Redefining Great Abs

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The instruction seemed so shocking, I assumed I’d heard it wrong. Then the teacher repeated herself: “Soften and release your abdominals.” This was the early 1980s, and I’d just started taking classes in Iyengar Yoga. Conditioned to hold in my abdominals by more than 20 years of dance training, traditional fitness classes, and our “suck in your gut” culture, I found it surprisingly difficult to let go in that area. Yet over time, I learned to relax my belly and fill it up with breath. Free at last!

Then I moved to another city and began taking yoga classes with different teachers schooled in various styles of hatha practice. Each instructor presented an alternative approach to working with the abdominals. In one class, we were told to “draw the pit of the abdomen up” and “hollow the belly.” In another, we were instructed to “lift the side waist” and “pull the belly toward the spine.” A third class emphasized Uddiyana Bandha (Upward Abdominal Lock), engaged by “contracting the abdomen above and below the navel toward the back.” When yet another teacher asked us to “lift from the center but without creating hardness,” I found myself wondering if I was the only one who didn’t quite get it.

Were these completely different viewpoints about the abdominals? Or were my teachers saying the same thing in different ways? Everyone seemed to agree on the belly’s energetic importance–as the body’s center of power, the abdomen initiates movement and is a repository for strong emotions, or “gut feelings,” ranging from fear to anger. But the directions for engaging the abs were often very contradictory, esoteric–more metaphysical than practical–and at times, frankly, quite puzzling. What does it mean to have strong and healthy abdominals? How much does the yogic view differ from that of Western fitness? And just what did all those teachers really mean by their cryptic instructions? I intended to find out.

Clearing Up the Confusion

“There’s a quagmire of confusion about the abdominals,” says Jean Couch, yoga teacher, author of The Runner’s Yoga Book (Rodmell, 1992), and owner and director of the Balance Center in Palo Alto, California. The central problem, she says, “is that people think they should hold their stomachs in, because the shape our society values as healthy and attractive is abnormally thin and held.” Since most people hold a low amount of tension in their abdominals all the time, she says, “they’re unable to build abdominal strength, because you can never, ever strengthen a tense muscle. The only way you can strengthen your abs is to continually relax them–then you can exercise them as much as you want.”

Despite the American fascination with rock-hard, washboard abs, she explains, a healthy muscle is actually “springy and elastic.” Yet most people’s abdominals go from “being held to being flaccid,” says Couch, who urges her students to release their bellies and “align their bones naturally” so their abs can relax. “I never say, ‘Pull your belly in,'” she adds. “I tell people, ‘Elongate your spine,’ which makes the belly automatically pull in.” From this pulled-in–yet relaxed–place, she says, the abs are soft enough to allow deep breathing but elastic enough to be contracted when called upon, for example, to stabilize the body while balancing on one leg in Vrksasana (Tree Pose). Abdominal strength is important, Couch explains, “not to create washboard abs but to support vital organs and stabilize the skeleton.”

This strength should be balanced with flexibility, says Joan White, an advanced Iyengar teacher and national chair of certification for Iyengar Yoga in the United States, “so we don’t create further hardness and tension, but also so we’re able to soften and release.”

Many in the yoga community point out that the sedentary American lifestyle has created an epidemic of weak abdominals and a dangerous tendency to use back muscles to compensate. “Many people don’t understand the difference between moving from the lower back and moving from the abdomen,” says White. “When the abdominals aren’t strong enough to do a pose, such as a [supine] leg lift, people will lift their legs by pulling from the lower back, which can cause injury.”

Most yoga teachers agree that a strong, healthy abdominal region is essential to a strong, healthy practice. But it is difficult to find consensus about how to use yoga to develop that area. It’s not as if each school of yoga consistently teaches abdominal awareness in the same way, using the same language. In fact, many teachers reacted strongly–almost as if offended–when asked how to examine this area in a detailed, muscular way. Because yoga is a discipline that seeks to unify, pinpointing one body part can seem inappropriate, almost baffling.

