The concept of the core is subject to a number of definitions but lets just take the popular movement and fitness industry based definition of the core for the moment as a starting point and understand how this relates to the idea of core in yoga.
What is the core?
Put simply the core includes all of the muscles of the torso – back, front and side. In the colloquialism of the modern fitness industry, there is particular emphasis paid to the abdominal muscles. When “core exercises” are performed, often it is the abdominals and the obliques which are targeted. Sometimes, definitions are framed by purpose and goal and the appearance driven nature of the fitness industry often leads the emphasis to those parts of the musculature that seem to attract the most attention. A perfect example of this is our obsession with the 6 pack and the flat belly, thus resulting in drills and exercises that enhance this part of the human anatomy.
For the sake of comprehensiveness, most will agree that the core includes:
- Rectus Abdominus ( 6-pack )
- Transversus Abdominus ( corset like belt that wraps anteriorly under the waistline )
- Side Obliques – ( internal and external )
- Erector Spinae ( bundles of muscles and tendons running along either side of spine )
- Iliopsoas ( Hip Flexor muscle on either side of lumbar spine that attaches to the thigh bone )
- Quodratus Lumborum ( Deep posterior abdominal muscle on either side of the lumbar spine )
Beyond this framework what is then included or excluded from the discussion is very much a function of the author’s intentions and the audience that you’re having the conversation with.
Core from Yoga Perspective
My own journey
Yoga has often been described as a moving meditation. The coordination of breath with movement from one posture to the next, utilising the energy locks known as bandhas, navigated by a road map of eye-gaze points – Drishti – is what separates this discipline from an assemblage of shapes and postures. At each stage of my own journey I have experimented and explored different aspects of these 3 elements, collectively known as Tristana in Ashtanga Yoga. Mostly, my own journey in the later years has been focused on a deeper exploration of the bandhas.
Although I had no dancing or gymnastics background, I was naturally flexible. This flexibility which I enjoyed to a certain extent, fed on my desire to do yoga. Much of my early years in yoga was spent learning postures through the Iyengar method. Whilst for somebody with no prior movement experience whatsoever, it was a challenging enough proposition, there were also many aspects of yoga that suited me due to the natural flexibility that I enjoyed.
For those of you not so familiar with Iyengar style yoga, students work statically from one posture to the next, assisted with accessories such as blocks or straps and transitions are normally limited to Downdog, Upward Facing Dog and Chatturanga. More specifically, jump-backs and jumpthroughs in my experience were mostly non-existent although looking at archival footage of Iyengar in action, it is interesting to note that his classes in India did integrate more dynamic Ashtanga style transitions. Perhaps the brand of yoga exported to the West which he popularised was informed by both his discovery and dismay of the western body type, thus resulting in a slower type of yoga, focusing more on postural stability and extending flexibility though the use of yoga props.
Hence these were my early years – an Iyengar based practice which focused more on alignment and flexibility but where core strength building in the sense of the utilisation of the bandhas in jumpthroughs and jumpback were essentially still missing from my practice. Of course when you’ve never had chocolate ice-cream in your entire life it’s hard to miss chocolate ice-cream since you’ve never tasted it! So when I discovered Ashtanga for the very first time I was blown away and I knew exactly what had been missing from my practice. I can tell you the exact moment I fell in love with Ashtanga and knew it had to be in my life. Searching through YouTube for yoga videos I came across the 1993 Yogaworks video with Jois leading the famous 6 – Ezraty, Stern, Freeman, Haberman, Tim and Chuck Miller in the most stupendous execution of yoga art I had ever seen. What impressed me so much was not the flexibility aspect but the lightness and control of all the transitions which required momentary arm-balancing. I knew then that I had to solve this mystery of movement and to be able to one day experience this myself. This enquiry led me down a path of discovery which ended up being a curious combination of both yoga and classical anatomy but also riddled with much myth and misinformation.
Bandhas: the Core of Yoga and Yoga of the Core
Bandhas – one of the most bandied and overused words amongst yoga teachers and students. You either have too much of it or too little and either you don’t have it or if you do it’s usually too weak or too strong. This usually leaves most practitioners in a flap and in a land of confusion and the assumption that those who have it just right must be sprinkled with yoga fairy dust. But the question “what is bandhas” is probably the scariest and most loaded question you can ask a yoga teacher and if you ask 5 teachers you might end up with 5 different answers. They feel it, or think they feel it, use it and think they are using it but almost always, it generates fear and debate. But it is at the very centre of our theme this month as the dynamics of the bandhas recruit many of the major muscles of the core as defined by the modern fitness movement. However in my opinion the yoga concept of core is only complete if we include the pelvic floor muscles and more specifically the dynamic relationship between the abdominals and the pelvic floor during the course of movement. That to me is a more complete definition of the yoga core as the recruitment of the pelvic floor muscles provide stability but also encourage the direction of certain energetic flows central to finding lightness in a practitioner’s movements.
