There's a lot of talk about building "core strength" in the yoga world these days, though different traditions have a variety of ways of approaching the task. Some teachers talk about the core as the abdominal region of the body, the literal center of our balance and strength. Others go beyond the physical to look at the ways in which our physical center is linked to emotional and spiritual elements of life.
However they frame it, most yogis seem to look at the core as both a precise physical and an energetic space, a place to be worked with both asana and attention. Learning how to incorporate a strong focus on the core in your teaching, they say, can help free your students from common injuries and will cultivate intelligence and strength beyond the mat.
The core, says senior Anusara teacher Desirée Rumbaugh, "is what supports us spiritually in our lives, and physically in our yoga practice. If our core is weak, the ups and downs of life are much harder to take. A strong core makes us more resilient."
The Core of Health
In terms of asana practice, core abdominal strength improves nearly every pose, offering a sense of balance and ease. When you step off of the mat, there are lots of other good reasons to be strong in the core, perhaps most obviously to support the lower back. Weakness in the core can result in "overrotations in the vertebrae of the lower back, which leads to degenerative disk disease and arthritis," according to physical therapist Harvey Deutch.
Limp abs often contribute to trouble in the sacroiliac joint, Deutch adds, explaining that the joint—where the sacrum meets the illium, the large pelvic bone—can be subject to strain when the core isn't sufficiently toned. And, says Deutch, if you begin overstressing one joint, you may start to misuse another, causing further injury.
"If we're weak in the core, our digestive fire is weak," adds Ana Forrest, founder of the Forrest Yoga Institute in Santa Monica, California. This can cause constipation, which then brings on "chronic exhaustion, because we're not absorbing nutrients," and which pollutes the blood stream and can muddy the mind, leading to unclear thinking and gloomy moods. Core work, on the other hand, "quickens the blood and gets oxygen moving" throughout the body.
And, Forrest adds, core work connects students to their feelings. "Working with the core during the first 15 minutes of class turns on a student's innate intelligence and gets them feeling more accurately," she says. Such intelligence is essential both in class, as your students decide how deeply to move into more challenging poses in ways that avoid injury, and when they step into the world. "If we don't know how to get centered in our core, we're basically doormats for whoever's a stronger personality," Forrest says. "We become susceptible to anyone who wants to push us off balance, whether it's a controlling mother or a government that controls by fear."
To build the abs in a healthy way, Forrest says abdominal exercises should typically be followed by Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose). This releases the belly and teaches muscles to become responsive and flexible. Pranayama and kriya practices—including Uddiyana Bandha (Upward Abdominal Lock), Nauli (Abdominal Churning), and Agni Sara Dhauti (Cleansing through Fire)—are a great, safe way to develop resilient core strength. Other core builders are described here.
For Rumbaugh, every asana is potentially a core-strengthening exercise. "I build my poses from the foundation and take my muscular energy into my core and then back out again," she says. "So I am always accessing and strengthening my core, no matter what pose I am doing." She devotes a section of her practice to abdominal-intensive poses but contends that the core can also be built through meditation and quieter poses.
In between poses, Forrest recommends teaching your students to move from the core. In any variation of Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation), try slowing down the class and getting students to begin to feel the core activating. You'll know they're getting the lesson when you stop hearing that telltale thud when students step or jump forward in the sequence. In other poses, including twists or Warrior poses, cue your students to expand the core area with their breath to create space for the organs and joints.
The belly region is also central for healing emotionally bound problems, such as eating disorders, and core work can dredge up difficult food-related feelings. Forrest emphasizes that when you deal with students with such concerns, be aware that they will need support. "When you start working on the abs and you begin to feel in there, it makes people feel out of balance. This is an important part of the healing process. It's important to be able to accurately assess the damage without drowning in it. Start by teaching how to feel and how to breathe, move, and process those feelings: feel, digest, and move though."
Preach What You Practice
Before you bring new core awareness to students, try emphasizing the core in your personal practice and notice how it affects you. Deutch strongly encourages educating yourself about anatomy to learn about "the correlation between the muscles and the yogic terms we're taught. It's fantastic to be able to take anatomy off the page and put it into function."
Similarly, while teaching, try drawing your attention to your own breath and belly as much as you encourage your students to do so. Says Forrest, "As a new teacher is walking around in her or his class, if every time they exhale, they pull their abs back toward the spine, they will be a stronger teacher and will have more vocal power. If they are staying connected to the abs, they have a better chance of teaching from an authentic place rather than from a memory place."