Redefining Great Abs
Once it's clear to a student that yoga practice centers on energetics and unification--rather than getting something exactly right muscularly--some teachers will suggest specific asanas for abdominal development. For example, Shandor Remete recommends working the abdominal region in many different directions, such as in Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation). This series contracts the abs in forward bends, such as Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), and lengthens them in backbends, such as Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose). He also suggests doing Hanumanasana (Pose Dedicated to the Monkey God, Hanuman) and Mayurasana (Peacock Pose), because they both build and require strong, supple abdominal muscles, as well as Navasana (Boat Pose) and Nauli (abdominal churning).
Since weak abdominals and damaged lower backs are common in our culture, Forrest encourages her students to perform ab exercises daily to help stay injury-free. "Core strength is essential in every pose--and absolutely mandatory for doing advanced 'gravity surfing' postures and series," she says--for example, moving through a series of Handstand variations or doing arm balances such as Eka Pada Bakasana (One-Legged Crane Pose), Tittibhasana (Firefly Pose), and Astavakrasana (Eight-Angle Pose). Plus, Forrest says, "building core strength and awareness in the abdominals can translate to feeling centered and strong in daily life."
Forrest includes at least 15 minutes of abdominal strengtheners in every class, in part because she found that strengthening her own abdominal area was critical to her recovery from a back injury. "At first, people tend to really hate doing abdominal work, because it's a painful area that many find hard to access," she says. "But after a while, it feels really good to wake up and cleanse our insides."
On the quest to create healthy abdominals, it's crucial that students learn to trust the body's messages. As Esther Myers explains, "If pulling the belly in improves your posture and makes you feel energized and confident, that's telling you something. If it makes you feel tense and strained, that's also telling you something. In yoga, you can make decisions based on an inner knowledge of what the practice is doing for you."
And how to develop that trust? "Go exploring," says Forrest. "Find out what works best for you."
A frequent contributor to Yoga Journal, Carol Krucoff is a journalist, registered yoga therapist, and yoga instructor in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She is coauthor of Healing Moves (Crown, 2000).