It takes some ingenuity to find exercises that can strengthen core muscles when you have neck pain. The traditional abdominal crunches, where you interlace the fingers behind the head to lift the head and shoulders, are often out of the question. Not being able to do abdominal exercises can be frustrating, especially if you have lower back pain, because these muscles are instrumental in keeping the lower back healthy. This blog presents two ways of working core muscles while leaving your head relaxed on the mat. I realise that these movements are not strictly yoga. However, doing the exercises with full attention makes them more ‘yogic’ than a headstand in which the performer is distracted and trying to outdo the yogi next to him or her. It is the attention that counts.
The oblique abdominals are often overlooked. Running diagonally on the side and front of the abdomen, they assist with forced exhalations or sucking in the abdomen, and with flexion and rotation, as in side bending and twisting movements.
Doing the traditional sideways crunches as described in this previous blog can efficiently strengthen the obliques. Alternatively, and especially if you have neck pain, you can keep your upper body on the floor and strengthen the oblique abdominals by moving the hips and legs. As demonstrated in this video:
-Lie on your back with the legs bent and arms out to the side.
-Bring knees and feet together.
-Move the knees halfway to the right while looking over to the left. It is important to find the right height, where it feels like an effort for the abdomen to keep the legs hovering just off the ground.
-Stay in this position for a few breaths.
-Exhale and move your knees back to the centre.
-With the next exhalation move the knees to the other side. Hover the knees halfway down while breathing slowly a few times.
-Repeat this a few times to each side until the abdominal muscles feel tired.
These legs lifts are fantastic if you have neck or lower back pain. They involve the inner hip flexors, the iliopsoas, and the rectus abdominis. The latter are the paired muscles that run lengthwise between the pubic bone and sternum.
-Lie on your back with the left leg bent, quite close to the body, and the right leg straight on the mat.
-Push down well on the left foot; this helps to keep the pelvis and lower back stable.
-Inhale and lift the right leg to the height of the left knee.
-Exhale and lower the right leg. When this exercise has become familiar, you can leave the foot an inch off the floor before lifting it up again. This makes it slightly harder.
-Repeat a comfortable number of times with each leg.
As always, don’t jump up after doing the movements: stay on your back for a few minutes with the legs bent. Notice how your body feels and listen to your breath.
You can find more abdominal exercises in my video series. These five 15-minute videos are especially designed for those who would like to do gentle but effective core strengthening.