"rock solid core" "bust a gut - core strength" "hard core abs" are some of the sayings we are familiar with to promote that "hard as steel - flat as a pancake - six pack abs" image we associate with a strong core. Strong, toned muscles at the core of your body support good health but that doesn’t mean we should create a core which is so strong it cannot release. As well as contributing to lower back issues continued tightening of the abdomen hardens the abdominal organs and can aggravate digestive issues, hormone issues & chronic stress. In my last blog I explained there are four elements to achieve a happy, healthy & strong core body - a core body which has both the capacity to engage and also release.
* Awareness (i.e.is there chronic holding? Laxity. Do we alternate between the two? What other messages does the core have for us?)
* The capacity to release after engaging
* Strength (of the deep intrinsic abdominals and psoas – without shortening)
* Flexibility that works in concert with strength
So how do we put these for elements into practice?
The first two parts of this practice are subtle and may take time to cultivate especially if you are used to feeling strong sensation with core work.
Awareness - the Movement of the Abdomen:
You can try this seated or lying on your back with your knees bent hips-width apart. Place one hand on your lower abdomen ( the area just above the pubic bone to just under the navel) and the other hand on your upper abdomen ( the area just above the navel ) Notice how your abdomen moves as you breathe in and out, Feel the swelling and settling sensations on the inhalation and the exhalation. Do you feel any tightness or constriction in the upper or lower abdomen under your hands ? If your not sure whether your holding tension - try tensing the abdomen by pulling the muscles in for about 3 seconds, then release. Do this 2/3 times and notice the different sensations between tension and relaxation there.
Spend several minutes watching how the abdomen billows outward in all directions - up, to the sides and into your back body on the inhalation and on the exhalation it retracts back but does nor contract. You may also notice how the retraction has tone and firmness without becoming rigid or hard. You can practice this awareness exercise at any time or follow it with the next step below.
Remember if you have been focusing on core strength for a while you may be in a "holding pattern" and find it difficult to feel the softening which comes with release in the core.
Working with the breath developing the capacity to release and engage the deep core muscles:
Again this work is sometimes very difficult to feel but with practice you will start to connect to the natural movement of the core body with the breath.
In the same position as before start breathing into your abdomen for several rounds. Then bring your attention to mula bandha, your root lift ( the tissues in your pelvic floor between the anal sphincter and the urogenital muscles ) on an exhale engage and lift mula bandha up towards the level of the top of your pubic bone ( where the little finger of your bottom hand is resting) and release a little on an inhale, do this for a few breaths. You can now add in uddiyana bandha, your navel lift, by taking the deep abdominal muscles and lifting them lengthwise up your body. First try lifting lower uddiyana bandha (the area under the bottom hand from the top of your pubic bone to just behind the navel) practice for several rounds engaging and lift (not a pull back) on the exhale. releasing a little on the inhale. Then add upper uddiyana bandha (the area under your top hand from just behind the navel) for a few breaths again engaging and lift on the exhale, releasing a little on the inhale. You can then unite them all together engaging and lifting mula bandha, then lower uddiyana bandha, then upper uddiyana dandha on an exhale and releasing slightly on an inhale. After sometime you may start to connect with the wave and flow of the bandhas with the breath.
Build a healthier core that's strong and flexible, try this variation of Plank pose.
Start in Downward-Facing Dog, on an exhale draw your right thigh in towards the right side of your chest, on your next exhale, draw your shoulders over your wrists coming in to hanging plank. You can stay here or challenge the psoas and core by crossing the right thigh over the body aiming the right knee towards the left armpit. Lift your throat so that your neck is in optimal alignment. Hold for several breaths, engaging your bandhas on the exhale (remembering this action from the practice above) . Return to Downward Dog and repeat on the other side.
To release and rest. Finish with supported bridge after plank pose (you can also do this pose at anytime to release and rest). Lie on your back with your knees bent, place a block under your sacrum, relax your arms by your sides and breathe deeply for several breaths. Gently lift your hips, remove the block and lower down to the mat. For a few breaths feel and watch the body's response to your practice. :-))
Please note: I am not suggesting this replaces your current "core work" but to perhaps add this into your practice to help develop a happy, healthy as well as strong core body.