Tag Archives: #head2toeyoga

Yoga Poses for the Core

It’s the beginning of a new week & a new theme! This week I’m focusing on the core in my classes. This is the fourth week in my Yoga from Head to Toe series this summer. Each week I’m zooming in on one section of the body, and exploring how it works in yoga, how we can strengthen it and stretch it, and how it works anatomically. In this post I’m going over a few yoga postures that use the core.

Hint: It’s almost all of them. From standing postures to balancing poses to belly-down spine strengtheners, the band of muscles wrapping around your midsection are used in almost every yoga pose. That makes sense since these muscles help us stabilize. Their position in between the legs and the torso makes them perfectly suited to coordinate what the top and bottom halves of the body are doing. Some core muscles help us twist; others lift the hip bones for an anterior tilt in the pelvis; still others help lift the tailbone for an anterior tilt.

Now obviously you’re not using your core much in a restorative-style class, when the point is to relax every muscle. But even then there are core muscles engaged in breathing. Here are a few more functions the core muscles serve for us:

  • Postural support (BTW a strong core is a good way to avoid sitting pain & injuries)
  • Protection for the internal organs
  • To facilitate coughing, waste release, singing, vomiting, and childbirth, as well as breathing.

How are these muscles situated in the body? Well, we’ll get more into the anatomy in an upcoming post, but for now I will say that the muscles are strong in the same way that plywood is strong. In plywood, the fibers of wood are situated facing multiple directions. This makes the whole structure stronger. Similarly, our core muscles run different directions for added strength. The external obliques run down and forward along the front of the body; the internal obliques are situated upward and forward; and the transverse abs run side-to-side. This gives us strength and grace no matter which direction we move.

I would also emphasize that the core muscles are not just on the front of the body. Think of them as a band of muscles running all the way around your middle, like a corset.

Here are a few yoga postures that can help build a strong core:

Boat pose
Plank / Side Plank / Reverse Plank
Arm Balances – crow, hurdler’s pose, etc.
Inversions – headstand, handstand, etc.
Reverse tabletop

Yoga breathing exercises such as Ujjayi breath can also improve abdominal strength and finesse. In my classes this week I will also be focusing on activating the bandhas (energetic locks) for protection & increased core strength.

Yoga student in plank posture

Bright Yoga student John M. showing off his plank pose

<Top photo: Beth Phillips
Second photo: John Mermin>

What Keeps You Grounded? The First Chakra, the Lower Body, and Feeling Steady

By Chung Ho Leung on FlickrStand your ground. Stand on your own two feet. Pull yourself up by the bootstraps. As I teach yoga for the knees and calves this week, sayings about the lower body have been traipsing through my thoughts. Such idioms reveal thought patterns in our culture–we use them as shorthand for commonly accepted wisdom. And they also align with with yoga has to teach about the energetic map of the body.

Here’s where I dive into that concept that so many Americans associate with the stereotypical hippie-dippie yogi: Chakras. The chakras are energy centers in the body. Prana (energy) tends to either rush too fast through a chakra, or it might get stuck at a chakra. There are seven chakras in most yoga systems. (Some see only 6 chakras, while Kundalini Yoga teaches 10 light bodies/chakras, I believe.) You can envision the chakras as highway interchanges, where traffic jams tend to occur (a deficient/blocked chakra) or where people tend to speed through too fast (an excessive chakra). Each chakra has its own color, mantra, foods, and developmental theme.

The first chakra, also called the root chakra, is associated with the feet, legs, and elimination organs, particularly the colon). Its color is red, its seed mantra is LAM, and I believe its food is protein. One psychological dilemna this chakra poses is scarcity vs. abundance. Do we trust that the universe will provide what we need to reach our highest potential, or do we constantly worry about having enough?

An additional consideration in this chakra is stability–what helps us feel rooted, stable, and at home in the world? As a sensitive person who has battled depression, I have spent the last decade or so (ah ha, about the amount of time I’ve practiced yoga) practicing letting go of habits that make me feel unstable (smoking, heavy drinking, self-criticism) and inviting in people and actions that bring me self-confidence and strength (training for athletic events, smoothies, positive affirmations). These are the ingredients I need to stay centered, and to have the energy to pursue my dreams.

And so as I teach toward the legs, the roots of the body, I ask you to consider what acts as a strong foundation in your life. Here are my personal practices for feeling grounded:
1) Cardio. Swimming, running, biking, etc. Right now I am training for a triathlon, so I am definitely getting my daily cardio quotient.
2) Sadhana. Sadhana is a personal spiritual practice. For me it often includes yoga, meditation, self-massage, and affirmations.
3) Food. This seems like a big “duh!”–obviously every human needs food. But you can ask my family & friends, I get really hangry without consistent food. I am like a hummingbird (or a cow)–I need to munch almost constantly to feel good.
4) Writing time. This is the newest item on the list, and the most exciting for me. I am committing to a daily creative writing practice.

What do you need to feel steady in this world? Let the answers come to you this week, as you’re washing dishes, driving, or taking a shower–times when your mind is relaxed and uncritical. Then find ways to include these foundational first chakra boosters in your week, and do them every day if you can. It’s not always possible to hit all four of my foundational practices every day. But I do aim toward that goal, knowing that when I give myself what I need for stability, I have more peace and joy to give to others.

<photo: Chung Ho Leung>



Knee Self-Massage techniques, and Why I Practice Self-Massage

As I promised my lunchtime West Side Athletic Class, here’s the video on how to do self-massage for the knees. If the video is too slow, it may work better to watch it directly on YouTube. I’ve been practicing yoga for about eight years now, and the longer that I do it, the more I find myself adding self-massage to my self-care routine. I am also an athlete (right now I’m training for a triathlon!) and I find that massage is an excellent add-on to my yoga practice. I especially like incorporating self-massage into my evening practice of meditation and yoga. As someone who has struggled with depression, anxiety, and periods of self-loathing, I appreciate how massage can help me feel more aware of, connected to, and kind toward my body.