Helen in boat pose on a beach

Top 5 core exercises

Why strengthening your core is essential to posture, healthy back and confidence

Do you want to:

  • stand tall and strong?
  • strengthen and protect your spine, to prevent back ache and injury?
  • feel confident and self-assured?

Of course you do! A strong ‘core’ can lead to all of the above, but day to day life can, sometimes, prevent our centres being as strong as they should be 😉

The core and modern life

Generally, we sit too much… Either in super-comfy sofas, or in uncomfortable office chairs, that cause us to slouch and our belly to get lazy. And, from such a young age, we’re asking kids to sit in chairs too – starting the weak core epidemic early! (Why?!)

The core and physical activity

To combat all this sitting time we might exercise. Your chosen activity might be running, a gym routine and a weekly yoga class. As well as to de-stress, the focus might be to build muscle, lose a few pounds or to maintain an already good fitness level. Core strength is vitally important to support the impact of your chosen exercise, to stabilise and protect your spine and to maintain postural alignment.

A strong core also allows us to stay safe and enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the movement. This is the essence of my Yoga Flow Running teaching but the theory can be applied to almost any activity.

The core and yoga

So, your optimal core strength is threatened by the chair and time spent sitting! If care isn’t taken to combat our comfortable lifestyles, the spine is at risk from injury during activity, due to a lack of support from its muscular stabilisers. Lack of core strength and awareness can also lead to poor technique in running, biking, surfing and other sports.

If you’ve recently given birth, you might be returning to physical activity from a long break. For a number of reasons, your body might be lacking the the essential stabilisation from the band of muscles, that collectively make up the ‘core’.

This is why, in my opinion (and the teachers I’ve learned from), we should include targeted core and hip strengthening within our yoga practice. While yoga asana (poses) will strengthen your core, you need an awareness of those muscles to begin with. Only through this awareness will you discover how to properly activate the deeper belly, hip, side and lower back muscles, which in turn helps you strength them. This avoids bad yoga habits, will help you hold your yoga poses with proper alignment and therefore, increase the physical benefit from your yoga practice for your entire body!

By spending just a few minutes a day, you can effectively isolate the individual core muscles – strengthening the mind-body neural pathways, as to exactly how it feels to activate and utilise, a potentially  underused muscle group.

Top 5 core strengthening techniques

So here are my top 5 exercises, that you could start to include as part of your yoga practice. If these are new to you, start with the first one and add another each week (practising several times a week). Please note, that these may not be suitable for you. If you are suffering with a significant weakness, back issue or other complaint, you should seek a teacher’s advice (this could be with myself, in person, or online).

 

This is just a small number of exercises I use, that are very simple, yet very effective, if practised consistently over time. If you come to my classes then they will be familiar – now there is no excuse for not doing them at home!

To learn more, plus how we can consider our core strength throughout a dynamic yoga practice and how it aids and facilities all active poses, join me for the workshop on the 28th in St Agnes, when we will also wind-down with a few deeply relaxing, digestion aiding postures. If you’re further afield, see my regular video posts and attend a retreat. Upcoming retreats are Revive (and Run) 30th April – 6th May in Portugal and Rejuvenating Weekend 6 – 9 July in Cornwall.

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How can yoga help us live longer?

Have you heard that yoga can help you live longer?! Well, there is science to prove that it can – when practised properly ; ). I’m not talking about doing the postures ‘perfectly’, I mean practising with complete focus and awareness.

Only when we are completely focussed when we practise, are we practising yoga – otherwise it would just be a series of stretches and movements.

What yoga can in fact give us, is the benefit of the flexibility enhancing stretches and the strength developing movements, plus focus, clarity and mental peace. The first of the Yoga Sutras is: Yogas Chitta Vritti NirodahaYoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind, and although we may initially start doing yoga for the amazing physical benefits it gives us, when practised in the right way, you will find exactly this: a calm, still mind.

So, back to the science and living longer. It has been discovered that mindfulness strengthens our telomerase, the enzyme which maintains and repairs the caps of our chromosomes. The telomere caps deteriorate with the ageing process but if they are stronger, they naturally last longer, hence a longer lifespan.

This really comes down to the fact that, if we are living mindfully, ie. living with complete awareness of the present moment, we do not feel any stress, fear or anxiety – only peace. When we reside in the calm and relaxed state of the para-sympathetic nervous system our brains function optimally, our muscular tensions ease and we feel calm and happy.

Now, ideally this is our natural state if being but we all know that modern living causes multiple stresses! Yoga can be your way back to the natural calm state, and a longer, more relaxed, life.

Be Strong – Be Safe – Be Empowered

There is more to be being strong than appearance. There is more to building strength than achieving a desired look. Strength goes much deeper and serves us so much more. It is about providing support for your body; when we are supported we are protected; when we are protected we are safe; when we are safe we are confident and empowered.

Our Yang yoga practice brings us strength. The dynamic, repetitive movements of a Vinyasa Yoga practice warms and works the muscles, building strength. The muscles are stretched within the poses of the sequences as well, giving us this empowering combination of strength and flexibility. As we say in the Yoga Medicine community: Strength plus flexibility equals power.

This highlights the importance of having both a Yin and a Yang practice (see previous blogpost for more on Yin!).

Many of us begin a yoga practice for the flexibility enhancing side of it, which is exactly what so many of us need as we get older and stiffer! However, we cannot neglect to strengthen the important areas of our abdomen, sides and lower back – collectively termed our core. In addition the hip muscles, particularly psoas, which offers so much in regard to supporting the spine from the front. Our core muscles are there to hold us up and support and protect our spine, which otherwise suffers 🙁

Join me for the Yoga for Core Strength Workshop this Sunday, 10am-1pm, in St Agnes, where we will look at how we can strengthen all areas of our ‘core’, front, back and sides, through yoga.