Okay, so we all know we need to work on this thing called the “core” we keep hearing about. We know it’s good for the lower back, the digestive system, and we all want little teeny tiny bellies.
But the way many of us have come to understand the core in the fitness world is not really, well, right, in my humble opinion!
We think we are supposed to have these hard, small stomachs, and we don’t want to think about the shame and unresolved crap (literally and figuratively) that we carry in there, so we are always holding the belly in. We carry low levels of tension in the pelvic floor, the psoas, and the low back like we are waiting for someone to punch us in the gut any moment. We think this will make us stronger, tougher, less full of crap. In fact, the opposite is true: the Buddha is often shown with a big belly because he was so full with love and abundance, because he had so much to share with the world. The belly is a wealth of intelligence, strength, and bullshit-detecting superpowers, but in order to find that, you have to pay attention, and you have to let go. You can’t strengthen tense muscles.
One of the things I’ve discovered through teaching Core yoga classes is that true core strength, real, strong, supple muscular power, comes from not clenching the muscles of the stomach, but connecting the body from the centre right out to the fingertips, toe tips, and the roof of the mouth. When your toes are a part of the team, you can really balance a lot better than when your standing leg is trying to do all the work.
And there is a (really cool) anatomical reason for this. Tom Myers is a leader in the study of Anatomy Trains, which essentially means there are lines of muscles and fascia in the body that connect from top to bottom, and when activated, the whole body comminucates better, so movement is more balanced, safer, stronger, and actually, yes, easier.
The other day, I was in a workshop on Tensegrity, the practice that helps activate these areas, led by Flow YYoga studio director Kelly Colleen. I saw this (pretty gross, really cool) anatomy video in which the anatomist removed one of these trains–the Deep Core Line–from a cadaver, poked and prodded it and showed it off, and then put it back into the cadaver again. It’s so complete, so whole as a unit, that you can take it out and put it back in again. Gross and cool, right?
The Deep Core Line really is a continuous, whole, connected unit: it begins in the toe flexors and arches, moves through the deep inner shins, the back of the knee, inner thighs, into the pelvic floor and psoas, right through the diaphragm, up into the throat and the back of the skull, and ends in the tongue. The tongue!
So when we do core abdominal exercises, we are stimulating the centre of the centre, the core of the core–which, for me, always starts in the pelvic floor, or Mula Bandha in Sanskrit. Bandhas are often translated as “locks,” but I prefer the metaphor of a valve, pumping energy up into the body from below. They slip perfectly into this theory: in order to activate the deep core line, we need the toes (Pada Bandha), the inner thighs and pelvic diaphragm (Mula Bandha) the breath/diaphragm/upper abdominals (Uddiyana Bandha), out into the hands (Hasta Bandha), and the tongue, which rests at the roof of the mouth behind the two front teeth (Jalandhara Bandha). They key is radiating engagement from the centre out to the fingertips and toetips so that we are connected and strong, not constantly waiting for that sucker punch.
Here’s an example of a Tensegrity excercise that blew my mind. I’ve been teaching it all week, and two of my students separately told me that it transformed their ability to approach Crow and Headstand. Lie on your back and rest your head in your interlaced hands (yes, rest–feel your throat soften). Shoulderblades are just slightly off the floor. Take your shins to parallel with the ground, knees connected, toes softly activated. Breathe into your belly. (Yes, breathe. Into your belly.) Inhale, and move your knees just a little bit beyond your hips. It’s okay if your lower back lifts up a little bit. Exhale and curl your whole spine up like a pillbug–not just your legs, but the whole spine. It doesn’t have to be a huge movement. Repeat 20 times–remain relaxed, and breathe into your belly. You can’t help but find your Transverse Abdoiminis here, one of your deepest core muscles, because you are telling the more superficial muscles to relax. If you start shaking, good, you are in the right spot!
Kelly was talking about all this within the context of a style called Vijnana yoga and the concept of Tensegrity (see also, in Vancouver, Chris Clancy and Tracy Groshak). Essentially, when movement is balanced and connected, we can do the most complicated yoga postures with ease and sweetness, or sukha in Sanskrit.
And if we can do this with our bodies, think about the meanings as we take it with us into our lives. Rather than forcing ourselves through some experience that we know on some level is wrong, we can connect to our own integrity, take a different path, and soften into it. We can let go of struggle while remaining strong, flexible, and open to all possibilities, much like a young tree–we can lean with the wind, but it does not break us. It’s the stiff trees that are dead, the brittle ones that will break with the weather. When we are connected to ourselves at the core, we can move, be free, and be strong all at the same time.
So rather than punishing yourself for how weak you think your core is, appreciate that you have one. Soften, relax, and go deep—awaken the parts of you that want to be integrated so that you approach challenge knowing you can do it if you can connect to it. That’s all you really need to know.