These days it seems like almost everyone suffers from some form of low back pain or discomfort from too much sitting. Core strength is crucial to help support your lower back and improve posture and balance, not to mention deepen your practice and prepare you for more challenging inversions.
Set an intention, even if it’s as simple as remembering to send your breath all the way into your belly—activating the Sacral and Solar Plexus chakras—as a reminder to keep the abdominal wall engaged throughout the practice.
Relax your feet into the floor and soften your knees as you curl your tailbone down and away from you. Feel a sense of rootedness from the waist down and a lifting out of the torso as you draw the navel in. Soften your shoulders and lift your heart naturally as you bow your chin to your chest.
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With that same sense of grounding yourself from the waist down, inhale to send the arms overhead, palms pressed, with your gaze at the tips of your thumbs. Keep your abdominals engaged as you lift your heart to bend your upper back slightly, let your head drop just enough to open up your throat. Keep reaching the tips of your fingers toward the sky to feel an ascension in your torso.
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Exhale to hinge at your waist and bow forward. Allow a microbend in your knees and draw the navel in toward the back of your spine as you tilt your pelvic bowl upward. Let the crown of your head hang heavy and shoulders release. Feel a sense of activation as you press the tips of all 10 fingers into the floor to send your seat even higher. Hang out here for a few breaths to allow the hamstrings to lengthen and release.
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Inhale for a half lift with a flat back to prepare, much like you would in a traditional Sun Salutation. Reach the crown of your head forward and send your gaze long in front of you. Continue drawing your navel inward and keep your shoulders soft.
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Exhale to step the ball of your left foot long behind you, keeping your back heel lifted, as you windmill the arms open to the right, palms face out. Hug the outer hips to the midline to help ease this powerful twist. Draw your front knee forward to stack over your ankle and sink slightly in the hips to release the psoas on the left side, relieving any tension in the lumbar spine. Firm up your core to take some of the weight off your right quadriceps, to keep the low back protected, and help to steady your balance. Take a deep breath in, and then exhale to turn your gaze all the way over your right shoulder. Think about creating one long line of energy from the tip of your left middle finger, all the way out through your right, as you soften the shoulders down. Smile, and stay here for 3–5 breaths.
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On your next inhale, sweep both hands up overhead with your palms pressed and gaze back at the tips of your thumbs. Much like in your Standing Backbend, feel a grounding sensation from the waist down as you lift your torso. Press down into the big toe mounds of both feet and firm up your back leg. Continue sending your breath into your belly to draw the navel in, lifting your belly off the front thigh to create more space. With your core engaged, test your balance by dropping your head back slightly, keeping your drishti (gaze) soft and focused overhead. Stay for 3–5 deep belly breaths.
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Eka Pada Adho Mukha Svanasana
On an exhale, frame your front foot and sweep it long behind you, extending your nice and spread yogi toes into a Downward Dog split. Optional: Bend your knee and open your hip for a breath or two. Release your heart behind you and keep your shoulders and neck soft. Take a deep breath in to prepare for what’s to come.
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Exhale, drawing your knee as close to your nose as you can get it, tucking in your chin and lifting the thigh closer to your heart. Keep your back leg charged and back heel lifted as you build heat in your abdominal wall. Let your fingers spread wide, palms pressing firmly into the floor to lift you up and out of your wrists.
Option: Return to Down Dog Split and then back to Knee-to-Nose up to 3 times.
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Now things are starting to get spicy! From Knee-to-Nose, inhale to send your right foot long behind you, staying in a Plank position. In your mind’s eye, try to bring your right heel in alignment with your right hip point. Keep lengthening through the crown of your head and send your gaze a foot or so in front of you, without lifting your head. Make sure your hips stay lifted—almost more than you think they need to be—to really fire up your core muscles. Continued engagement of your core will make this a lot easier on your wrists.
Option: Hold here for 3 deep breaths.
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When you are ready, exhale to lower yourself halfway down in one straight line, keeping your right foot lifted. Again, try to keep your right heel in alignment with your right hip point as you let your shoulders come just beyond your wrist creases. Keep your hips lifted as you lower, and try not to release yourself all the way down to the floor if you can. Instead, let the top of your right foot touch the floor and the top of your left foot will naturally follow.
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Urdhva Mukha Svanasana
Inhale, nice and easy, to Upward-Facing Dog Pose. Keep your thighs stay activated and lifted as you root down through the tops of your feet. If there is any compression in your lower back, lower your hip points down to Cobra Pose instead. Roll your shoulders down your back and lift your heart and chin naturally. Gaze toward the sky and smile with relief as you find a wonderful release in your abdominal muscles from this counter-stretch. Take 1–3 deep breaths here to reset.
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Adho Mukha Apanasana
Find a subtle re-engagement of your core on your next exhale and send your hips up and back like you would in Downward Dog, but bend your knees all the way in to your chest, almost as if you were going to lay your weary torso to rest right on top of your thighs. Gently shake your head out to ensure your neck is relaxed, as you continue extending your seat all the way toward the sky. Your gaze should be right at your ankles behind you.
Option: Exhale to gently press your thighbones back behind you to straighten your legs into Downward Dog. Then repeat, inhaling as you draw your thighs toward your chest, exhaling as you extend back into Downward Dog, up to 5 times.
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Adho Mukha Svanasana
We’re now midway through the full cycle of this salutation, so give yourself 5 deep breaths in Downward Dog to rest. Pedal the feet out to release tension in your hamstrings and find a rooting in your palms by pressing into your index finger knuckles. Hug your armpits in toward your heart and soften your shoulders. You can disengage your abdominals while you rest, sending your inhales and exhales into the full expanses of your core.
Switch sides: From here, sweep your left foot to the sky and repeat steps 5 through 12 with your left foot in front. You’ll end up back in Downward Dog, at which point you’ll either step or float your feet forward.
To finish: Complete the full Salutation with a Half Lift to lengthen yourself out and decompress, before you rise back up to Mountain Pose.
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Andrea Rice is a writer and yoga teacher based in Brooklyn. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, mindbodygreen and a variety of music magazines. Her teaching style is a blend of her love for music and intuitive movement, with emphasis on core strength. You can find her regular classes at Shambhala Yoga in Brooklyn and connect with her on Instagram and Twitter.