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Annie Carpenter dove deep into the core at YJ LIVE San Diego, offering accessible alignment cues and a creative sequence to help maximize core stability. Take home more tools like this to tune up your practice at YJ LIVE San Francisco (Jan. 13-16, 2017) and New York (Apr. 21-14, 2017).
Most active people appreciate that core stability is a non-negotiable aspect of functional movement and a healthy spine. Most yogis also understand that washboard abs don’t necessarily equate actual core strength. While the more superficial abdominal muscles (like the six-pack) do contribute to the core’s stabilizing action, creating the complex effect that we refer to as “core stability” requires a number of coordinated muscular engagements. Thus core strength can tend to remain somewhat of a mystery to the casual yogi. As a general rule, movement is created by muscles working in groups, not in isolation. The core is no exception, and therefore merits a detailed study as well.
See also 16 Poses for a Strong + Stable Core
A couple key principles for core work
1. Maintain the lumbar curve.
Carpenter, an alignment and anatomy aficionado, advocates “creating space in the spine without flattening the lumbar curve or overtucking the pelvis” while working the core. However, some of the most common prompts for core activation include cues such as “lifting the belly button in and up toward the spine,” as well as the ubiquitous “tucking the tailbone down.” While these actions do engage the low belly area, they also tend to result in a pronounced posterior (backward) tilt of the pelvis and promote the flattening of the lumbar curve. This action isn’t incorrect per se, but it’s only one component of a stable core.
In addition, it can be a little too easy to overshoot the tailbone-tuck mark. Since many yogis with sedentary desk jobs already tend toward a posterior pelvic tilt, this cue runs the risk of turning a subtle tweak into an aggressive over-tuck. All these factors together conspire to eliminate the natural lumbar curve, which Carpenter says we should really be trying to maintain and stabilize instead.
2. Precede movement with stability.
Stability should always be considered a prerequisite to movement. This statement is particularly applicable to the core. By necessity, at least some portion of core strengthening exercises fall into the category of “crunches,” or movements where the hip and trunk flexors are engaged to bring the torso up toward the legs or vice versa. This action, created by a contraction of the psoas (among other muscles), can end up pulling the mobile and vulnerable lumbar spine painfully out of alignment if done without properly stabilizing the spine with the other muscles of the core.
That’s why familiarizing yourself with the following muscular actions that create protective stability can not only prevent sloppy postural habits, but will make all movements, particularly weighted ones, safer and more efficient.
5 Steps for Core Stability
Step 1: Activate the Transversus Abdominis
The transversus abdominis, or TVA for short, is the real MVP of stability. It’s a deep, corset-like muscle that wraps around the entire midriff. It’s a major stabilizer of both the pelvic and thoracic regions and also holds the internal organs in place by tensing the abdominal wall. In fact, the spinal support provided by the TVA is so crucial that without it, the nervous system cannot properly recruit muscles in the limbs, rendering functional movement at best inefficient and at worst impossible. Most people instinctively know how to use their TVA: It’s the action of sucking in the stomach and sides of the waist. Alternatively, think of the “corset” of the TVA tightening around the torso.
In Tadasana, place the hands around the narrowest part of the waist and use them as a physical cue to encourage the abdominal wall to tense, and help gather the waist in even further. This engagement is the TVA contracting, and it serves as the foundation of core stability, so to speak.
Step 2: Lengthen the Psoas
Next, unclench the psoas in order to avoid the dreaded pelvic over-tuck (which has the potential to lead to back pain in the long run). This primary hip flexor originates from the anterior (front) side of the lumbar vertebrae and attaches on the lesser trochanter at the top of the inner thigh.
From Tadasana, step feet hip-width apart, and place a block on its narrowest setting between the upper thighs. Make sure the pelvis is, in fact, in a neutral position, rather than tucked under. Without gripping forcefully, find a light contraction of the TVA and maintain it. Then, try to roll the block behind you by carefully spiraling the inner thighs back. It can be useful here to visualize both sides of the psoas attaching to their respective femurs, and imagine these points moving backward. Allow the sitting bones to widen and the lumbar to arch slightly as you do this, without going so far as to create discomfort or compression in the low back.
