Redefining Great Abs
Using alternative modalities and systems, such as Pilates and Rolfing, to access the abdominal region can be a helpful way to create a connection if you're not feeling it in your yoga practice. To truly augment your yoga, be sure to take what you have learned and experiment with it the next time you're on the mat.
Let Your Breath Be Your Guide
Tuning in to your breath through yoga practice offers yet another way to access and tone the abdominals. Many yoga teachers find it most effective to teach ab work and awareness through breathing exercises.
Toronto yoga instructor Esther Myers recalls that after a hysterectomy, she experienced "an inner emptiness that left me feeling unstable in standing poses in a way I found surprising." Deep abdominal breathing proved particularly restorative for Myers, who used pPranayama (breathwork)--especially the pumping action of Kapalabhati Pranayama--to strengthen and tone her abs without the shortening and contraction of sit-ups and crunches. Intended to clear the nostrils, ears, and other air ducts in the head, Kapalabhati--which means "shining skull"--activates the deepest abdominal muscle, the transversus, to perform an action she describes as similar to a controlled sneeze.
Kathleen Miller, a yoga teacher and therapist in the Viniyoga tradition, says that "many people find it difficult to access the [lower belly] area from the pubic bone to the navel." To help students awaken this "sleepy area," she has them lie on their backs with their legs bent, feet on the floor and one hand just above the pubic bone. She then has them tune in to their breath and contract this area on an exhalation, feeling how the navel moves back toward the spine, stabilizing the pelvis and lengthening the lower back. "In time," she explains, "people begin to feel that every exhalation can be an abdominal event."
The lower abdominal region is the site where Uddiyana Bandha is performed; this bandha "has the effect of bringing one's awareness to this energetic core," says Tim Miller, director of the Ashtanga Yoga Center in Encinitas, California. "At the end of the exhalation, there's a natural flow of awareness to this area. Uddiyana Bandha occurs in a very specific location and is a subtle contraction that is fairly light and mostly energetic in nature." To locate this area, he suggests "exhaling the breath completely, then sitting for a moment in that state of emptiness."
In response to the many people looking to strengthen their abdominals, Miller assures them, "Each time you take a complete breath, you're toning the muscles of the abdomen." In addition, he says, "there's an incredible amount of ab work within the [Ashtanga] vinyasa--jumping back and jumping through require grace and control in the center of the body so you get a sense of lightness." A large part of the Ashtanga practice--especially the primary series--is "detoxifying and ridding the body of waste material," he says. "And a common place that tends to get stored is in the gut."