you can certainly glide into plank from downdog with a great deal of awareness, there was something about the skillful action of extending one leg, then the other, in accessing plank from table that helped me enhance my focus—namely, my core focus. Why? Because as we slowly enter plank from table (one leg at a time), we're able to activate our core well before we're officially in the pose.

Next, imagine that you were going to pick your left (bent) knee up off of the floor—don't pick it up yet, just imagine (this preparation will help you to stabilize even more).

To begin, come to hands and knees, and stack your shoulders above your wrists and your knees below your hips. Extend your right leg behind you. Press the ball of your foot into the floor, keeping your heel directly above the ball of your foot. Press your hands down and forward a bit, as though you were pushing the floor away (but not so much that it causes your upper back to round). Notice if these actions create a little more engagement in your deep low belly. Next, imagine that you were going to pick your left (bent) knee up off of the floor—don't pick it up yet, just imagine (this preparation will help you to stabilize even more). Now, keep this engagement, and see if you can lift your left knee off of the floor for real. (The right hip sometimes tends to dip below the left one, so you may need to lift it up so that both hips are level). From here, extend your left leg back and plant your left foot next to your right in plank pose. Stay for a breath or two, then lower your knees and repeat on the other side. 

Helpful Refinements

Once you’re in plank, continue to press your hands down and forward a little to activate your deep low belly. Refine by drawing your awareness to the back of your thighs. Can you press your thighs up without raising your butt in the air? 

Draw your lower ribs back to avoid collapsing in your lower back. Keep your arms straight as you broaden your collarbones and soften your chest toward the floor (without collapsing into your mid and lower back—continue to draw the low ribs back!). 

Check in with your head. Is your chin jutting forward; or, alternately, is your head dropping down toward the floor? If so, lower your chin or lift your head to bring the back of your head in line with the back of your pelvis. Keep your neck long on all sides.

Continue to breathe smoothly and evenly. Remain in the pose for as long as you can maintain steady breath and safe alignment. Release one leg at a time back into your neutral table position.

You "Nailed" It!

Once you’ve "nailed" these tips (get it? plank pose? nails? I digress...) and you’re steady in plank from head to toe, breathe as though you could breathe right into the areas of your body where you're working especially hard. Hold the pose, but don’t hold yourself hostage inside of it. Imagine the weight of your body counterbalanced by a lightness, a freshness, and a curiosity. Explore. Soften your gaze, and direct your focus and cultivate a steady, clear, calm, and determined mind. And after working with this pose for a while, you might try the super-core-challenging variation to build some extra "fire"!

Imagine the weight of your body counterbalanced by a lightness, a freshness, and a curiosity.

A Challenging Variation 

Unless core work is a regular part of your practice, try starting out small. Choose one or two challenging variations of plank at first and focus—either by incorporating them into an asana practice, or using them as a stand-alone. A plank variation I enjoy is "Up and Down Plank."

"Up and Down Plank"
Come to plank from table, or shift forward from downdog (make sure your shoulders are stacked over your wrists, and your heels are stacked over the balls of your feet). From here, remain in plank, and lower your right forearm to the floor (shoulder stacked over elbow) and then your left. Once your left forearm touches the mat, straighten your right arm, planting your right hand, and then the left to come back to "regular" plank. Repeat, but this time lower your left forearm down first. Keep alternating your starting side after every round, and continue these movements until you need a break. Then gently lower your body to the floor and rest. 

Reminder 
Have fun with this variation, but never sacrifice a smoothness and evenness of breath. If your breath is shaky, it’s time to either leave or adjust a pose. If you experience any pain or discomfort in your shoulders or low back, return to the quick tips listed above and re-incorporate them into the pose. If that still doesn't do the trick, ask your yoga teacher for some additional tips.

Most importantly, there’s no need to rush! Move slowly and steadily, and maintain total body awareness as you go.

Over With "Let's-Get-This-Over-With"

Like I said, I used to see plank as an uncomfortable pose. Looking back, that’s most definitely why I avoided paying close attention to it (and reverted to a let's-get-this-over-with mentality). But when I started to listen to the places in my body that felt uncomfortable, I realized they are common for so many, and the solutions were simpler than I thought.

Phew...We’re Done! (Yay!)

Did your arms shake? Did you sweat? Did you have a gazillion unmet expectations? (Trust me, I know the feeling.) Don’t worry. If this posture and variation are difficult right now, with time and consistent attention your practice will blossom. Try to laugh your way through any fumbling (and exhaustion!) and just enjoy the process.

Did you have a gazillion unmet expectations? (Trust me, I know the feeling.)

Personally, I've found that by focusing on one pose at a time (especially a transitional pose like plank—and especially any pose I used to LOVE to avoid) I’m consistently reminded that each and every posture is but one small part of the greater whole.

And isn’t that what matters most?

Kathryn Ashworth
Kathryn is an associate editor at Yoga International. She found her way to yoga one starry night in Portugal at Monte Sahaja (the ashram of advaita master Mooji). Now she lives at the Himalayan Institute, where she continues her studies. She views yoga primarily as a healing practice that can re-awaken a sense of wonder, purpose, and (to quote one of her teachers, Rolf Sovik) "relentless optimism."

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