RIGHT TO THE CORE
The common belief is that in order to reach the peak state of fitness, you have to do more. You not only must spend more time in the sport or practice of your choice, but you should also do more than one type of exercise. If you’re a runner, you have to start swimming. If you practice yoga, you have to run. A tennis player should weight train. The list goes on. The good news is that it is becoming widely accepted that a yoga practice should accompany all other sports. So clearly there is some serious value to what we are doing.
In many ways this idea is very true. “Time under tension”, the notion that in order to experience peak benefits, more time must be spent in tension. In practice. In training.
There is always value in mixing it up. Fluctuating between variations of exercise keeps the body and the mind interested. But the thought that there will always be something missing in your favorite fitness discipline is daunting. Very quickly your fitness life can begin to feel like a full time job.
Is it possible to create variations of the same discipline in order to keep all working parts interested? And to create different and valuable results? Of course. This is a core philosophy of athletics in general as a way of fine tuning the mechanics and technique of your sport or practice. And yoga is no exception. Yoga is about exploration. It’s about becoming deeply entrenched in details and minutia, whether you are a student or a teacher or both.
You may think, well if I go to a yoga class I am surrendering to what they have decided to teach for the day. Very true. It can be a little weird if you randomly start going off on your own tangent mid-class. Like, “oh, well I need core work, so I’ll be doing this over here.” It is possible though to understand the principles and apply them when possible.
I think it is assumed that all yoga focuses on “core”. You are working with your own body weight and generally that is associated with core work. There is also an association of core work with vanity. An assumption that the entire point is to get “flat abs’. I think there are plenty of yoga practitioners out there that would chose to renounce that quality from their personal practice philosophy. Fair enough. There are certainly those that do care about that though and frankly I get it. All vanity aside though, we all want to practice yoga for a long time. For a lifetime. That goal would depend on two things: one, staying healthy (avoiding injury) and two, staying interested (not getting bored).
As peaceful and kind as yoga is and is meant to be, injury occurs. OFTEN. You are asking a lot of your skeleton and muscular system without always being completely prepared. What your skeleton needs is support. Core work is basically your central hub of support. It will dictate what is doable and what isn’t. Isn’t it true that you learn very quickly when attempting something new if it is a lack of core strength that is preventing you from completing the task?
Avoiding boredom in anything you do every single day is hard! Jobs, relationships, exercise, food, the route you take to get to work! All of it. All at risk for extreme boredom. One of my more successful (success is a relative term) attempts at athletics was in distance running. I’d say about 80% of the population cringes at the mere thought. Let me assure you that it is a high risk sport for both injury and sever boredom. Over the many years, I found two ways to keep myself excited about yet another long run. First, I became obsessed with mechanics and technique. Second, I became fascinated with setting my mind on one specific thing, generally that was the sound of the pattern of my feet moving across the ground.
This is exactly what we’re talking about. Just simply being interested in what is happening. Not settling for the spoon-fed version. I certainly can’t make promises but I would bet that by becoming even a fraction more interested in the process, at least half of the injuries that occur could be avoided. My good friend Jess (or maybe it was her amazing Grandmother, Judy) says, “they are interested and interesting.” The two go hand in hand.
For the last two weeks I have become hyper focused on “core work”. I decided to change around the general structure of a class that I would generally teach. Took a risk in flipping some things upside down and changed some of the accepted aspects of a traditional yoga class in order to cater to this focus of core work. I applied the idea of working these movements that promote core strength more throughout the sequence rather than as a chunk of time in the beginning or middle. Spending more time in the movements that build this type of strength. (time under tension) This created the sense that a core exercise could be the central neutralizing hub of the sequence.
For example, instead of holding the coveted downward facing dog (nothing against down dog) in the sun salutation, flipping that upside down, working the same shape and gravity very differently and holding there in navasana (boat pose).
Common questions and comments about navasana will certainly come up. The most common feeling in this pose is that it fires up the hip flexors as opposed to truly working the abdominals to stabilize the position. This makes the legs feel massively heavy and the pose becomes much more of a struggle.
In navasana you could switch the focus from the very popular and frustrating low abs, to the higher muscles like the serratus muscles. This would free up some space for the hip flexors to move further up into the pelvis. Working for the feeling that those upper abdominals are pulling up into the throat. This would also alleviate the feeling that you are rounding into the lower back.
Also in navasana find a reach through the pad between your thumb and index finger. This will lengthen the bicep and contract the tricep, drawing the shoulder blades back but more specifically feels like a hallowing out of the armpits. This should bring a lift through the chest again taking you higher up and out of the lower back. Think more thorastic (ribcage) and cervical (neck) in terms of the spine, stabilizing the lumbar instead of relying on it.
Perhaps the most important aspect of incorporating core throughout your yoga practice is to understand the difference between pushing and pulling. Yoga relies heavily on pushing weight. Fine. But it is a fact that a muscle cannot push. It can only pull into flextion and extention.
Maybe difficult to cultivate? Take a plank, forward or side. The obvious is that the hand is pressing or pushing into the floor. How can you locate the ability to pull up? Come back to that pad between the index finger and the thumb; yes, it is pressing into the floor, but feel that you could suction up through that point. Drawing energy up the arm and again into the armpit. In the torso come back to the principle of pulling the upper abdominals up under the rib cage which might create a lightness in the very heavy pelvis. In this way you could train yourself to stay there for sometime! Work towards a full minute!
So, not really the 4 easy exercises you can do that only take 7 minutes that guarantee flat abs kind of core exercises. Sorry for that. I was never wired that way. We (YFBP) aren’t really wired that way. (also those tricks never really work!)
We are more into the mix it all up. Get a little weird. Get interested. Get everyone and everything involved approach. Oh, BUT never over complicate! hahaha
We also highly suggested jumping rope as an additional core workout that can be easily incorporated into any routine. Think of this as a dynamic tadasana. First get interested in technique. Then work on building up your time. Work towards 5 minutes consistent jumping.
-Many of the ideas, observations and suggestions mentioned in this write up are based on lengthy, smart conversations with my very good friend and brilliant trainer, Grayson Fertig. He is currently living and training in Telluride, CO.