As Shandor Remete, an instructor at Shadow Yoga in Australia, explains, “Yoga isn’t an exercise system, it’s an energetic system. It’s not about the size of the muscles but about the quality of the circuitry of wind, blood, and nervous energy that flows throughout the body.” In fact, overdevelopment and hardness of the abdominals–or of any single muscle group–can be harmful, because excessive muscle bulk can obstruct energy flow and decrease the body’s vital forces.

The Western focus on the body’s physicality often ignores the emotional importance of the abdominal region, says Ana Forrest, yoga teacher and owner of the Forrest Yoga Circle in Santa Monica, California. “Some of our abdominal problems are related to lack of skillfulness in dealing with our gut feelings,” she says, adding that “whatever happens on the mat is a paradigm for our lives. If we’re not good at connecting with our center, perhaps we’re not good at taking a stand for our truth and ourselves.”

Forrest emphasizes abdominal work in each class, believing that it is helpful “for relieving emotional and physical constipation.” But this very emotional component prompts some teachers to shy away from abdominal work in certain circumstances. “I’ve observed a lot of psychological baggage connected with the abdomen,” says White. “It’s a common place for people to hold anxiety, so if someone’s feeling anxious, I don’t want to create further anxiety and tension by giving them the chance to harden and tighten more in this area.”

The Anatomy of Abs

Although many yogis are reluctant to focus directly on the abs, most exercise physiologists and fitness professionals have no such compunction. In our midriff-baring culture, “abdominals are one of the main areas people want to develop in an exercise program,” says Tom Seabourne, an exercise scientist, martial artist, and coauthor of Athletic Abs (Human Kinetics, 2003).

Many fitness enthusiasts focus on developing the “six-pack” muscle, or rectus abdominis, which is actually a “10-pack” that runs from the pubic bone to the breastbone. “A straplike muscle designed for smooth, long movement, its main purpose is to raise your body from bed each morning,” Seabourne explains. “The rectus is the most superficial and visible of four abdominal muscle groups that work synergistically.”

The internal and external obliques, on the sides of the torso, rotate and bend the torso. “Your obliques are used in almost every activity,” Seabourne says. Twisting is the key to training them.

The deepest layer is the transversus abdominis, which is located horizontally underneath the rectus abdominis and the obliques. One of the few muscles with fibers that run from side to side, the transversus generally functions along with the autonomic nervous system to flatten the stomach in “bearing-down” activities, such as childbirth and defecation, and is activated in expelling actions, such as coughing and vomiting.

Yoga is excellent for building healthy abdominals, Seabourne says, because it involves moving the body in various directions and angles through postures requiring stability and balance–often in an unusual relationship to gravity. “The key is flexible strength, and that’s what yoga develops,” he explains. “Too many people still think ab training is doing crunches, which does nothing for flexibility. If you just train for strength, your muscles can actually shorten. And if you train in only one direction, you’re limiting your range of motion.”

Alternative Perspectives

Building strength and flexibility in the abdominal and back muscles, which form the body’s “core,” is the main goal of Pilates–one of the most rapidly growing exercise systems in the nation. Unlike in yoga, students in Pilates always “exhale through pursed lips, because this creates a resistance that helps people feel the abdominal contraction,” says Moira Merrithew, program director of Stott Pilates in Toronto. Throughout all Pilates exercises, she says, the inhalations are done through the nostrils and the exhalations are done through the mouth to help students focus on their core and strengthen the deep abdominal muscles.

Several classic Pilates exercises focus on strengthening the abs, with the goal of creating “optimal functional fitness,” Merrithew says. One of the best known is the “hundreds,” performed supine with the head and shoulders raised while the arms pump up and down by the sides in time with the breath to the count of a hundred.

To help people learn the often subtle engagements of the abdominals, “hands-on work is invaluable,” says Michael Feldman, a certified Rolfer in Sausalito, California, who teaches functional-anatomy workshops. He suggests that instructors teach people how to engage the transversus by first palpating the hip points at the front of the pelvis, then asking the person to “draw the two hip points together by lengthening the back and hollowing the belly.” Another important aspect is finding the sitting bones, “so people can learn to sit on them properly,” Feldman says. “One reason the abdominals are so weak is that most people sit with their backs rounded, which makes the abs go slack.”

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 Pranayama (breathwork)–especially the pumping action of KapalabhatiPranayama–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.”

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).

Go Exploring

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).

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