Stronger core, better practice (with video)

Our abdominal muscles are amazing. They help us sit upright, keep us from falling over when we stand, and hold in our organs so we don’t have upset tummies.

I took all this for granted until after I had my third child. By then, my abdominal muscles were lax, and even sitting up on a stool seemed taxing. The effects were more than just cosmetic; I regularly experienced abdominal discomfort because there were no strong muscles holding in my organs.

Thank goodness my yoga studio — like many others — recognizes that abdominal strength is an integral part of the practice. We integrate the core muscles during even basic postures like mountain pose and forward folds, and we dedicate time to leg lifts, boat pose, and other postures which are more core-focused. Had it not been for those exercises, I might have just endured my abdominal woes, figuring they were an inevitable part of having kids. Turns out, my woes were largely reversible.

After several months of consistent abdominal exercises, I noticed a difference on the mat and off. On the mat, I became less wobbily in standing poses like airplane and half moon. Off the mat, I sat up straighter, and stopped frantically searching for walls to lean on after a couple minutes of standing. 

Before I’d experienced these benefits, building abdominal strength had never been an interest of mine — mostly because I didn’t see the benefit of having strong abs if you didn’t live your life in a bikini. But now, I’m sure to incorporate at least a few minutes of core work into my day six days a week.

I don’t have swimsuit model abs by any means, but I do have a pretty strong core, thanks to consistent practice with exercises like the ones described below.

I’ve included just a few poses that helped me strengthen my abdominal muscles (plus a video!!). For maximum benefit, dedicate time each day towards this strengthening.

  
1. Dynamic navasana
This variation of a classic pose builds strength throughout the core muscles while engaging the hip flexors.

Begin in navasana, with your legs bent at ninety degrees or fully straightened. Ensure that your spine is straight. Breathe in and, as you exhale, lower your back and feet a couple of inches above the ground. Inhale and return to navasana; using just your abdominal muscles, hug the thighs toward your chest. Repeat the sequence up to 14 more times, resting as necessary.

2. Hip lifts
Hip lifts challenge the often-ignored low abdominals, which can be key for sticking balancing poses or handstands.

Begin on your back with your legs lifted. Using your low abdominal muscles, lift your hips a few inches from the ground. If you’re still building strength, bend your knees or press your palms into the mat to help stabilize yourself. Complete up to 15 lifts.

3. Dynamic plank
This sequence strengthens the core muscles from the quads to the sternum and brings special attention to the obliques in the side body.

Begin in plank. Raise your right leg, hovering it above the ground a few inches. Bring your right knee toward your right tricep, hovering the knee beside your arm. To make the pose more difficult, straighten your leg. Extend the right leg behind you, hovering it. Now, bring the right leg toward the left tricep, straightening your leg for more of a challenge. Return to high plank. Complete the same actions using your left leg. Complete 3-5 reps per side.

4. Pelvic tilts
Pelvic tilts target the transverse abdominis, which helps hug in the organs. While tilts may not give you six-pack abs, they will help strengthen your overall core and may alleviate low back pain. As you complete pelvic tilts, engage mula banda. Engaging the entire pelvic floor will help build strength in your core muscles.

Begin on your back with your knees bent and the soles of your feet on the ground. Bring your feet to hip-width distance. Keeping your upper and mid back engaged with the floor, lift your tailbone and sacrum from the mat, scooping your pelvis upward and slightly toward your face; hold for three breaths. Slowly release your sacrum back to the ground. Complete ten reps.

5. Ankle taps
A great exercise to cap a challenging practice, ankle taps offer strength-building without too much grunt work. Bring mindfulness to your movements to ensure you’re engaging your oblique muscles.
Begin on your back. Bend your knees, pointing them skyward. Bring your feet hip-width apart. Lift your shoulders from the floor and extend your hands toward your feet. Using only your abdominal muscles to create movement, tap your right hand to your right ankle and contract your side abdominal muscles. Switch sides. Complete up to 15 taps on each side.

Have fun as you condition your belly muscles, and remember to move mindfully. As you build strength,  the exercises will become easier and your core more stable. Hopefully, you’ll see the fruits of this stability on your mat as well as off. Namaste!

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