By Ann West
Core facts & functions
Our physical core is the collection of muscles, bones, fascia and organs located between the pelvic floor at the base of the trunk, and the diaphragm at the base of the ribcage.
The term “core” usually refers to our core muscles, which wrap around the middle of the trunk like a corset, supporting our back and internal organs.
The core muscles have far a reaching influence, and play a crucial role in the body’s bio-mechanics. They generate the strength, stability and mobility we need to perform all of our everyday activities, including walking, running, carrying, climbing, and any kind of sport.
- supports the weight of the entire body
- initiates all of our major movements
- keeps us balanced
- protects our internal organs
Core strength for a healthy back
Most people suffering from chronic back pain would benefit from building a stronger core. Because the spine is the central structural column of the body it assists in nearly all of our movements. It also supports and protects the spinal cord. It should be strong enough to carry our body weight, yet flexible enough to allow our limbs to move freely.
Strong core muscles aid back health by improving posture to support healthy spinal curves. A strong core is especially helpful when it comes to protecting the lower back as it guards the lumbar spine against bending or rotating too much in any one direction, and also shields the sacroiliac joints from overuse and strain. A strong core can also make the spine taller, which helps lift pressure off of the spinal discs and supports the back as it heals from pain.
Key core muscles
Anatomists differ as to which muscles make up the core. Below is a list of some of the major muscles usually included:
- Abdominal muscles
- Latissimus Dorsi
- Erector spinae
- Quadratus lumborum
- Pelvic floor muscles
- Gluteus muscles
- Adductor muscles
It’s usually most effective to engage the whole body to work the core muscles in unison, from the legs and lower core on up. However, it can also be helpful to focus on working a particular group of core muscles. Poses that target core muscle groups.
How yoga helps
Because of the integrative, total body involvement of most yoga asanas, yoga is an ideal medium to engage and strengthen the physical core. The wide variety of poses also challenges the core in many different ways, through standing poses, arm balances, backbends, twists and inversions. Alignment also plays an important role in safe, effective core strengthening, making the refined alignment techniques of Iyengar Yoga a great match for careful core strengthening of the back.
The Sanskrit word “bandha” means bond or join. In yoga it refers to an action that grips and controls a part of the body to form a seal or a lock. Bandhas are practiced to contain and control prana (life-force energy) within the body. There are four main bandhas:
- Mula bandha – a contraction of the perineum at the pelvic floor
- Uddiyana bandha – a contraction of the abdomen into the ribcage
- Jalandhara bandha – tucking the chin into the chest
- Maha bandha – a combination of the above three bandhas performed simultaneously
The first two bandhas require a visceral lift from deep within the core region, which automatically activates many core muscles. This protects the back during yoga practice and enables us to hold the poses for longer to build strength and stamina. Engaging the bandhas also causes vital pranic energy to flow upwards, shifting the asanas onto a more subtle level of practice. For further reading and detailed instructions on how to practice the bandhas, please refer to “Light on Yoga” by BKS Iyengar and “Light on Pranayama” by BKS Iyengar.
If you only have time to practice one core pose regularly, your best choice is plank pose and its variations. Many movement experts agree that it’s one of the most effective core strengthening exercises, in large part because it engages so many core muscles at once. Yogis have been practicing their version of plank pose, Chaturanga Dandasana for a long time.
For more yoga articles, updates, classes and workshops, sign up for my newsletter at the top of the page or like on Facebook at Ann West :: Iyengar Yoga. You can contact me directly by email or call (858) 224-2484.
© 2015 by Ann West. All rights reserved.