Yoga can help you accept your body’s changes and embrace the blemishes, lines, and some extra flesh. But long before you tackle your physical core, take a moment to become aware of your internal core. It begins with the total acceptance of our bodies; they are perfect and beautiful exactly as they are in their current shape. We don’t need to change anything.
However, we can move through some exercises to maintain and develop more strength to support our bodies as we grow older. Developing and maintaining core strength helps with postural alignment and greater ease with movement. Have you seen yogis who look like they’re floating in air regardless of their weight? This is core strength. They’re moving from a place of bandha-centered awareness and balancing the forces of effort and ease. I’m not interested in having a “six pack” unless we’re talking about beer. I am interested however in more energy, strength and good alignment.
Bandhas are energetic locks located at different areas of the body. The two primary Bandhas are Mula bandha and Uddiyana bandha. Mula bandha lies within the pelvis and the pelvic floor muscles. In women, the sensation of Mula bandha is a slight contraction, or upward lift, of the vagina. In men, it’s the sensation of lifting your scrotum. Uddiyana bandha is located about three inches below the navel. Move your awareness there and slightly lift the lower belly towards your spine. This is Uddiyana bandha.
During your yoga practice, stabilize the core by engaging Mula bandha, Uddiyana bandha, and the transverse abdominals, which are the deep muscles of the abdomen. You can practice the below poses in sequential order a few times per week or try one exercise at a time.
Begin in Samasthiti with the feet either together or hip-distance apart. Root yourself down through all three corners of your feet. Use the energy of the earth to lift the muscles in your legs, inner thighs, and engage Mula bandha and uddiyana bandha as you lengthen your tailbone down. Lift your chest and soften the neck and shoulders. Grow taller and longer all the way to the crown of your head. Take a few deep cycles of breath honoring your body and the practice.
Makara Adho Mukha Svanasana (Dolphin Plank)
To move into dolphin plank, start in Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward facing dog) and lower your knees down to the earth to set up. Place your forearms down on your mat, parallel to each other with your palms facing down, and fingers spread. Make sure your elbows are shoulder distance apart.
Press your hands, forearms, and elbows down and keep your shoulder blades firm on your back. Spread your collarbone away from your sternum and keep your neck long. Lift your knees off the floor by engaging your quadriceps, and step your feet back until your shoulders are right on top of your elbows. If this is too intense, lower your knees.
Keep the Bandhas engaged as you lengthen your tailbone down, while directing your pubic bone slightly towards your navel. Reach the crown of your head towards the wall. There is a tendency to let go of the abdominals, so make sure they’re engaged and your lower back is not excessively arching. Breathe. Stay for about 30 seconds to a minute. Lower your knees down on your exhale and pause. Repeat or try the next variation.
Makara Adho Mukha Svanasana to Uttihita Chaturanga Dandasana (Dolphin Plank to High Plank)
(For more instruction on plank pose, read below to “High Plank Pose with Knees Down”)
Start in Makara Adho Mukha Svanasana (dolphin plank pose). If the first variation was challenging, stick to that option before moving on. Either with your knees on the floor or lifted, inhale and place one hand onto the mat underneath your shoulder and then the other.
Exhale and lower your forearms back down onto the earth one at a time. Repeat and alternate hands. Cycle through this exercise for about 30 seconds to a minute. Rest in child’s pose.
Navasana (Boat Pose)
Start in Dandasana (seated-staff pose) with the legs extended in front of you. Lean back as you bend your knees, placing your feet flat onto the floor. Sit on your tailbone and two sitting bones. Keep your lower abdominals lifted and drawn in towards the spine.
Extend your arms so they are parallel to the floor and lift your chest. Take a few breaths here with the feet on the floor. If you would like more of a challenge, lift your feet and keep the shins parallel to the floor. Make sure your abdominals are engaged. Engage your adductor muscles by keeping the knees together. If you would like more of a challenge, extend your legs, taking care to notice if you lose the connection to your core when doing so.
Keep the knees together and lift your heart. Spread your collarbone and draw the shoulder blades down onto your back. Hold for five breaths and lower the feet down. Rest and repeat or try the next variation.
Navasana to Ardha Navāsana (Half Boat)
Start in Navasana (boat pose) with either the feet on the floor or lifted. Keeping your abdominals engaged, draw your pubic bone closer towards your navel and round the lower back.
Slowly roll down onto the lumbar spine, keeping the navel pulled in towards the spine. Soften your neck a bit and gaze up towards the sky, keeping the chest lifted and collarbone spread. Take three breaths in half boat and inhale to come back to full boat pose. Make sure to use core strength to bring you back up rather than momentum. Hold for another three breaths. Rest by bringing your weight back onto your two sitting bones. Repeat.
Uttihita Chaturanga Dandasana with Knees Down
Start in Uttihita Chaturanga Dandasana (high plank pose) with the knees on the floor and make sure your entire body is engaged. Your hands should be placed shoulder distance apart or slightly wider. Spread your fingers and engage the fingertips as if you were holding a basketball in each hand. The creases of your wrists should be somewhat parallel to the short length of the mat.
Make sure to distribute your weight equally through your palms and fingers. Keep your elbows slightly bent to avoid hyperextension. Your collarbone is spread and your shoulder blades are drawn in slightly towards each other. Keep your neck long as you gaze about a foot in front of your hands. Lift your lower belly toward the spine and notice if there’s excessive arching in your lower back. If so, lengthen your tailbone down as you draw your pubic bone slightly towards your navel. Keep the abdominals engaged. If this is too challenging—and it is—stay here and breathe for 30 seconds to a minute. Rest in child’s pose and repeat.
Uttihita Chaturanga Dandasana to Crow Prep
Start in Uttihita Chaturanga Dandasana (high plank pose) with your knees on the mat. Keeping your torso engaged, extend one leg back at a time, lifting the knees and pressing the balls of your feet into the earth. Your body should look similar to a plank from the crown of your head towards your heels with very little arching in the lower back. Engage your legs by pressing the thigh bones up and lengthening your tailbone down. Press your heels back as if you were pressing them into a wall behind you.
Keeping the Bandhas and the abdominals lifted, lift your right leg and draw your right knee in towards your right tricep and step it back into plank. Switch, bringing your left knee in towards your left tricep. Keep breathing deeply and start to move a little faster, switching from one knee to the other. Flow for about 30 seconds to a minute and rest in downward-facing dog or child’s pose.
For your second set, engage the obliques a bit more. Come back into high plank pose and instead of bringing your right knee towards your right tricep, bring the right knee towards the left tricep. Extend your right leg back to plank pose and switch sides. Keep switching and pick up the pace for another 30 seconds to a minute. Rest in downward-facing dog or child’s pose.