It's not unusual to hear people say, "Yoga mostly keeps me in shape, but I do other exercises for core strength." Many of us equate "core strength" with strong abdominal muscles, so we use various forms of sit-ups to develop it. There's much more to strengthening the core than pumping up your abs, but that's certainly a good start, and sit-ups can be a very effective way to do it. What's more, some types of sit-ups have the added benefit of strengthening another crucial group of core muscles, the hip flexors. But is there anything in yoga that can do the same?
There certainly is. Yoga is rich with poses that intensively work the abdominal and hip flexor muscles, but the only one that is regularly taught in most yoga schools is Paripurna Navasana (Full Boat Pose). The oft-overlooked, Lolasana (Pendant Pose) is another excellent option. It doesn't require as much flexibility as Navasana, and though you need considerable strength to perform the posture completely (making it an excellent core conditioner even for advanced yogis), it can easily be dialed back to match the ability level of almost any student.
Lolasana, like other poses that strengthen your abdominals and hip flexors, improves your ability to keep your trunk stable while you extend and move your limbs into various positions in your asana practice. This is key for preventing back pain. But Lolasana has some added perks that Navasana and sit-ups don't have: It strengthens your arms and shoulders, and it trains your nervous system to coordinate that strength with powerful abdominal and hip flexor action.
This provides the foundation for projecting power forward through your limbs—which you need to do in all manner of activities, from opening a heavy door to playing tennis. And it benefits your yoga practice by preparing you for more advanced arm balances and improving your ability to "jump through" from Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) to Dandasana (Staff Pose). You do this by swinging your legs forward between your arms and landing lightly in a seated position with your legs extended forward.
Of course, to gain these benefits you have to make it a point to regularly include Lolasana in your practice, and to practice it as though you really mean it. The best way is to start with an easy version of the pose and gradually increase the level of challenge as you grow stronger.
Hang in There
Lolasana is called Pendant Pose for a reason: The body really dangles and even swings a little bit. The foundation of the pose is the hands; the rib cage hangs from the upper arms and shoulders; the spine and pelvis hang from the rib cage; and the legs hang from the spine and pelvis. The pose is highly effective for strengthening all of the abdominal muscles, most of the hip flexors, and several shoulder muscles, but it puts extraordinary demands on the external oblique abdominals, making it especially powerful for strengthening the sides of the waist.
To get an intuitive sense of the muscles involved, sit in a sturdy chair, put your hands on the seat on either side of your hips, lean forward about 45 degrees, and push down firmly to take most of the weight off your pelvis. At first, relax your abdomen and hips, allowing your pelvis and legs to hang down so all the work is in your arms, chest, and shoulders. Notice that the triceps muscles on the backs of your upper arms tighten to straighten your elbows, and two other muscle groups—the pectorals, on the front of your chest, and the serratus anterior muscles, which run from your inner shoulder blades to your side ribs in front of your armpits—work together to lift your rib cage upward. This upward pull tends to make your ribs swing up and away from your dangling pelvis, similar to the movement they make when you inhale deeply.
To bring your pelvis up with your ribs, exhale, push your hands down harder, and pull your thighs upward as if to lift them to your chest. Your abdominal muscles connect your rib cage to your pelvis, so you'll feel them engage as you attempt to bring the pelvis up along with the ribs. And your front hip muscles connect your pelvis and spine to your thighs, so you'll feel them engage as you attempt to bring your legs up toward your pelvis and spine.
Three sets of abdominal muscles work together to provide the pelvic lift in Lolasana: the rectus abdominis, the external oblique, and the internal oblique. The rectus abdominis is the muscle that creates the familiar appearance of "six-pack abs." It is composed of several segments embedded in a sheath of tough connective tissue that connects the base of the sternum (the xiphoid process and nearby cartilage) to the middle of the lower front pelvis (the pubis).
The external oblique abdominal muscles lie alongside the rectus abdominis to cover the remainder of the front of the waist, the sides of the waist, and part of the back waist. Their fibers attach to the sides of the lower rib cage and run diagonally down and forward to attach at the other end to the rectus sheath in front or to the top rim of the pelvis in back. The internal obliques lie underneath the externals; their fibers connect to the rectus sheath in front and run diagonally down and backward, roughly perpendicular to the fibers of the external obliques, to attach to the front and sides of the pelvic rim.
