I was nine years old the first time I took diet pills. For years, when I stood naked in front of the mirror, I would cry out of frustration. By the time I graduated college, I was put into treatment for anorexia nervosa with bulimia subtype. I was almost 50 pounds underweight. As recently as my late 20s, I continued to count calories and measure my food. Even at my most unhealthy, I could never truly see what I looked like, especially when it came to my stomach.
Looking at pictures of those little girls now, I wish I could transport myself to them. I wish I could hold them tight and tell them how beautiful they are. I may not be able to take a time-machine back there, but our young selves still exist inside of us, and as adults, we can learn to love ourselves—every single part.
Many people tend to be self-conscious about their stomachs. It took me nearly until now to feel comfortable in a bikini. I didn’t start wearing sports bras in photos until my mid-30s! Even now, when I am under great amounts of stress, I feel like I’ve gained weight in my gut, even when the scale (which my husband has to keep hidden) says otherwise.
There is no denying it. We are a core-obsessed world. Stick “core” in the title of any fitness class, and you’ll have a full room. Physically, the core comprises our entire trunk, not just our stomach. Like the core of an apple, this includes our shoulders, torso, and hips. If the core is weak, it can lead to lower back issues, poor posture, and compromised breathing and digestion. People who are self-conscious of their stomachs tend to hunch over or wrap their arms around themselves, weakening the back body and constricting the front side, which contracts our whole being.
What I’ve learned over the years through my yoga practice is that we can strengthen our core without having to do a single sit-up. You see, it is what lies beneath the coveted washboard abs that we want to access and fortify. To do this, we must be willing to dig deep—to dissect the belly’s many layers: physical, energetic, and emotional. Because a strong core is so much more than our abdominals. It is our power center, our sense of self.
See also 16 Poses for a Strong + Stable Core
From an energetic viewpoint, the stomach houses our sense of self and acts as a second brain. Anxiety or alarm bells signal butterflies. Intuition gives way to “gut reactions.” The third chakra, manipura, lives here, as well. Some translate it to mean “city of jewels” or the “jewel within,” conveying the luminosity possible when we can access our truest self. Located between the naval (belly button) and the solar plexus (bottom of sternum), manipura is represented by the element of transformation: fire.
To have a strong core means knowing oneself intimately. It means having healthy boundaries and defined beliefs and values. It means being connected to your truth and responding from that place. When we live from our center (both literally and allegorically) we are more powerful in every way. Think of a great tennis player swinging their racket from their entire body, or a football player gracefully averting an oncoming player. Even the simple, everyday action of bending down to pick up something heavy is made easier by moving from your middle. Similarly, when you make decisions and choices from your center, they are more powerful.
We do not need six-pack abs to feel comfortable in our own skin. We simply need to live from our center, because no one looks or feels better than when they know who they are.
This five-pose sequence will help you build your core strength without requiring a single crunch:
1. Virabhadrasana II variation (Warrior Pose II with hands on belly)
It takes great courage to be willing to look within and change old patterns. Many of us prefer to live in habit rather than to riskbeing uncomfortable. But by its nature, change is uncomfortable. When we switch course, carving a new path, it takes commitment. Holding Warrior Pose II can be a powerful real-time lesson on perseverance. Staying in a pose longer than we think we can is an excellent way to learn the practice of accepting discomfort as a necessary aspect of transformation. Putting one hand on your belly begins the process of accessing your core, while placing your other hand on your heart reminds you why you’re doing this in the first place. When we know who we are, we are better able to live from the heart.
2. Revolved Chair Pose (Parivrtta Utkatasana)
Stoke the digestive fires with this warming and detoxifying standing twist. Part of the transformation process involves removing the “soot and ash” of that which we are burning away. It is equally important to release old patterns as it is to transform them. On each exhalation, imagine squeezing out the gunk that’s blocking you from knowing your true self. Good examples of what to release are limiting beliefs, such as “I am not enough,” and old habits, such as beating yourself up. On each inhalation, imagine fanning the transformational flames in your belly center and on each exhalation, imagine releasing the beliefs and behaviors that are preventing you from recognizing your power.
See also Kathryn Budig’s Twist + Detox Video
3. Forearm Plank Pose
Forearm plank is an excellent pose to engage your entire core. Remember that your core is not limited to your stomach muscles. It includes your entire torso—from your shoulders to your hips. This pose builds heat quickly. With the full length of your body extended, energy can move from your base through our crown. Lighting up your power center helps burn up survival fears (I am not enough, I do not have enough) that live in the lower chakras. These chakras make us human, but we yogis know we are also divine. Burning up old habits and beliefs in the belly clears the way for us to live from our divine heart.
See also The Ultimate Guide to Energy Healing
4. Dhanurasana (Bow Pose)
Now that you’ve stoked the fires, burned away old beliefs and habits, let us create more space through your front body to broaden your heart. When it comes to your core, it is equally important to have a strong back body as it is to have an open front. People who don’t know who they are often are referred to as “spineless” or “pushovers”—as in they can easily be knocked around by others. This sequence, and particularly this belly backbend, will help you strengthen your middle and back so you can stand in who you are.
5. Urdhva Prasarita Padasana (Leg Lifts)
This final pose of the sequence continues with the process of strengthening your low belly while also strengthening your legs. The muscles that help lift your thighs to your chest are called the hip flexors. One of the most important of these is the psoas, which balances the upper body with the lower body. It originates in the spine (near the diaphragm) and traverses through the belly and is believed to be linked to our abdominal brain. Most sequences look to release the psoas, because so many of us have chronically tight ones. But strength is not the same thing as tightness! It is equally important to have strong psoai (we have two) as it is for them to be open.
See also A Yoga Sequence for Deep Hip Opening