‘Build core strength’, ‘tone your abs’, or as my son would say ‘get a God Bod’! These exhortations are usually aimed at strengthening the superficial abdominal muscles – the ‘six pack’. A common way to achieve these objectives is through lots of sit-ups. A body that’s exercised this way, can result in a hard, muscular exterior and a weak core – musculature becomes shortened in the front of the body and lengthened in the back of the body, with a ‘tucked under tail’ to complete the picture. Thus, the ability to move with freedom and ease may be compromised, and in susceptible people, e.g. those with a hypertonic pelvic floor, working the rectus abdominis may trigger Chronic Pelvic Pain symptoms.
I prefer to talk about core support than core strength. The support that I endeavour to teach my students, and arrive at in my own body, involves the organs and a number of spine stabilising muscles interacting with each other in a balanced way. It isn’t ideal when one pair of muscles, or small group of muscles ‘act bossy’, as if they’re in charge. Just as a dictatorship results in imbalance in society, an overactive muscle, or small group of overactive muscles, results in imbalance in the body community. It’s also interesting to consider how the muscles tend to have the ‘loudest voices’ in the body. In order to fully inhabit the body, it’s good to have awareness of ALL the systems in the body community – not just the muscles. For example, we can learn to recruit support for movement from the organs, the bones, ligamentous system, the fluids, endocrine system, nervous system etc.
Our earliest experience of movement is in utero – the expanding and condensing of the cells that’s called cellular breathing. Then from about eight to ten weeks after conception, movement radiating from centre becomes evident. This early movement does not arise through muscles contracting to move bones, rather it is fluid movement organised around a centre – the navel – and supported by the organs. Muscles as agents of movement don’t develop in the foetus until much later – during the last three months in the womb. Navel radiation can be seen in newborn babies and it underlies healthy movement development in infants. Ultimately, navel radiation influences our ability to move with ease and grace as adults.
In the video below, I’m demonstrating fluid, spinal locomotion that’s supported by the digestive tract/organs. I’m replicating an early baby developmental movement pattern that arises before the ability to push with the hands has developed. Can you see how I’m using minimal push from my hands as I come into ‘cobra’? These movements are a good preparation for back-bending asana and also as counterpose afterwards.
In the next video I’m demonstrating some movements that I include in my yoga practice pretty much every day. Feeling the rise and fall of the breath in centre is an important way to begin.
The ‘Janis Roll’ reminds us to move fluidly from the centre. The dancer – Janis Claxton – who taught me this exercise, used to say ‘Imagine your legs are silk pyjama bottoms!’
In a balanced practice it’s good to vary the planes of movement – this is where The Spiral comes in. It also has an enlivening effect.
Starfish is another way of exploring movement from centre. And then it’s fun to seamlessly choreograph all the moves together.
Plank and Forearm Plank are great ways to strengthen the core and upper body in a balanced way.
I love to practise spinal movement as I transition from Downward Facing Dog to Plank and back again.
It’s nice to hang out over a gym ball for a moment, feel the breath in the underside of the body and how it provides a kind of buoyant support for the spine. A gym ball is also a great way to practise the yield and push pattern, and the reach and pull pattern – into the upper limbs and into the lower limbs. Finally – a backbend on the ball a day is essential for my spine!