The ‘core’ is somewhat of an obsession in Western culture at the moment; exercises created with the intention of getting a ‘flat belly fast’, ‘6 pack abs in 6 weeks’ and plenty of other 10 minute YouTube videos that promise instant happiness after 100 crunches a day. The fact is, many traditional ‘core’ exercises like sit-ups and crunches actually weaken the most important part of the core – the pelvic floor – and encourage the lumbar spine to flatten, therefore giving us less support from our spine when we move around. In order to move with more ease and fluidity on and off the mat, it’s useful to know how to access our whole core, and it isn’t in the most obvious way….
There’s a line of connective tissue or ‘fascia’ that runs through the body known as the ‘deep front line’ or ‘deep core line’ (CLICK HERE FOR MORE DETAILED INFORMATION ON THIS). It runs from the inner arches of the feet all the way to the top of the head, passing through the inner legs, pelvic floor, abdomen and spine, around the heart, and either side of the neck. So it’s a little bit more complex than that 6 pack….
Connecting to this deep line of tissue allows us to find strength that stems from the inside-out, helping us to use deeper, stronger muscles rather than compensating with smaller and more superficial ones. Many injuries, aches and pains occur because other muscles compensate by becoming tense and ‘clinging’ on when we could be using our core instead.
There are lots of ways to connect to the core in so many asanas, but to start with, we can explore it in this variation of Virabhadrasana 2 which I teach often in class. We connect to the feet first in order to access the core, and while it doesn’t look like much on the outside, it can make a real difference to your practice just by being aware of how to access the core in this way. A huge benefit of working with awareness of the deep core line is that it allows us to take our focus deeper as we practice. Instead of gazing around the room, our concentration is really taken deep inside, which helps to cultivate the very beginnings of pratyahara, or ‘sense withdrawal’. By moving in unison with the breath and drawing focus inward towards our physical core, we allow ourselves to connect more strongly to our energetic core – that place we head towards in a deep meditation practice, and the whole point of the practice really; to unite with something bigger and more profound than the unnecessary and quite frankly wasteful thoughts we’re usually preoccupied with.
Prepare the body for this variation of virabhadrasana 2:
Begin by lying in savasana, and start to connect with the breath as you become more aware of the deep core line. Inhale from the soles of the feet, and travel through the body to the top of the head – as you exhale, slowly draw your awareness back down to the feet.
After a few minutes, roll onto your side and come up to your hands and knees.
Ease out the spine with a few rounds of cat / cow, as a lot of tension in and around the spine comes from this habit of letting the muscles compensate to hold us up, rather than using the core.
From there, make your way into adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog).
In your downward facing dog, take the feet wide apart – if you’re on a yoga mat then bring them to the outer edges of the mat. Isometrically (without moving them) begin to drag the feet towards each other on the mat, and you’re likely to feel the inner legs and lowest part of the abdomen engage. Maintain the action of the feet, and inhale forwards to plank. As you exhale move back into downward facing dog. Move between the two for a few breaths, as this will start to really wake up the core and give you the sensation we’re working towards in the variation of virabhadrasana 2.
When you next arrive in downward facing dog, walk the feet forwards and slowly roll up to come into Tadasana (mountain pose). Again, become aware of the breath from the feet to the head and back down again before you move through a few rounds of surya namaskar A and B to further warm the body. After 3 to 5 rounds of each, return to Tadasana before moving on….
- From Tadasana, bring the feet wide apart (about a leg length) with the feet parallel
- Turn the [right] foot out to the side 90 degrees, and see if the traditional alignment of having the front heel in-line with the inner arch of the back foot works for you. If it doesn’t seem to work in your body – because after all, one alignment instruction isn’t going to work for all 7.125 billion people on the earth – then explore a different way of standing that does feel good.
- Keep the front knee bent over the front ankle, without splaying to either side – a good measure for lots of people is to ensure you can see the big front toe on the inside of the kneecap to protect the ligaments of the inside of the joint.
- From here, raise the arms either side of the shoulders with the fingers reaching out. Start to cultivate a sense of ‘inward focus’ here already by taking your drishti or gaze over the front middle finger.
- Press the feet down and away from each other first, and practice even lifting the toes off the floor to lift and activate the inner arches of the feet.
- From here, inhale to simultaneously straighten the legs as you reach the palms above the head. As you do this, isometrically drag the feet towards each other on the mat – this really allows that connection to the deep front line to happen, so you may begin to feel the inner legs and lowest part of the belly wake up and engage.
- When the palms are pressing together and you’re at the top of the inhale, begin to exhale and pull the palms slowly down through the center of the body as you bend the front knee back into the position of warrior 2.
- Reach the arms out along-side the shoulders again and repeat a few times, moving with the breath.
- Practicing this alone can become a little like a moving meditation, and is also a great – but rarely taught – way to access the core in different postures.
- Practice this for however long feels good to you, and then step the feet back together into Tadasana. Become aware of the sensations this creates – both physical and energetic – before practicing on the other side of the body.
To counterpose the effects of this asana, come to the floor and practice Baddha Konasana to open out the inner thighs, and sit in a seated meditation position for a few minutes to continue the practice of pratyahara, keeping your awareness on the breath and any subtle sensations.
Having the ability to meditate as we move in a dynamic way allows us to bring a more calm, focussed and present state of mind off the mat with us as we move through the day. Each day becomes an experience rather than a ‘to do’ list….