How to Get Really, REALLY Strong Abs: Develop Yogic Under-Armor

Jill Miller by Jill Miller | January 31st, 2011 | 7 Comments
topic: Fitness, Yoga

Uddihyana Bandha - Abdominal Vacuum or "Diaphragm Stretch"

Abs are a hot topic. Always. Core strengthening videos and equipment are the number one biggest-selling item in the fitness category year after year. They run the gamut, from core-based exercise genres like Pilates to midnight infomercial Ab machines.

The insatiable market for our “navel gazing” has spurred new science and research about the muscles of the core/spine, and much of the new findings steer us away from the six-pack and towards a more holistic view of the core. Core-conscious pioneers like Dr. Stuart McGill and his “abdominal bracing” methods have helped to evolve core conscientiousness to the next level. His powerful studies suggest we need to involve more trunk muscles to strengthen the core and protect our spines.

Core controversy

Yet still, there seems to be a missing link in all this core commotion. One of the deepest under-armor muscles of the core is often left out of the conversation: the diaphragm. Yogic practices revere this muscle because of its governance over our breath. Let’s take a look at what else it can do, starting with a controversy that my abdominal diaphragm created over at Yoga Journal:

Nauli Kriya - Lateral Abdominal ChurningMore than a decade ago, I was featured in a Yoga Journal Magazine article entitled “Forget 6-Pack Abs.” The article introduced the concept that abdominals need to be flexible in order to be strong and that the breathing muscles, especially the abdominal diaphragm, were a major part of core stability and mobility. Author Fernando Pages Ruiz mentioned the seldom-pictured yogic abdominal arts of Uddihyana Bandha (diaphragm stretch) and Nauli Kriya (lateral abdominal churning). Happily for me, my diaphragm and abdomen absolutely loved practicing these internal abdominal moves and I landed my first modeling gig!

The images were so startling and bizarre that one reader wrote a letter to the editor the following month claiming that the magazine must have digitally altered my core, as the images seemed “strikingly unrealistic.” The magazine made a statement that the images were not digitally enhanced, and my gracious teacher at the time, Ana Forrest (who dazzles with her internal abdominal abilities), also wrote in to “defend” the  authenticity of my abdominals.

Core confusion

When viewing Nauli or Uddihyana Bandha for the first time, the mind is totally confused by the seeming “disappearance” of the “normal appearance” of the core. Typically we see the shape of the outside of the body, and these under armor practices illuminate the feelings, motions and activations of the inside. They require the ability to control the abdominal diaphragm not only as a breathing muscle, but also as a structural muscle of the body. No easy feat!

Diaphragm

The diaphragm attaches to the lower six ribs, lumbar spine and heart. Image courtesy of Harijot Khalsa.

Mobilizing and awakening the abdominal diaphragm is vital because it is so central to the whole body.  The majority of the dome-shaped muscle attaches to the lower six ribs like a giant internal parachute. Its bottom strands attach to the front of the low-back spine and the psoas and quadratus lumborum muscles (spinal stabilizers). The top of the diaphragm is literally a seat for the sack of connective tissue around the heart.

Breathing affects the shape and tone of the core because the diaphragm is directly adhered to many abdominal muscles and its organs. When breathing in deeply, the diaphragm contracts and the abdominal muscles and visceral contents balloon out. When breathing out, the diaphragm relaxes and stretches back up toward the lungs, and the gut balloon deflates. Typically we are unaware of this process, as breath is an automatic function in the body. But we also have the ability to consciously control the breath and to create breathing patterns that impact the nervous system and the structural health of the under-armor — this innermost abdominal layer.

Core commitment

Carefully crafted diaphragm work is not nearly as well known as other core-centric models. But when skillfully applied to work along with the abdominal and spinal muscles that Dr. McGill and others champion, the core is phenomenally integrated. These yogic practices help us to find the internal connections between the diaphragm and all of the muscles of the core, an important consideration when trying to rehabilitate the spine. Develop the stretch, strength and continuities of the diaphragm to its full potential and your core will be more powerful than ever!

Go on an archaeological dig beyond the 6-pack to find and locate your own under-armor and innermost abdominal diaphragm. Feel for yourself how much more interconnected you become to your own core.

Yogic under-armor: Uddihyana Bandha in 3 easy steps

1. Begin in Ardha Savasana (half-corpse pose) with both feet planted on the floor about 18 inches away from the buttocks. Raise the arms overhead as you slowly inhale pulling the spine off the floor, bone by bone. The inhale ends when the hips are lifted as high as possible and the back of the arms contact the floor.

2. Remain here during an explosive rapid exhalation, keep the lungs vacant of any breath whatsoever, and release any abdominal tension. Leave the arms resting overhead on the ground, and slowly lower the spine back down into Ardha Savasana, allowing the plunger-like suction to form at the base of the lungs as the diaphragm is drawn towards its vacuum. Uddihyana Bandha forms quite naturally without any strain.

3. Once the pelvis touches down, the arms quickly reset themselves to Step #1, and a new cycle of inhalation begins.

For more “under-armor” explorations, check out my classic Core Integration video. Or come to any of my Yoga Tune Up® Core workshops and I’ll help in person!

Comments

  1. As a novice YTU teacher, I find that most students do not know how to breathe at all. These students are not yoga novices either. This knowledge was a real awakening for me and I am still practicing Uddihyana Bandha, and contracting the entire core (tubulerizing) while breathing and talking.
    It has been a real challenge but I am chipping away bit by bit to educate my students and myself thanks to Jill.

    Susan McGurn | February 1st, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  2. This was a very good introductory article on the importance of the diaphragm and breathing deeply. Uddihyana Bandha was explained using a simple to follow method that works for most of my students. Diaphragm health and Pranayama exercises are especially critical for yoga practitioners over the age of about 28ish, probably more important than asana. Thank you Jill.

    Anna Spanopoulos | February 1st, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  3. Uddihyana Bandha – I think it is such a fun thing to say that I will teach this just for the fun of saying uddihyana bandha. And, as a side benefit I’ll get that really strong core. Its my weakest part – maybe I’ll even get some better balance poses. I’m enjoying reading your blog too.

    Lynnie G | February 4th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  4. I did sit up’s every day for years in the hope that I would develop a six pack. But all that happened was that my ad muscles became strong but there was no visual difference. It was only after I started burning overall body fat from cardio that I gave started to see results. This article is very useful for me though because of the effect this technique might have on the diaphragm. I have been using a regular party balloons daily – where I just blow up the balloon a few times in order to strengthen my diaphragm – but I will try this technique now that I know about it and see how it helps me. Thanks for this.

    Fitness Rebounder | February 11th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  5. That`s brilliant. you can actually feel the burn just by sucking in your tummy for a few seconds.
    good stuff.

    Bikram Miami | April 28th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  6. some of these people look really skinny

    soph | December 10th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  7. My future will most certainly include studying the many layers of the abdominal cavity. It’s a tiny bit (sarcasm) more complicated than I historically thought it was.

    laurelyoga | April 25th, 2012 | Comment Permalink

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