In more than a decade as a yoga instructor, I’ve noticed that yogis are often super strong in the arms and legs, but the core? Not so much.
Using mostly external strength in our poses doesn’t give us the full range of benefits. It puts too much strain on the hips, lower back, joints, shoulders, neck — common areas of tension already. When you access your core power, it the pressure off of injury-prone places, builds heat, burns more calories, strengthens you incredibly in all your poses, and helps you get more resilient than ever.
And the buck doesn’t stop with gaining toned abs: The holistic strength and possibility we build on the mat will tune up your mental focus and our emotional stamina as well. How good we are at reaching out in times of stress — for comfort food, for a friend’s advice, or even coping mechanisms that might not be as healthy. But have we mastered the art of running headlong into drama, then immediately connecting inward, to take our own sage counsel and trust what we hear? Core Strength Vinyasa Yoga asks you to practice Brahmacharya: Hug in, to contain your energy, and hone your movements so they help you to get where you really want to go, and don’t dissipate your life force. This will teach you to give out both in your asanas and in your relationships … without burning out.
Do the exercises below as a great core warm-up for your regular routine, or insert them into it anywhere along the way. You can also try it after my Core Sun Salutations for a comprehensive workout.
You’ll feel the burn for sure, but you’ll also learn how to get through life’s intensity with focus and grace.
Instructor’s note: during all of these poses, it’s important to activate Mula Bandha, the root lift. To do this, gently activate your PC muscles as if you’re waiting to use the restroom. This not only helps you tone the lower abdominals, the area one of my students calls “the food-storage place,” it helps you breathe fully, detoxes you, and builds much more heat in the poses.
Breathe Ujjayi-style — deeply through the nose — throughout.
Come into your easy seat, hang onto the knees. Inhale, and arch the spine. Exhale, round in, chin to chest. On the inhales, lift your heart higher and draw shoulder blades closer. Keep your back neck open and long. On the exhales, pull the navel to spine and stretch your arms away from the body, shoulder blades move apart.
Repeat for one minute or longer; one breath each move.
SEATED FISTS OF FIRE
Continuing Cat/Cow, begin to reach your arms up on the inhales and pull them into fists by the side hips on the exhales. Lean back a little farther and lift the knees, and maybe even feet as you exhale more into your core power.
Repeat for one minute or longer; one breath each move.
CROSSED BOAT PULSES
Lift your crossed ankles up to knee height, shins parallel the floor. Hang on behind your knees if you’re building strength or reach out in front of you, hands close, palms facing up. Inhales lengthen your legs away from you, exhales draw them back in from the strength of your navel. Be sure to exhale more fully than you think, pressing out all the air and contracting the navel area. Keep your heart lifted, curve into the lower back naturally.
Do 5-10 pulses; one breath each movement.
JUMP TO CORE PLANKS
On your last exhale, from Crossed Boat Pulses, rock forward, plant the hands at the front of the mat, and step or hop back into plank pose. Press back into Downward-facing Dog, and lift the right leg high. Exhale and curl your knee to chest, shoulders over wrists for Core Plank. Round the back up, lift your front knee, thighs and hips higher to access your deepest center.
Repeat 3 times, then return to Down Dog and switch to the left leg. Repeat sequence 1-3 times.
JUMP TO ONE HIP TWIST
From Dog Pose, walk your feet together, inhale to bend the knees, and on your exhale, using your navel lift, hop lightly forward and come to sit in the middle of your mat. Return to Navasana, Boat pose, this time with feet together.
Place your fingertips behind your hips, facing forward or try to balance with hands at the chest, palms pressing. Inhale, lengthen legs away a little or a lot, and on the first exhale, lift your right hip completely off the floor. Twist your chest, right shoulder and head to the right. Inhale to center, and repeat to the left. Keep your spine long, and curve into the lower back for support.
Repeat 5 times on each side or more.
Come back to center, and inhale, reach your arms overhead. Maintaining your legs in the same parallel position as Boat Pose exhale, and curl your tailbone, rounding down to the floor, shoulder blades still lifted. Inhale, and reach overhead here, and exhale, rock a little to come back up into Boat Pose. Hang onto the knees during that transition if necessary.
Repeat the sequence 3-5 times or more.
LOW SCISSOR BOAT
On your last roll down to the floor from Waterfall Boat, remain down with shoulder blades lifted, and interlace your fingers behind your head. Try not to yank your head forward, but keep the chin lifted, and work with the navel instead. Inhale at center, and exhale, twist your left elbow to the right knee. Repeat on the left side. Leave your feet on the floor, or for more challenge, keep them lifted too.
Repeat 3-5 times on each side.
From your last Scissor Boat, inhale to center, rest your head and shoulders on the floor, and place your palms on the floor to either side of your hips. In one smooth motion, exhale, draw knees into chest, and kick your legs straight up into the air. This actions should lift your hips but not put pressure on your head or neck. Inhale, draw knees into chest and lengthen legs away from you at a 45 degree angle or whatever’s comfortable for your lower back. Exhale, and kick up.
Repeat sequence 5-10 times.
After your last Root Lift, lie on your back, reach overhead and inhale as you take a huge, delicious full body stretch. On your exhale, draw the knees into your chest and roll circles into your lower back.
Alternate the Core Stretch with knees to chest 3 times, then rest in Final Resting Pose or continue your regular yoga practice!