I have been practicing yoga for nearly twenty years and believed myself to have a fairly good understanding of my body and how it works. Certainly one of the gifts of yoga is an amazing awareness of our physical being that may be developed, and the resulting benefits. Having said that, it was not really until I started practicing Asthanga Vinyasa Yoga that I had any idea what a bandha was or how that related to my core body, and the consequent implications of that awareness.
Augmenting that revelation, I had the opportunity to work with Ana Forrest a couple of years ago and had a huge awakening as to what core strength really could be, and what it wasn’t, in my body, at that time even though I had a dedicated asana practice. Whew, did she ever wake me up!! Needless to say, it was an amazing wake up call because, up to that time I had really only been skirting around deep core awareness with my understanding of bandhas – as limited as it was. Now a few years later I have been practicing with my newfound awareness and developing some techniques of my own and I can honestly say this is some of the most important and profound work you will do, within the context of developing personal strength, core stability, and balanced asanas. Consider, that if you are in one of the two extremes of being either a very flexible body or an intolerably tight one you are not at all using core strength to do any of your work. The bendy body syndrome tends to “hang out” on ligaments which they can do – but over time will cost them; and the inflexible body tends to hold back on ligaments straining due to stiffness, either way there is very little integrity. If both examples were able to back off a little and allow their core body to support them and to be challenged, they would notice a huge measure of improvement in the quality of their practice, and eliminate injury. Let us look at this work and develop from the basics, an understanding of what it means to have “core body awareness”.
1. We will begin this session with establishing what it means to have core body awareness, by first noticing what it means not to have it. Laying on your back you will first need to establish what a natural versus and imprint spine is, as a basis for all of the rest of the work. So, with your knees bent and your feet hip distance apart bring your hands down your sides to your spine, palms down. Slide your hands under your spine right at your natural curve in your lower back. Feel that you naturally have a curve here, as this is the way the spine is built. Next take your hands away and maintain that curve, breathing into your belly and feeling the natural movement of the breath and spine combined. From here we are going to allow for your spine to “imprint” by pressing ideally down into that natural curve. Now here is the catch – most of you will do that by tilting your pelvic floor toward you – posterior tilt of the pelvic floor – you don’t want to do that. Rather, you want to be able to imprint your spine using the intrinsic muscles of your core body, oblique, transverse abdominal, latissimus and a little of the rectus abdominis. You will feel it if you are using your pelvic floor to do this because the muscles of the hip flexors – psoas will tighten, like a clenching of your groin creases. Challenge yourself to keep the movement very small initially, so that you can really access the feeling and the new awareness. Big movements often take us beyond the ability to access the intrinsic muscles and allow for the finer details to present themselves. Ideally over time you will begin to feel your ribs pressing down and the movement of imprinting initiated from there, graphically as if you were pulling down your butterfly ribs.
2. Now with that awareness you may begin to add in some more challenge. Remember it may not be a bad idea to do the first exercise until you feel really confident about it, allow yourself to be a real beginner even if you are an experienced yogi. Then adding more challenge in, we will now take the feet off the mat – so that your lower leg is parallel to the floor and your thighs parallel to the wall in front of you – 90 degree angle at the knee. From there, and here is the clincher, you need to keep the legs in this position as you execute the imprint spine and curl your tail just slightly off the mat. The tail curl is slightly new for the body and you will need to repeat it several times to really get it – especially without the legs moving toward your head. Repeat this several times as you feel more and more connected to your abdominals doing the work – enjoying this new sense of awareness in this vital area of your body. Watch out for the tendency of the workhorses in your body, to want to take over and do the work, such as your head, neck and shoulder muscles.
3. Upping the ante a little, we will now take the legs up toward the ceiling. Ideally they will be straight, however I know there are allot of tight hamstrings out there and for those of you in that category, bend the knees slightly, working towards in both scenarios, the feet parallel to the ceiling above you. Now simply curl the tail, that’s all – without moving the legs toward you. This will be plenty for most of us, and goes a long way to developing a more acute sense of core. Notice again if there is at all tension or activation in the upper body and allow those vigilant muscles to relax.
4. Next we will add in some awareness to the body by placing a rolled up towel or mat between the legs. as far toward the pelvic floor as possible. Once in place squeeze the mat tightly – very tightly and don’t release. Bring your hands behind your head and clasp them, lifting your head now, off the mat. With the head supported in your hands curl the tail, squeeze the mat, and begin to lift your elbows toward the ceiling – inhaling. Exhale back to center and repeat. Again be very mindful that you are not bringing your legs toward you, but that they move straight up while maintaining the squeeze on the mat.
5. For the next cycle you may keep the rolled up mat or towel between your legs or you may remove it. You will be in the same position otherwise. Legs up, feet active, hands behind the head. Inhale the head off the mat curling the tail, exhale the right elbow to the left knee, pushing the feet up and keeping the tail curled, inhale back to center. Other side – exhale the left elbow to the right knee, curl the tail, push up the feet and inhale back to center. Repeat if desired.
6. This next sequence is virtually the same as the previous one except that the knees are bent again at the 90 degree angle. Insure that you maintain that angle throughout and that you avoid the tendency to pull the knees toward you. Again make the movement small at first so you can establish the integrity of the body. Begin the sequence by taking the head off the mat in your clasped hands, with the awareness of the tail curled and the action of the inhale lifting you bring your right elbow to your left knee, exhale back to center. Then repeat taking your left elbow to your right knee, and exhale back to center. Keep in mind that you are striving toward the legs not moving at all to initiate the movement and the tail curl being maintained throughout. Repeat as many times as you are able to maintain the integrity of the movement.
7. In this sequence we will be addressing the transverse abs, as well as the obliques in order to develop the sides of your body, working toward a “keg” rather than just a six pack. Begin with your legs bent feet off the mat, knees at a 90 degree angle. Then you will take your right foot and cross it just over your left knee, leaving the foot right on the knee, draw the left knee/leg down to the right side. This will be a lovely stretch on your outer left hip so enjoy that for a few moments, letting your head go. Then gear yourself up for some fine core work! Lifting your legs off the floor if they made it that far – but just off, no further, as well as your head; on the inhale bring your head up toward your left hip as much as possible moving in a straight line up. Exhale back down – but don’t take the head or the feet onto the floor – just down, and then repeat at least eight times, lifting on the inhale exhaling down. Whew! now you have a sense of the whole network that makes up the barrel or keg of your core body.
8. Relax now, by taking your hands to your bent knees, arms straight right on top of the knee and make little circles with your arms round and round massaging out the lower spine.
There is your ab work and core strength development. Remember if you are pregnant you must steer away from this work altogether, until at least three months after delivery. You will be amazed at the results and next time we will talk about how this relates to moola and uddiyana bandha. Blessings!