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Think of the word “core,” and terms like “hard” and “tight” likely come to mind. But the secret to a strong middle is actually to soften in your practice. This sequence shows you how.
One year ago, Karly Treacy, a Los Angeles–based vinyasa teacher, went to a doctor’s appointment. A fit, healthy mother of three, she expected to hear, “Everything looks great!” Instead, her doctor told her that after having three babies in three years, her pelvic floor muscles were so weak she had developed pelvic organ prolapse (POP), in which internal organs like the bladder and bowels drop into the lower belly.
The longtime runner and yoga and Pilates teacher was shocked. After all, she’d spent years working her abs and religiously did Kegels to strengthen her pelvic floor muscles—part of the larger group of muscles we refer to as the “core.” How were these muscles not strong enough to do something as basic as keep her organs in place? Treacy’s doc had a surprising answer: She’d actually been overworking her pelvic floor, causing an overtightening that led to weakness, not strength.
“Think about what a tight muscle looks like,” says Treacy. “It lives in a shortened, contracted state, and because it’s not pliable, it’s actually not as strong as it could be.”
Of course, learning how to soften in order to strengthen is counterintuitive to the way many of us think about working our core. But what Treacy learned from her work with pelvic floor specialists is that to encourage these muscles to get stronger, you actually need to decrease tension.
“Working this way may look easy, but it’s some of the most challenging core work you will do—and it will give you the flattest abs you can get,” says Treacy. Whether you’re a new mom dealing with the kind of post-baby issues Treacy faced or you’re looking to boost your core strength, follow the sequence to get your strongest, most responsive core and pelvic floor muscles yet.
Oftentimes, there’s a “bearing down” feeling that can happen when you do deep core and pelvic floor work, as with the Vasisthasana (Side Plank Pose) variation, shown above. That’s the opposite of what you’re going for and actually the kind of overtightening that can cause problems. In these postures, try to feel a sense of lifting up from the pelvic floor and through the side waists.
Soften to Strengthen
After Treacy’s fateful doctor’s appointment, she turned her go-to ab routine on its head, ditching the bicycle crunches and three-minute Forearm Plank holds that had been her staples. Instead, she stabilized her core via the specific yoga poses in the following sequence. Treacy also learned the right way to do Kegels, which—news flash!—are important for both women and men to do. The best part? “By learning how to work, but not overwork, your abdominals and pelvic floor muscles, the ab and pelvic floor exercises you do will be far more effective,” says Treacy, “which means you’ll see results sooner.”
Join the Kegel Revolution
For years, women were taught that to do a Kegel (a.k.a., a pelvic floor exercise), they should squeeze the muscles that activate when you stop the flow of urine. As for men? They were (and still mostly are) under the impression that pelvic floor work wasn’t necessary. It’s time for these two myths to be busted, says Treacy. Pelvic floor weakness affects both women and men. What’s more, squeezing those muscles that stop the flow of urine often leads to a tightening of the wrong muscles, which in turn can lead to everything from urinary incontinence and pain during sex to pelvic organ prolapse (POP) and more.
The Right Way to Do a Kegel
Picture the pelvic floor muscles between your two sitting bones. Inhale, and as you exhale, draw the muscles together as if they were the two halves of an elevator door closing to meet in the middle. Once this door is closed, lift the elevator up and then release. Next, imagine the pelvic floor muscles between your pubic bone and tailbone. Inhale, and as you exhale, draw those muscles together in the same elevator-door fashion, lift the elevator, and then release. Now, draw all four elevator doors together at once, meeting at one point in the middle, then lift and release. Repeat 5 times, and rest. Aim to repeat this Kegel practice 2 to 3 times a week.
See alsoA Woman’s Guide to Mula Bandha
Active Rest & Prep
This exercise is the blueprint for the relationship between the breath and the pelvic floor and abdominal muscles. With every inhale, the pelvic floor and the abdominals expand; with every exhale, the pelvic floor lifts and the abdominals contract to press the air from the lungs.
Lie on your back, knees bent, with feet on the floor and a block between your inner thighs. Maintain the natural curves of the spine, making sure your neck and lower back are not flattened to the mat. Imagine your thighbones getting very heavy and sinking deep into the hip sockets, which encourages the psoas (the deep muscle that runs from your rib cage down into your hip flexor) to soften. On an inhale, feel the torso expand. After a complete exhale, draw the lowest part of the lower belly in and up to press all the air out of the lungs. Feel the pelvic floor naturally expand on the inhale, and draw together and up on the exhale.
This exercise teaches two of the abdominal muscles—the transverse and rectus abdominis—to engage in order to help draw the front ribs together and down (while maintaining the natural curves of the spine), which creates more length and space in the lower back.
Keep everything the same as in Active Rest & Prep, then interlace the hands behind the head to support the neck. Curl the upper body up but maintain the natural curves of the cervical and lumbar spine. The tailbone will want to curl toward the ceiling, but don’t let it: If it does, you’ll avoid using some of your abdominal muscles and your pelvic floor. Breathe for five full breaths here, activating that breath and core-muscle connection; rest.
See alsoCore Strength Sans Crunch
Crunch, Variation 1
The oblique muscles play an integral role in stabilizing the pelvis as your torso bends and twists. They also help the abdominal muscles draw together, which is particularly important for post-partum moms.
Keep the left hand behind the head, then curl up and reach the right hand across the body to the outside of the left thigh, coming into the twist. Think about reaching the right bottom rib toward the top of the right hip point, and keep both sides of the waist equally long. Take 5 full breaths here, then repeat on the other side.
Crunch, Variation 2
This crunch variation creates strength in the lowest abdominals and pelvic floor through breath and movement.