Step 3: Fire up Rectus Abdominis
The final step is the addition of a slight posterior pelvic tilt and a downward release of the tailbone to create space in the low back. This is a subtle tweak rather than an aggressive tuck.
Still holding the block between the upper thighs, go through steps 1 and 2: contract the TVA to draw the waistline in, and roll the inner thighs back to lengthen the psoas, using the movement of the block as a gauge. Maintain both actions, then lift the pubic bone up toward the navel, feeling the sacrum point down toward the floor and the lower back lengthen. It may be helpful to visualize the distance between the public bone and navel shortening to generate this movement. This action is primarily a contraction of Rectus Abdominis, the superficial layer of the abdominal muscles.
See also Debunking the Tucked Pelvis
Step 4: Put it all into action
Once these actions start to feel accessible and familiar in Tadasana, we can fine-tune them by applying them to static poses. Progressing through a series of standing asymmetric poses adds to the challenge: first, we find the muscular engagements in a static scenario, then try to maintain it as we dynamically transition to the next pose.
Begin in Warrior II with the right leg forward. Move the right knee toward the pinky edge of the foot by engaging the right gluteal muscles. Contract Transverse Abdominis and feel the waistline gently draw in. Next, spiral the left inner thigh back (perhaps still imagining the hypothetical backward movement of the block between the thighs), and feel the left sitting bone flare slightly outward, accentuating the lumbar curve. Finally, maintain all these actions, engage Rectus Abdominis, gently lifting the pubic bone toward the navel and releasing the sacrum down. If this feels like enough, stay and breathe. For an additional challenge, slowly transition to Side Angle Pose, then Triangle, as you focus on keeping the core actions rather than the depth of the pose. Release, turning the feet parallel and resting in a Wide-Legged Forward Fold before moving on to the other side.
See also Build Stability in Standing Poses
Step 5: Practice moving with core stability
Isolating these muscular engagements in a static scenario is useful when we’re trying to get familiar with them. Ultimately, though, we want these actions to become second nature, so that they can then be applied to a more functional setting: dynamic movement.
Begin in Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana standing on your left leg. Find a modification that works for you to avoid rounding your spine- you can use a strap in your right hand, or keep the right leg bent and hold onto the knee if necessary. Go through the checklist: engage the TVA, roll the left inner thigh back, move the left sitting bone out, and lift the pubic bone toward the navel. Notice the resulting sensation of stability and maintain it without gripping. Carefully begin to release the right leg, slowly straightening it or dropping the strap, moving toward Tadasana. As you approach vertical, instead of stepping down, flex the right foot and continue sweeping it underneath and behind yourself, pivoting into Warrior III. Keep an active line from the crown of the head through to the right heel, and use a steady, continuous engagement in the core to make the movement controlled and smooth. Reverse the transition to finish back in Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana if you’re feeling strong or take a moment in Uttanasana to release before tackling the second side.
Want more? Add a twist
If the previous sequence feels manageable, take things up another notch by adding a twist.
Begin in Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana, right leg lifted, chest open to the left, and arms lengthening toward the front and back edges of the mat. As before, pick a position for the right leg that allows the spine to stay straight and strong (using a strap in the right hand or knee bent as needed). Run through the checklist: TVA active, left inner thigh rolled back, sacrum moving toward floor, and Rectus Abdominis engaged. Let go of the right foot, but keep the torso rotated to the right and the arms spread as you begin to make your way toward a modified Tadasana with an upper-body twist, pausing at vertical to check in with your core stability. Keeping the twist, slowly sweep the right leg under and back to come into Parivrtta Ardha Chandrasana. Reverse the transition to head back to Parivrtta Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana or step the right foot down for Uttanasana to reset. Take a few deep breaths before repeating on the second side.
About Our Writer
Jenni Tarma is a Los Angeles-based yoga teacher, runner and CrossFitter. She is certified in teaching Yoga For Athletes (via Sage Rountree), is a RRCA Distance Running Coach, and is currently studying with Tiffany Cruikshank for her 500hr Yoga Medicine certification. She loves to move, and believes yoga is the athlete’s key to form, function and focus! Find her on Instagram: @jennitarma and www.jennitarma.com.