Yoga is a great total body workout. It lengthens and strengthens your muscles, works your core, and in certain practices, can be a great cardiovascular workout. While you may not find a class that is specifically yoga for your core, almost all asanas are core-strengthening exercises. From standing postures to inversions, to balance work, yoga poses engage the core to build abdominal strength and stability. As stated by Beth Shaw, the founder of YogaFit, “Yoga conditions the abdominal region for movement and stability and, more than anything, for balance and strength.”
Muscles of the Abdomen
It is important that we understand what muscles make up our core before we can appreciate how yoga works our core.
- Rectus abdominis – commonly known as your six-pack, the rectus abdominis is the most visible part of your core. The rectus abdominis begins at the pubic bone and ends at the sternum and is responsible for flexing the torso and the spine.
- Transverse abdominis – this is a deep muscle that wraps horizontally around the lower torso, from the back to the front of the body, similar to a cummerbund. The transverse abdominis supports your internal organs and lumbar spine and works to stabilize the torso.
- External Oblique – one of the largest muscles of the trunk, the external oblique resides on both sides of your body and is one of the outermost abdominal muscles. This muscle spans from the lower part of the ribs, around the front of the body, and down to the pelvis. The external oblique helps rotate the trunk and supports the spine in rotation.
- Internal Oblique – located beneath the external oblique, this muscle starts near the lumbar spine on the back of the body and ends near the lower front of the pelvis. With the help from other abdominal muscles, the internal oblique rotates and turns the trunk.
When your yoga teacher mentions your core during class, it is likely that he or she is referring to your bandhas. Bandhas are energetic locks that stimulate nerve conduction. The bandhas build energy and engaging them during asanas will help you focus on balance and stability. In yoga, we focus on three main bandhas, with the fourth bandha engaging all three. When we work our core in yoga, we focus on two of three bandhas. Clearly, yoga works your core!
Mula Bandha is a root lock that contracts the muscles of the pelvic floor. Uddiyana Bandha is the stomach lock and is located between your pelvic floor and your diaphragm. When your yoga teacher tells you to engage your core, he or she wants you to activate these bandhas. Sending energy and activation to Mula Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha will engage all muscles of the abdomen, as mentioned above. Additionally, when these bandhas are engaged, you will notice your “tailbone tucking in” and “your ribs lifting up,” two common terms heard from yoga teachers.
Yoga for Your Core
Regardless of the type of yoga practice you prefer, it is almost guaranteed that your postures will involve core-strengthening exercises. The lifting and lowering of your legs in inversions engage the abdomen. Seated twists work the internal and external oblique muscles as they lift and rotate the torso. Even standing poses that engage the side body or require balance will work all muscles of the abdomen to focus on strength and stability.
The diversity of yoga asanas offers many core-centric poses. If you want to fire up your practice with some intense core strengthening expercises and bandha activation, try these asanas from Yoga Journal:
- Vasisthasana (Side Plank Pose) – works your side body, specifically your oblique muscles. Try lifting your top leg to work on balance and further engage your oblique muscles.
- Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose) – works the transverse abdominis and the oblique muscles by stabilizing the torso and spine
- Paripurna Navasana (Boat Pose) – targets the rectus abdominis and works the spine and hip flexors
- Ardha Pincha Mayurasana (Dolphin Pose) – works all muscles of the abdomen, especially as you move back and forth in the pose, also targets the shoulder girdle
- Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III) – this balancing pose works all muscles of the abdomen
- Phalakasana (Plank Pose) – engaging all parts of your core, plank pose and all of its variations are great to build core stability and strength
- Bakasana (Crow Pose) – engages all parts of the core to lift your hips and help you balance
- Salabhasana (Locust Pose) – a wonderful counter pose to those focused solely on the core, locust pose strengthens the muscles around the spine and opens the chest