What is our core ?
Our core refers to the abdominal muscles, pelvic floor, and some in our back, which hold in our abdominal organs and support our spine.
What does core activation do, in modern yoga?
Strengthening the muscles of our core, gives us (according to modern yoga):
- good posture
- by making us strong in our core, we become emotionally strong. This is untrue. I know many people, myself included, who are very emotionally strong and stable, yet do not have "abs". Plus I also know some people who have strong "abs" who are not emotionally strong.
- we can activate our 3rd chakra, Manipura chakra. I also do not agree with this, it is another ridiculous modern yoga supposition. In fact, I find this downright silly.
- gives us great abdominal muscles. Which of course is good, too.
In western yoga terminology, particularly with modern vinyasa, the idea is to activate the core muscles with lifts and contractions in yoga practice, especially whilst holding a pose. This was popularised, as far as I know, by Shiva Rea, who had been a longtime Ashtanga yoga devotee, some years ago. Plus she was part of a group who combined Ashtanga, Desikacharya and Iyengar's teaching to create modern Vinyasa Yoga, and Power Yoga. Shiva has done a lot for yoga, and I have only heard good things about her. Her core activation method bears a strong resemblance to Ashtanga Yoga's "bandhas". With a Pilates twist. This is how you do it:
- drop your tailbone. This creates a minor tummy tuck and the very lowest of the abdominal muscles contract a bit
- draw your navel to the spine
- contract your lower ribs inwards
This gives amazing abdominal muscles. Wow factor.
- contract and lift the muscles which you use to stop having a pee (also known as kegels when women do them)
- draw your navel in and up the midline of your body
These two together "create contraction, stability, core strength, and heat". The heat, of course, being somewhat of a 'thing' in modern yoga, for purifying the body. Which is good.
I learnt this some years ago for doing vinyasa. It was quite doable.
And yet another method, which I learnt maybe 15 years ago, by an Iyengar and anatomy and physiology teacher (and I don't know if it's part of Iyengar yoga), is to draw your side abdominals in towards your navel, and also up the centre line of your body, plus draw your hip bones in towards each other.
How do we use core activation in yoga?
I am talking about strong abdominals here, with core activation. Before all of the above became popular, I would have said that core activation is something else, so I'll go into this in another post.
These contractions, lifts, zip-ups, are generally used in dynamic yoga, which we could call Power Yoga, or Vinyasa. The two are actually a bit different. So, it's moving yoga, based on the Ashtanga Sun Salutation moves, with warriors, triangles, and other vigorous moves, plus some floor poses at the end.
Very vigorous, whether one is doing slow or faster breathing. As this is all based on Ashtanga "bandhas", or locks, the ideal is to use the core activation throughout the whole class, or practice. This is a tall order, and, as I've already said:
I do think that the zip-up method of core activation is easiest to maintain for a vinyasa type class.
(Without adding pelvic floor lifts)
(any version of navasana is perfect for adding extra core activation)
What you can do, instead, is to do core activation in various poses, whilst you are holding them. Such as mountain/down dog, warriors, triangles, plank variations, standing balance poses, boat pose (as in a seated V shape). This will amplify the effects of the pose, and with any pose which can stress the abdomen. To start with, just do 1 pose at a time, until you or your students are used to it. After all, with warrior 2, for example, by the time you've got all the minute aspects sorted, to then add the bits and pieces for core activation, is overkill.
It is always better for your students if you can teach in increments, whether it's on the physical or on the spiritual level, so that they are always progressing.
Start with a wee zip-up as though pulling on tight jeans. Over time, as they are used to it, add the pelvic lift. If you are going to be adding it. Whilst a pose is being held. I wouldn't do this myself, and there is a reason why. To hold too much attention to the pelvic floor quivering away, or tightening, throughout the class, is going to create a sexuality that is not what yoga is about.
But, hey, that's just me.
Drawing the abdominals in and up, plus the hip bones towards each other, is easy and excellent for floor abdominal work.
Or, if you would like to use Shiva Rea's core activation: start with dropping the tailbone, which is brilliant, as it also relaxes the lower back. An absolute must in warriors if anyone has a dodgy back. The next step to add, over time, is to draw the navel to the spine on the exhale. Then learn how to maintain that. The final step of course being the slight drawing in of the lower ribs. Again, if these steps are done only whilst holding specific poses, it's all doable.
The thing is, what is a specific pose for? Going back to warriors and planks, they are about strengthening. So to add core activation in these poses fits in with what the pose is about. And even helps to hold the pose. So that's great.
But a bridge pose? Many people would say that it's for strength too, and, yes it is, but it's not only what the bridge is about. It's also for deep breathing, and especially for our glands. In particular, the thyroid, but also our reproductive system, pancreas, abdominal organs and solar plexus. So, again this is just me, I would not do core activation here. I would not do anything to minimise the amazing work of this pose.
So, it helps to have some asana intelligence if you are going to incorporate modern aspects which have been mainstreamed, some over 20 years ago. I don't think that you need to add them, but if you do, be aware of what you are doing and why. Choose one method and stick with it. Doing one type of core activation in some poses, and another type in other poses... really? That's messy.
Create a consistency of what and how you teach in your classes.