The net effect of this complex arrangement of muscles is that simultaneous contraction of the three abdominal muscles draws the pelvis strongly upward toward the ribs, with much more lift in front than in back. This flexes the lumbar spine and ensures that when the ribs lift up away from the floor in Lolasana, the pelvis and spine follow.
Although all the abdominal muscles contribute to lifting the lower body, meaning that all of them get conditioned by the pose, the work of the external obliques is especially intense. This is because their frontal fibers connect directly to the side ribs, pulling them downward and inward toward the rectus sheath and pubis, in direct opposition to the upward and outward pull of the serratus anterior muscles on the same ribs. The oblique abdominals therefore provide the lion's share of the force that prevents the ribs from swinging up independently of the spine and pelvis. They translate the lifting power of the serratus muscles into elevation of the midabdomen and frontal pelvis. This means that to do Lolasana effectively, you have to pay special attention to contracting the sides of your waist in front.
Now let's take a closer look at how the legs get off the floor in Lolasana. The core muscle that does most of the heavy lifting here is iliopsoas, which is composed of two deep hip flexors. One is the iliacus muscle, which connects the front of the pelvic bowl to the upper thigh; the other is the psoas, which connects the lower spine to the upper thigh.
Several superficial hip flexors assist the iliopsoas; all of them connect the front of the pelvis to the thigh or leg. Since all the hip flexor muscles use the front of the pelvis or the lower spine as their anchor points, they can lift the legs off the floor only if the front of the pelvis remains lifted and the lumbar spine stays flexed. As we've seen, the abdominal muscles provide this lift and flexion; if they are too weak, the front of the pelvis will sag, the spine will lose its flexion, and the legs will droop toward the floor. Of course, the hip flexors have to be strong, too; if they are too weak, you won't be able to lift your legs, no matter how high you raise your pelvis and spine.
The moral of the story is that you have to use all of your abdominal muscles when you are in the pose, especially those alongside the midline, to draw the front of your pelvis as close to the front of your rib cage as you can, curling your hips and trunk into a tight ball, while at the same time using your hip flexors to draw your thighs toward your chest as strongly as you can.
Do It Your Way
It can take lots of practice to build up enough strength to lift into Lolasana. To make the pose more accessible—yet still plenty challenging—try this variation with blankets and blocks. Fold one or two yoga blankets to create a rectangle wider than your shoulders and about one to two inches high. Place two yoga blocks shoulder-width apart, broad side down, and long dimension pointing forward, with one end resting on a folded edge of the blankets and the other on the floor. Kneel on the blanket with your knees between the blocks. Lift your pelvis off your feet. Place your hands on the blocks with the heels of the hands directly above the blanket edge. (Don't put your hands too far forward, or the blocks might flip.) Cross your ankles.
Lean forward, and with an exhalation, push firmly down with your hands and lift both feet off the floor. Move your shoulder blades apart to lift your body as high as possible (this activates your serratus anterior muscles), and at the same time, draw yourself into as tight a ball as you can by pulling your heels up and curling your trunk. Bring your pubic bone and thighs as close to your rib cage as they will go. Exhale fully as you contract your abdomen as tightly as you can, especially where it joins the frontal side ribs.
Create a "cat" movement of your entire spine, curving the middle of your back up away from the floor. At first, you may need to look down at the ground to assist with spinal flexion. But once you're balanced, gradually lift your head and, without straining or wrinkling your brow, gaze forward. Swing your body gently forward and back for several breaths, and then come down. Repeat three to five times, alternating the way you cross your ankles.
If that version is too difficult, follow all the instructions above, but leave your feet (not your knees) on the floor. As you push your arms down to raise your body high, push the tops of your feet into the floor and unbend your knees partway to assist the lift. Use the pressure of your feet into the floor to help you draw your thighs close to your chest.
Curl your trunk and draw your frontal pelvis up and toward your front ribs, just as you would in the full pose. Now gradually push down less and less with your feet, so your arms, abs, and hip flexors support you more and more. Challenge the limits of your strength by getting as close as possible to lifting your feet off the floor. Omit the swinging action at the end.
To enjoy the benefits of Lolasana, include it in a well-rounded practice of asanas that energize the area around your spine and tone all of your limbs. That way, you'll put your strong core to use as the central hub of a powerful, flexible, balanced body and mind.
Roger Cole, Ph.D., is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher and a research scientist specializing in the physiology of relaxation, sleep, and biological rhythms. He trains yoga teachers and students in the anatomy, physiology, and practice of asana and Pranayama. He teaches workshops worldwide. For more information, visit http://rogercoleyoga.com.