There were audible groans as students listened to the instructor talking about the importance of core strength. Just the mention of “core” brings back memories of grunting through sit-ups in high school gym class. Most of us don’t even like talking about that part of our bodies, let alone exercising or sculpting it. Our core as our physical and spiritual center? Yeah, right!
But for yoga practitioners, “working your core” isn’t about turning abdominal muscles into a washboard stomach or slimmer waistline. In fact, that’s the opposite of what you should be working toward in your yoga practice, and in your life off the mat.
Yoga core work is about physical strength—but it’s also about mental focus and a centered perspective. Your physical core—a combination of muscles in the legs, back and abdomen—keeps you balanced in standing, seated, balancing and inverted poses, and contributes to every move you make on and off the yoga mat. Without your core, your spine would have no stability, your torso would be unable to bend or rotate. Your legs would be incapable of standing, bending or flexing.
Think about what it’s like to stay in a pose and explore its range. Imagine yourself in Virhabadrasana III, an intermediate pose requiring balance, focus and abdominal action. Once your breath and attention are steady, strengthen and extend through your torso to avoid overarching the spine. If you have a weaker core, you may be tempted to use your gluteus muscles to balance your lifted leg to compensate for less strength in the adductors and rotators. Maintain these actions while attempting to level the pelvis, and engage the muscles in the front and back of your standing leg. Now that’s core work—and it’s hard work too.
Consider the above for Vrikshasana (Tree Pose). This quintessential yoga pose is not just about standing on one leg, it’s about stabilizing the torso, engaging the hip abductors and rotators, working the external and internal obliques. All this while simultaneously maintaining a calm and steady breath and demeanor.
To really investigate your relationship with your core, watch how your mind and body work together during your practice. Beyond the physical aspects of the asana, how does your mind support you as you balance and flow? Rather than clinging to expectations around attaining a certain pose, can you fix your attention on how and where you experience sensation in the body? How might your mind support or deter your body’s stability during Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose) or Garudasana (Eagle Pose)?
Once you start to really feel into the poses, you’ll notice that core work is not just about strengthening your muscles, but lengthening them as well. Same can be said of the mind. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali speaks of abhyasa (constant practice) and vairagya (dispassion or centeredness). There are different translations for these concepts, but in this context, imagine them as balancing discipline and release. The body and mind work to strengthen, support, lengthen and extend each other. Harmonious in the mind, harmonious in the body and vice versa.
Sure, with enough practice you may eventually develop those six-pack abs, but that’s secondary to what’s happening at a deeper level and what you’re taking away from your yoga practice. Your core is more than a group of muscles that must be tamed—it’s your physical and spiritual center. It’s where your breath, or prana, originates.
Every yoga class in some way is a core class. If your instructor focuses on one of the groups of deep muscles that help develop yogic strength, don’t let the memory of high school gym put you off. Next time the subject of core comes up, think about letting go of preconceived notions and embracing a different kind of discipline. And remember, it’s the blending of these two that create the harmony that is yoga.