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What’s Your Core Strength?

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It’s just after Valentines Day, and I got two bouquets of flowers. One
from my husband, and one from Sadie Nardini. That’s me.

While at the flower store, ordering a nice bunch of orchids to honor
the longest-term relationship I’ve ever had–with myself, I noticed
that many people were more focused on what to get or do for their significant
others, or what they were getting done for them, than how to celebrate their
own selves.

In fact, out of the 20 or so other people who were there, not one of
them were wrapping up blooms from them, to them. When they found out I
was, it was like a kitten had popped out of my jacket pocket. “Ohmigosh–That’s
SO cute!,” they said, eyes wide with the sheer quaintness of it all.

It struck me then, how weighted we can get towards our external
offerings and relationships. It’s rare to see someone taking
themselves out for dinner, and choosing the nice restaurant over the quick fix,
or taking the time to appreciate themselves with a love letter, a kind remark
or even the simple beauty of flowers.

I’d like to see this trend reverse. I began turning it around
personally a few years back when I realized I was speaking to, feeding, and
loving myself abysmally. If I was dating me, I would have been well on the road
to a break-up or a breakdown.

It’s the same with yoga. When I say I teach Core Strength Vinyasa
Yoga, people usually point to their bellies and say, “Yeah, I need some of
that!” or “My roommate does Pilates!”

As we progress in our practice here in the West, I see many students
and teachers are beginning to get so outer-body strong that they have begun to
freeze themselves out of the deeper power that lies in their internal core. I
was one of them, until my too-tight abs and back muscles began compressing my
spine and causing me pain. I knew I had to find some length, and let go of my
ego-driven tendency to want to get into the advanced poses at all costs. It’s
easy to get externally-focused, and use the outer body too strongly in the
asanas, which can harden it into tension or put added strain on the joints,
instead of using our outer selves in balance to support a much more profound
inner strength.

It’s not serving us to practice with a focus on our external
bodies only if we want our yoga practice to be a balance of Sthira-Sukha, or
stability and mobility. There are a whole lot of things the core is, and one
thing it’s not: just the abdominal muscles. Your spine and pelvis, taking in
prana (life energy), your inward attention, and the muscles that support your
skeleton all comprise my idea of the deeper core connection we can each make
happen more profoundly in yoga and in our lives.

In my teaching, I focus on our Deep Core Line, or the series of
muscles that line your legs, pelvis, spine and skull, and I invite students to
release any death grip on the poses, and instead focus on a softer strength at
the level of the superficial body (Think Rodney Yee’s abs vs. the cover of
Muscle Magazine) in order to access the support at true center.

This experience of diving inside has a bunch of happy side effects,
including empowerment, self-centering, and the ability to rock your Handstand
much sooner than if you try to just power into it.

In my view, the abdominal muscles should serve the underlying
structural strength, not the other way around. When you can move your poses
from the outside in, some of the pockets of tension found at the legs, hips and
lower back, shoulders and neck will start to dissolve as your inner takes over
for the outer, and they both begin to move back into harmony.

Best of all, when you move from center as your practice on the mat,
you’ll begin to experience vijnana-maya-kosha, a state of all-pervading
recognition that who you are is strong, capable, and worth nourishing on all
levels. And one day, I’ll be in the flower store, peering into the case to see
what Sadie might like best of all, and someone will say “pardon”, and
reach past me to grab their favorite tulips.

Core Questions: Where are you on the journey to cultivate your inner relationship as
much as your outer ones? And how do you practice this in your yoga poses? Do
you think it’s harder to give in than give out?

To try moving from your inner body: Next time you’re doing Handstand
preparations, no matter how low or high you’re hopping now, keep your top leg
straight but bend your bottom knee into your chest as you lightly jump. As you
kick, pretend you have a golden egg at the pit of your belly, which you’ll
squeeze around as you exhale. This will reduce the tendency of your lower back
to arch and take the pelvis out of alignment. It will activate your low belly
and still let you practice pulling the stacked hips up with the squeeze of your
deeper pelvic muscles.