If you think of your ‘core’ in your yoga practice, what instructions or cues, in which ‘core-targeting’ poses, come to mind?
I come across the following core ideas regularly,
- “Pull the navel towards the spine, tense/draw in the low belly to engage the core in yoga poses”.
- “I need to strengthen my core with yoga to protect my lower back”
- “You strengthen the core by doing loads of targeted moves and deliberately tensing.
Read on to find out why I find these ideas misleading…
My previous blog What are the core muscles and why do you need to know? covered how the many muscles of the lower torso create stability and strength as a team, and the importance of the breath cycle as part of this pressurised system.
Now let’s look at HOW we “engage the core” in yoga and what are the best poses for core strengthening?
What do you actually do to ‘engage your core’ in yoga?? What does ‘engaging your core’ mean?
Rather than ‘engaging your core’ by sucking in, “pulling navel to spine”, tensing the lower belly, or however you might artificially try to create firming, instead, try FEELING your core activate responsively when you do things which require this! Pulling in your navel or tensing your pelvic floor deliberately, does not make sense when the core is your entire 360 abdominal cavity musculature working together reflexively as a pressurised system. Pulling in your belly does not activate that.
Trusting in this breath-moved dynamic cooperation of muscles, of increased pressure and toning 360 degrees (front, back and sides) around your lower trunk, when required in a loaded position – that is your core stability and strength. Remember the pressurised expanded trunk cylinder on the inhale, and the ‘corseting’ support on the exhale from my previous blog.
Check out this video of simple ways to practice feeling ‘engaging your core’.
In fact, how to go about strengthening your core is debated in the yoga and wider movement world. The most recent research shows little evidence that trying to train specific isolated trunk muscles is helpful for everyday functional movement. Also, research does not show much correlation between a weak core and low back pain, nor that focusing on training core muscles (variously defined) specifically to help lower back pain works any better than general exercise. Link to research article here. This may be surprising!
So how do we actually strengthen the core in yoga?
To develop a strong, responsive core ( via yoga or other movement) requires consistent, varied movement which includes,
- Practising being able to hold the trunk and spine firm and ‘straight’ under some load, (also called proximal stability). This requires some specific movement skills, and is something we cover a lot in class. It is just one way to connect your brain to muscles in the trunk for better control and activation.
- Regular dynamic, varied movement including trunk rotation and flexion.
- Progressively increasing the body weight ‘load’ your core has to respond to, both in time holding (increasing ‘time under tension’) and the amount and positioning of body weight ‘load’.
Basically we want to be able to both hold firm when we need to, and to be able to move dynamically with that sense of power in our torso, without a feeling of vulnerability, for our lower back, or pelvic floor, for example.
Here is a two min example of how we can progress load and use repetitions to build strength, within a yoga practice.
Yoga can include more targeted core moves, but it is mainly whole body movements of which core or trunk stability and strength are a very integral part. The usual yoga poses and practices are relatively low load body weight movements, so for the most part, you don’t need to consciously or actively tense or engage the core. It will join in as needed!
With higher load movements, when doing the more challenging yoga poses such as lifting your legs straight up off the floor into a handstand or headstand, (or doing other things like lifting a heavy barbell), that’s when a more conscious awareness of tensing (or bracing) might be part of the movement.
Targeted direct core muscle training can be a useful movement practice, depending on your needs and goals. See this article for a good discussion on when targetted core work is helpful.
There are also circumstances where remedial training focused on core awareness and coordination is possibly a good starting point (sometimes postpartum, post surgery or injury).
The whole body movements of yoga integrate core work all the time. Even though in yoga there is less call to consciously ‘engage the core’….. when we practice moving slowly and intentionally enough to feel the support of all the musculature in the trunk, this is useful! We increase our brain-body connection to this activation. This is part of how we learn movement skills, and how we can then potentially better access that core activation in various poses and movements in yoga, and in our daily life.
This is why yoga teachers often say every yoga class can be a core strength class!
Here is a short video on adding variety to the classic yoga ‘core’ poses of Plank, Side plank and Forearm Plank.
What happens when your core is under-conditioned?
It’s worth noting what happens when we don’t activate our core much. If there is limited awareness of trunk stability and the ability to hold firm, we lose capacity for the limbs to move under load. Your body doesn’t have that stable centre to move from.
Also we potentially end up living with more tension in other muscle groups as they work harder with less support from our proximal stability, we end up with a lack of coordinated, strength feeling. Lack of inner core connection and engagement can also result in things like shoulder neck chronic tension, pelvic floor tension/dysfunction, digestion through abdominal tension and certainly the lower back muscles may try to overwork to give support. We can end up using more energy in all our movements, leaving less energy available! This can affect how we feel in ourselves and move in the world.
To put it more positively, I find the phrase ‘proximal stability for distal mobility’ helpful; in other words, the more core tension in the trunk (proximal) you can generate, the more you have support to create greater range of movement in your limbs (distal) and those joints. A strong core helps to improve your mobility, it makes you more flexible and easeful in your body!
Yoga’s extra core strength benefit
To conclude, I’m basically saying, you don’t need to think so much about consciously engaging your core in yoga really, certainly not in your average yoga class, flowing from down dog to plank, doing your standing poses, etc. Your core will be part of the team. And while we can appreciate that yoga is a whole body conditioning movement practice, you will feel which poses ask for more tension around your trunk. We can pay attention to that, steady breathing and focus on feeling the pressurising on the inhale and firming on the exhale. You can increase core strength work by adding repetition and holding positions where you feel that shake in your trunk, just a little longer! The videos here give you an idea. When you understand how the core works and take time to feel it in action, you gain confidence, capability and enjoyment in the more challenging core moves and poses.
Was this article interesting to you, did you learn anything new? I’d love to hear from you!