Redefining Great Abs
This strength should be balanced with flexibility, says Joan White, an advanced Iyengar teacher and national chair of certification for Iyengar Yoga in the United States, "so we don't create further hardness and tension, but also so we're able to soften and release."
Many in the yoga community point out that the sedentary American lifestyle has created an epidemic of weak abdominals and a dangerous tendency to use back muscles to compensate. "Many people don't understand the difference between moving from the lower back and moving from the abdomen," says White. "When the abdominals aren't strong enough to do a pose, such as a [supine] leg lift, people will lift their legs by pulling from the lower back, which can cause injury."
Most yoga teachers agree that a strong, healthy abdominal region is essential to a strong, healthy practice. But it is difficult to find consensus about how to use yoga to develop that area. It's not as if each school of yoga consistently teaches abdominal awareness in the same way, using the same language. In fact, many teachers reacted strongly--almost as if offended--when asked how to examine this area in a detailed, muscular way. Because yoga is a discipline that seeks to unify, pinpointing one body part can seem inappropriate, almost baffling.
As Shandor Remete, an instructor at Shadow Yoga in Australia, explains, "Yoga isn't an exercise system, it's an energetic system. It's not about the size of the muscles but about the quality of the circuitry of wind, blood, and nervous energy that flows throughout the body." In fact, overdevelopment and hardness of the abdominals--or of any single muscle group--can be harmful, because excessive muscle bulk can obstruct energy flow and decrease the body's vital forces.
The Western focus on the body's physicality often ignores the emotional importance of the abdominal region, says Ana Forrest, yoga teacher and owner of the Forrest Yoga Circle in Santa Monica, California. "Some of our abdominal problems are related to lack of skillfulness in dealing with our gut feelings," she says, adding that "whatever happens on the mat is a paradigm for our lives. If we're not good at connecting with our center, perhaps we're not good at taking a stand for our truth and ourselves."
Forrest emphasizes abdominal work in each class, believing that it is helpful "for relieving emotional and physical constipation." But this very emotional component prompts some teachers to shy away from abdominal work in certain circumstances. "I've observed a lot of psychological baggage connected with the abdomen," says White. "It's a common place for people to hold anxiety, so if someone's feeling anxious, I don't want to create further anxiety and tension by giving them the chance to harden and tighten more in this area."
The Anatomy of Abs
Although many yogis are reluctant to focus directly on the abs, most exercise physiologists and fitness professionals have no such compunction. In our midriff-baring culture, "abdominals are one of the main areas people want to develop in an exercise program," says Tom Seabourne, an exercise scientist, martial artist, and coauthor of Athletic Abs (Human Kinetics, 2003).