If you feel unstable or uncomfortable in standing yoga poses and balances, it is possible that your abdominal muscles are not engaging properly. Weak abdominals will fail to hold the trunk steady in static or dynamic yoga poses. As a result, you may feel wobbly and tire quickly. Even if you have done many abdominal workouts, your strong abs may have become too rigid to freely release and contract during movements. This blog shows how using core muscles correctly can improve your stability in yoga poses.
As explained in my previous blog, contracting the abdominal muscles all the time does not make them stronger. These muscles are meant to contract and release with the breath. They are also designed to engage during dynamic activity in such a way that the lower back doesn’t have to overwork. The previous blog dealt with the simple yoga movements that can train the core muscles to naturally support the trunk. Once you have mastered those, try the poses and movements below, to learn how you can use the abdominal muscles and the breath in more challenging asanas.
Using core muscles to improve your stability
This pose is the most efficient abs-strengthener because of the way the abdominals have to stabilise the trunk and hold the body in line against the pull of gravity. It has been proven to be more challenging for the abs than crunches. If the full pose is too daunting for you at the moment, stick to the first two preparatory steps.
-Start on all fours: contract the abdominal muscles strongly while you exhale, and relax them when you breathe in. Notice how this stronger action of the abdominal muscles helps to hold the trunk stable: it prevents the lower back from sinking down. You can also think of tucking the tailbone under if you still feel that your lower back is arching down.
-Place the hands a step forward and bring the shoulders over the wrists. You should now be in a half plank, with the body held straight from the shoulders to the knees. Repeat the breathing and abdominal muscle action as in the last stage.
-Finally, if your arms, wrists and back allow it, raise your knees and place the feet so that the whole body is in one line. Again, exhaling while contracting the abdominal muscles strongly is very important to keep the lower back safe and train the core.
I teach the plank and how to prepare for it in my video series, which you can check out here.
-Start by standing on two feet. Slowly shift the weight over the left foot.
-Place the right foot either below or above the left knee, never against the kneecap.
-Keep the whole left side of the body long, “rooting” or grounding through your foot and lengthening up from the waist. This ensures that you don’t bend into your left hip but that both sides of the body stay elongated.
-Square the two hipbones forward, so the spine is aligned and not twisted.
-Exhale, contract the abdominal muscles gently and feel how that can lengthen the lower back slightly. The breath and the core muscles help to keep the pelvis in the right place, and prevent it from tilting forward or backward too much.
-Keep gently contracting the abdominal muscles when you breathe out, and relaxing them while breathing in.
-Hold for as long as the position is comfortable and repeat with the other leg.
-Place the right foot a good step forward: when you bend the front knee, it does not move beyond the ankle. This is important for the health of the knee.
-For the leg and hip alignment: the front foot is straight while the back foot is at a small angle. The hips are squared forward.
-Bend the front leg, without lifting the back heel.
-Raise both arms while keeping the shoulders relaxed.
-Again, use the breath and the abdominals to hold the pelvis and lower back in a safe place: not tilted forward or backward. This means your lower back is neither arched nor flattened completely. Exhale and gently engage the abs, inhale and relax them. If your lower back is still arched too much or feeling strained, tuck the tailbone slightly.
-Hold for up to a minute and repeat on the other side.
Warrior balance sequence
While the previous poses were meant to teach the abdominals how to keep the trunk stable and the back supported in static poses, this sequence will challenge the abs to assist you in movement.
Unless you feel confident in balances, please practise near a wall or chair to avoid falling.
-Start with 2 feet hip-width apart.
-Inhale and lift the left knee to wherever comfortable and not higher than hip level.
-Exhale, contract the abdominals and move the left leg behind you while pivoting on the right leg. The body and left leg remain in one line, diagonally or horizontally. Practise the diagonal position (as pictured below) first before trying to bring the left leg and body parallel to the floor. Also, don’t allow the leg to move higher than the hips.
-Inhale and return the left leg to the first position.
-Repeat 4 times if comfortable with one leg and then 4x with the other leg.
-If the balance feels comfortable, stay in it for a few breaths, focusing on keeping the spine long and on the same breathing pattern: exhaling to contract the abs and inhaling to release them slightly.
This position is called the warrior balance, or warrior 3. Instead of the classic version with the arms stretched out in front, I prefer the arms to the side for a better balance, and to prevent shoulder tightness.