Now, bring your legs to Tabletop, pulling the pinky-toe side of each foot toward the outer knee. Inhale into the back body as you move the legs away from your torso and bring your heels to tap the mat. Exhale and activate the muscles of your low belly and pelvic floor to bring everything back to the starting position. Repeat for 12 breaths.
Cat-Cow Pose (Marjaryasana-Bitilasana), variation
Now that the pelvic floor and abdominal muscles are awake, this posture prompts you to hug the outer hips in, which helps you feel the direct link between the outer hip/thigh muscles and the pelvic floor.
Come to your hands and knees; place a block between your inner thighs. Firmly press the tops of your feet down into the mat to feel the thighbones rise up into the hip sockets. Soften the upper, inner thighs and roll them toward the wall behind you. (The block will go along for the ride, and will stay in place if you hug the outer hips in.) From here, inhale as you drop your belly into Cow Pose (5A), then exhale as you push your hands into the mat and round your back into Cat Pose (5B). Repeat for 6 to 8 breaths.
Three-Legged Downward-Facing Dog Pose (Eka Pada Adho Mukha Svanasana)
To hover one leg, you have to use that side of the pelvic floor and abdominals to keep the leg lifted and the pelvis stable.
From Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), suck the right thighbone up into the hip socket to float the foot 1 inch from the mat. Your two feet should stay in line with one another, with the right foot hovering beside the left. Hold for 8 rounds of breath; change sides.
Low Lunge (Anjaneyasana)
This posture integrates all of the work you’ve just done. The outer hips hug in to help lift the pelvic floor; the inhales fill the back ribs; the exhales knit the front ribs together; the entire core is activated and lifting.
Bring the right foot forward and place the left knee down on the mat. Ground all four corners of the right foot into the mat and draw the right thighbone back into the hip socket. Ground the top of the left foot firmly into the mat so you can feel the left thighbone rise up into the hip socket. Bring your arms overhead as you inhale into the back ribs, lifting them and creating more length in the lower back. As you exhale, lift the low belly to lengthen the tailbone toward the earth. Hold here for 5 breaths; repeat on the other side.
Plank Pose, variation
With gravity working as resistance, your pelvic floor will have to lift to maintain the length in your spine. What’s more, hovering one leg prompts the pelvic floor and abs on that side to activate.
Step into Plank Pose, keeping shoulders directly over your wrists and torso parallel to the mat. Meanwhile, consciously maintain the natural curves of the spine (read: no sagging of the upper/mid back or tucking of the lower back). From here, lift your right foot 1 inch and hover it above the mat. Hold for 3 breaths; repeat on the left side.
Four-Limbed Staff Pose (Chaturanga Dandasana), variation
This is a more challenging version of Plank, working all of the core in addition to the arms.
Lie on your belly with your hands palm-down alongside the lowest ribs. Keep your forehead and knees pressing into the mat as you lift everything else into Chaturanga. Stay here for 8 full breaths.
Reclining Mountain Pose (Supta Tadasana), with Crunch
The work here will feel similar to the earlier Crunch variations, except now your abs and pelvic floor should feel awake and even easier to engage.
Lie on your back; interlace your hands behind your head and curl the upper body up. Recommit to the natural curve of the lower back, and remember the action of hugging the block as you firm the outer thighs inward. Think of reaching the right leg long and away from the head as you float the leg 1 inch above the mat; stay here with the foot hovering for 5 breaths. Repeat on the left side.
Twisting Reclining Mountain Pose (Parivrtta Supta Tadasana)
The work here will feel similar to the earlier oblique work, helping you feel the connection between the side body and core.
Keeping the same setup as the previous pose, float the left leg up a few inches and reach the right arm across the body toward the left thigh, right bottom rib stretching toward the left frontal hip point. Stay here for 5 full breaths; repeat on the other side.
One-Legged Bridge Pose (Eka Pada Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
This variation creates the biggest challenge yet for the outer hips to hug in, which ultimately turns on the muscles of the pelvic floor.
Set up for Bridge Pose with a block between your inner thighs. Feel the outer hips hugging the block so that the inner thighs can soften to the earth, and any clenching in your glutes can be released. Keeping your thighs parallel, extend the right leg straight out. Hold for 6 to 8 breaths; repeat on the left side.
Reclining Cow Face Pose (Supta Gomukhasana)
This posture prompts you to start to relax, letting all of the work you’ve done start to integrate.
Lie on your back and bring your right knee over the left, so your right foot is on the outside of the left hip. Try to bring the heels equidistant from the hips and, holding the ankles (or calves, if you’re tight), draw your knees toward your chest. Stay here for 6 to 8 full breaths and feel the release in the outer hips; switch sides.
Supine Spinal Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana)
The ultimate goal of this pose is to deepen relaxation, preparing you to drop fully into Savasana (Corpse Pose).
Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the mat, arms resting by your sides. On an exhale, draw your right knee to your chest, keeping your left foot on the mat. Shift your hips slightly to the right, then place your left hand on the outside of your right knee; as you exhale, drop your right knee over the left side of your body and stretch your right arm out toward the side. Hold for 8 to 10 breaths; repeat on the other side.
Corpse Pose (Savasana)
Lie on your back, extend your legs, and let your arms rest comfortably by your sides, palms facing up. Scan your body for any residual tension, and soften any muscles that are gripping or tensing. Let your eyes rest back in their sockets, and relax your jaw muscles and lips. Rest here for 5 to 8 minutes.
Build Strength, Beat Stress: Take our five-part Yoga for Strong Mom series to help you create stability and heal your core.
About Our Pro
Teacher and model Karly Treacy is a SmartFLOW teacher at YogaWorks in Los Angeles.