If you are one of the many people who think that yoga only increases flexibility, then please read this blog! Many yoga poses increase strength, and indeed one of the physical aims of an all-round yoga practice is to both relax and strengthen the body.
In my yoga sessions I often include non-yoga movements to target the different sets of abdominal muscles, adapted so they are safe for the back. In this blog I look at actual yoga poses that strengthen these important muscles. One of these poses has even been proven to be more effective than sit-ups…
Our abdominal muscles form a core of strength around which movement can occur. They are crucial in stabilizing the trunk and especially the spine during all movements. More specifically, the abs contract to hold the pelvis and ribs together while we move our arms and legs. If they are weak, the spinal muscles have to do overwork. So if you would like to keep your back free of pain, please read on!
Breathing out while contracting the abs more strongly.
To have strong abdominal muscles does not mean that you have a rock hard and flat abdomen: strong muscles must be able to contract and release. Chronically held muscles are not strong but tight and therefore weak. We can best practise the actions of contracting and releasing the abdominal muscles with a breathing exercise. It is easiest to learn this breathing while lying down on the back with the knees bent. Once you are sure you have mastered both contracting and releasing, you can do this breathing while sitting, for example in the car at a red light or in the dentist waiting room!
Lie on your back in a comfortable position with your legs bent, feet hip-width apart. If your neck feels tight and your chin points up to the ceiling, use a cushion under the head to lengthen the back of your neck. As you breathe out, slowly contract your abdominal muscles, bringing the navel towards the spine. Inhale and release the muscular effort completely. Start with just a few repetitions and work up to doing this “exaggerated breathing” for about a minute or 2, slowly and consciously.
Pelvic tilt and clock
Lie on your back with the knees bent, feet parallel on the floor and hip-width apart. Notice there is a little bit of space between the waist and the floor. Press this part of the back on the floor with your exhalation. Inhale and release again. Repeat this movement in coordination with your breathing for about a minute.
When the previous movement feels familiar, add the following:
Change the tilting of the pelvis to a circular movement by shifting the weight around the edge of the sacrum (the lowest part of the back). This movement is called the pelvic clock, because it may help to imagine a clock on the sacrum, with 12 at the top near the small of the back and 6 near the tailbone. In the previous exercise you shifted between 12 to 6. In this movement you shift the weight around all the numbers.
These two movements are very important to train the abdominals (and hip flexors) how to engage without involving an effort by the back muscles. The pelvic tilt and clock can also relieve tension in the lower back.
Lie on your back with the legs bent towards the chest. Open the arms to the side. Exhale and lower the legs slowly to the right, while turning the head to the left. Inhale and slowly lift the legs to the centre. The slower you work, the harder the oblique abdominal muscles have to control the movement. They stabilise the trunk as the legs are moving down to the floor, and then they help lift the legs to come back to the starting position. Repeat this movement several times to each side. Avoid this exercise if you have recently had a herniated disc or if you experience pain with this exercise.
This position that has been found to be more efficient for abdominal strengthening than push-ups: while the body is in one line and the arms straight, the abdominals have to contract strongly to stabilize the trunk against the pull of gravity.
Place your body in one line, suspended between straight arms and feet, the shoulders are above the wrists. If this is too hard then try the same but with the knees on the floor. For the correct alignment it may be helpful to have a large mirror on one side. It is crucial to keep the body in one line from heels (or knees in the variation) to the head. If you feel that the lower back is hanging down or you can see this in the mirror, lift up from the hips to form a straight line and try tucking the tailbone a little (think of a frightened dog tucking its tail under). This action will engage the abdominals, which will then do a better job supporting the lower back in this pose. To further train the abdominals add the following breathing pattern: exhale and contract the abdominals up towards the spine, release them with the inhalation.
Do let me know how you get on and leave a comment below.
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