Demystifying the Bandhas
So, it’s unavoidable and I must first of all clarify for the purposes of this discussion what exactly the Bandhas are. For this I must return to the master, the artist and most of all the scientist, Iyengar for it is the scientist and his unrelenting curiosity for solving problems and explaining details which made him a unique teacher. For those of you who are confused till today what the bandhas are simply make your way to page 365 of Light on Yoga and the explanation is clear as daylight. Iyengar states:
”Bandha means bondage, joining together, fettering or catching hold of.”
And then he goes on to explain the physiological aspect of this in simple layman’s terms:
”It is also a posture in which certain organs or parts of the body are contracted and controlled.”
I’ll take that. I can work with that.
For the sake of completeness, I should point out that there are 3 sites of the human anatomy where bandhas play a role – the throat (Jalandhara bandha), the abdominals (Uddiyana) and the perenium (Mula). I will also preface this by saying that this is not meant to be an instructional on how to perform these energy locks. The discussion is really framed within the context of a discussion of what the term “core” encompasses in yoga and define the areas of our practice this month. For a more technical explanation on how to perform these locks I suggest that you do this under the guidance of teacher if you are not already a student at our studio.
So lets just for the moment accept that a bandha involves the contraction of a body part. Iyengar also goes on to explain:
“The process in Uddiyana is to lift the diaphragm high up the thorax and to pull in the abdominal organs against the back towards the spine.”
In the natural inhale and exhale cycle, the diaphragm pushes down towards the abdominal cavity on an inhalation but during exhalation the diaphragm lifts up towards the thorax and it is also the action of the exhalation that produces the abdominal contraction that draws the navel in towards the spine. But Uddiyana is actually performed after this exhalation during breath retention before the next inhalation. This has a real toning and conditioning effect on the abdominal muscles over time with consistent practice. The abdominals are expiratory muscles and since performing Uddiyana requires one to hold exhale breath, draw the organs back and up and then lift the diaphragm again, the practitioner is working in a sense a “double” contraction of the abdominals. It’s abdominal crunches on steroids. Consistent practice of Uddiyana can really help build a strong “core” as just about every single abdominal muscle is being recruited in this process.
In relation to Mula bandha Iyengar has this to say:
”…in Mula Bandha the whole lower abdominal area between the anus and the navel is contracted, pulled back to the spine and lifted up towards the diaphragm.”
The pelvic floor muscles are recruited in this process and as it is clearly laid out here it is a contraction that is done in conjunction with the lower abdominals, or as we know it, the transverse abdominus. This I think is key as often yoga teachers talk about mula bandha as a contraction and lifting of the pelvic floor but as Iyengar explains in no unclear terms, it involves a far greater space between the perenium and the transverse abdominus. In fact he goes so far as to say:
”In Uddiyana Bandha the entire region from the anus to the diaphragm up to the sternum is pulled back towards the spine and lifted up”
It is interesting to note that this further explanation of Uddiyana Bandha also therefore includes a contraction and lifting of the pelvic floor rather than just a pulling in of the abdominals and surrounding organs and a lifting up towards the thorax.
Whichever version of the Bandhas you choose to go with, it is clear that the yoga core really needs to include the pelvic floor muscles as one of its key components. Whilst in the Iyengar tradition, the bandhas are exercised as part of an isolated practice, in Ashtanga, practitioners would normally hold Uddiyana and Mula Bandhas throughout practice sans the drawing up of the diaphragm up towards the thorax to enable breathing. Having experienced both systems, I have found the Ashtanga system demands a heavier workload from the core by nature of the arm-balances and floats incorporated throughout the practice as transitions.
The Yoga Core Defined
The application of the bandhas has many subtle, esoteric, energetic implications. On the other hand, from a physiological perspective, it accommodates lightness in arm-balances and of course consistent practice of Uddiyana and Mula bandha helps condition and strengthen core muscles. The core has been defined as “the part of something that is central to its existence or character.” With that in mind, it is difficult to imagine a yoga practice that does not integrate the recruitment of Mula Bandha either as a practice to encourage the upwards flow of energy or in the physiological sense to get stronger and help facilitate lightness in movement through your yoga postures. The pelvic floor is thus so central to both the physical and subtle core of the practice that it needs to be included in the yogi’s definition of core.
To fire up and engage the core this month, we are going to reduce the number of postures and slow down our sequences. Our postures and cues will direct our attention towards abdominal and pelvic floor engagement. Beyond contracting these muscles we will work on drawing the energy upwards which is in essence the goal of yoga ultimately. In that spirit I leave you with a stunning piece of imagery courtesy of Iyengar from Light On Yoga:
”It is said that through Uddiyana Baddha, the great bird prana is forced to fly up through the susumna Nadi, the main channel for the flow of nervous energy, which is situated inside the meru-danda or the spinal column. It is said that Uddiyana is the best of bandhas and he who constantly practices it as taught by his Guru or master becomes young again. It is said to be the lion that kills the elephant named Death.”
The promise of eternal youth? This may all just be metaphor for something deeper and more existential but lets just work with the concept of youthfulness in the interim. Let’s work on getting stronger and and perhaps this external work will lead us towards something deeper and more joyful than a cheap flash of the 6 pack on instagram!
Hatha Yoga Level 1 Fridays 10:30am and Hatha Yoga All Levels Sundays 9:30am.