If you doubt yoga's power to give you first-rate abs, listen to Lilias Folan's story. This living legend, who brought yoga to the attention of millions of Americans in the 1970s and 1980s through her PBS television series Lilias, Yoga, and You (as well as through a later PBS series and many books and videos), couldn't find her abdominal muscles when she first tried to come into Navasana (Boat Pose). In her early 30s at the time, Folan had never practiced yoga, and her belly had been through the birth of two babies within a few years. Now, in her late 60s, she is living proof that yoga can create a well-toned abdomen. "I'm now a much stronger Lilias than I was as a young mom," says Folan.
Just about all yoga asanas, from standing postures to twists to inversions to balancing poses, require and build abdominal strength and stability, says Beth Shaw, a yoga instructor, creator of the video YogaAbs, and founder of YogaFit, a studio that offers teacher certification programs. "Yoga conditions the abdominal region for movement and stability and, more than anything, for balance and strength," she says.
For example, lifting and lowering the legs in inverted poses like Sirsasana (Headstand), Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand), and Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) gives abs a serious workout. In seated twists, the oblique muscles (located along the sides of the abdomen) work as they lift and rotate the torso. Standing postures such as Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) and Virabhadrasana II (Warrior Pose II) also work the obliques as well as the deepest abdominal muscle, the transversus abdominis, as they help stabilize the torso and spine. Folding postures, in which the thighs and chest are drawn toward each other, including many arm balances and all sorts of sit-up-like movements, target the most visible belly muscle, the rectus abdominis—the featured player in that washboard look you see in fitness magazines. And even Pranayama, yoga's traditional breathwork, includes many exercises that strengthen the transversus as well as the diaphragm. (Though it's usually not considered an abdominal muscle, the diaphragm interacts dynamically with the other organs every time you breathe.)
When you include these postures in a complete practice, you work each muscle in the core from just about every possible angle, says Valerie Kit Love, a licensed occupational therapist, a certified Kripalu Yoga teacher, and the owner of a yoga and Pilates studio in Oklahoma City. But yoga's comprehensive regimen of abdominal work adds up to much more than a firm, flat belly. Because your abdominal muscles support the proper curves of the spine, a strong core can both improve posture and reduce back pain.
In addition, Love says, "since the abdominal wall wraps around and holds the abdominal organs, adding support to this area will improve digestion and elimination." And as you condition your pelvic floor muscles (located at the base of your core), you may notice a boost in your sexual desire and enjoyment.
Finally, as you build core strength, you may find it easier to tap into your third chakra, the power center just above your navel. Often this connection not only leads to greater muscular strength but also brings more energy into your creative life, work, and relationships.
The Core Tour
For many people, abdominal conditioning means six-pack abs. The large muscle responsible for this—the rectus abdominis—may steal the show in terms of appearance, but it could well be the least important abdominal muscle to condition. The rectus, which is responsible for flexing the spine, is highly visible along the front of the abdomen, reaching from the pubic bone to the lower front ribs. But the less visible and less powerful muscles located deeper in the abdomen are probably more critical to overall health, Love says.
The transversus abdominis, in particular, is very important both as a support muscle and as an accessory muscle in breathing. The transversus wraps around much of your lower torso like a corset, supporting the internal organs and stabilizing the torso. The obliques provide support, too, as well as helping you bend sideways and rotate the torso.
Your core musculature, however, includes more than just your abdominal muscles. It starts at the pelvic floor, the complex triangular mesh of muscles situated in the area of your anus and genitals. Above the pelvic floor are the abdominal muscles, and above those is the diaphragm, the main muscle of respiration. "Think of your core as a ball with air in it," Love explains. "Your pelvic floor forms the bottom of the ball, the diaphragm the top, and the abdominal muscles wrap around the center."
When done correctly, the exercises pictured in this article collectively condition the entire core, from the pelvic floor to the diaphragm. Lilias Folan's Stargazing Pose, which is like a traditional fitness crunch as well as like several Pilates exercises, works all the abdominal muscles. As you tuck your tailbone, you engage the abdomen from the bottom up. When you finally lift your shoulders and flex the spine, you deeply engage your rectus abdominus. Rolldowns work the abdominal muscles similarly. Since Rolldowns are a bit easier than Stargazing Pose, they can help you work up to it or allow you to continue to work your abs after the muscles are too tired to allow further Stargazing. As you build abdominal strength and flexibility, you can combine Rolldowns with Stargazing, rolling down and then rolling back up.
Much like the top position in a push-up, the traditional Plank Pose strongly works the abdominals as they stabilize your torso. But you can take Plank to an even greater level of difficulty by elevating your feet on a stability ball. If you're up for yet more of a challenge, try moving into Bakasana Prep on the ball; lift your hips and draw your knees in toward your forehead, so you come into a deep C-curve. This takes a great deal of strength in all the abdominals but especially engages the rectus.
While Plank, Bakasana Prep, Stargazing, and Rolldowns all work your core as it flexes or stabilizes the spine, twists like Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose) add a rotational element. "Many people don't think of twists as abdominal exercises, and in the gym, people don't appreciate them because they don't look very fancy or taxing, but your abs do help facilitate rotation," Love says. In particular, twists work your obliques. As an added benefit, they also lengthen and stretch some of the deep back muscles, which can contribute to back pain if they're chronically tight.
To make the most of your core conditioning, follow these pointers:
Work your abs to warm up: Abdominal exercise heats the body, so five to 10 minutes of core conditioning is a great way to begin a yoga session.
Work from the bottom up: In any core conditioning posture, first bring your attention to your inner thighs and pelvic floor, firm those areas, and then move up from there. This approach will help you more effectively activate your core and will help ensure proper spinal alignment as well.
Say "Ha!": Exhaling with a "ha," as if you were trying to fog up a mirror, will activate the transversus abdominis. Use your "ha" breath for every pose: as you lift into Stargazing Pose, as you roll down, as you turn more deeply in Ardha Matsyendrasana, as you draw your knees forward in Bakasana Prep, and repeatedly as you hold Plank.
Shake it Up: When it comes to conditioning your core, experts agree: The more varied your routine, the better. "Mixing it up means you're always asking more of your abdomen, challenging it in different ways," Love says. In addition to your yoga practice, consider occasionally incorporating Pilates and stability ball classes into your schedule. Pilates places a huge emphasis on core strength, and stability ball training adds an element of balance, allowing you to work your abs from every angle.
Play Ball: You can further condition your abs by squeezing a ball or a yoga block between your thighs as you do abdominal work. As you do this, your inner thighs and abs will activate, so you'll get more conditioning out of many yoga postures.
Alisa Bauman is a freelance writer and yoga instructor in Emmaus, Pennsylvania.