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.
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 potentiallyunderused 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.
Leave me a comment below and share this with someone it would help 🙂
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 Nirodaha – Yoga 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.
It’s proven – being mindful, which is being fully present, enables our brain to function optimally! Our executive functioning is enhanced, allowing us to think rationally, be aware of rising emotions and self-regulate our behaviour accordingly – in essence, we think more clearly, make better decisions, listen to people properly and are able to keep calm in potentially stressful situations… and what is one of THE BEST ways to learn and practise mindfulness? You guessed it – yoga!
We want those qualities for ourselves, and who wouldn’t want them for our kids? I’ve taught yoga to thousands of children in schools – with impressive results from weekly classes… But, what if all our school class teachers were trained in basic yoga and mindfulness skills…?? Just think how much influence this would have on the children!
After parents and carers, it is clearly school teachers who spend the most amount of time with our off-spring, playing an important role as role models in their young lives. I’m a great advocate of specific yoga and mindfulness classes being taught in schools with all the benefits and joy it brings, however I also know that children learn best through modelling. In fact, research shows that a teacher who practises mindfulness, and models mindful behaviour in class, has a much greater positive affect on the pupils around them than those teachers specifically teaching mindfulness techniques! (Jennings and Siegel, 2015)
What does this mean for our schools?
Luckily, we have some forward-thinking, enthusiastic, compassionate and dedicated-to-their-pupils’-wellbeing schools, such as Hillfort Academy in Liskeard, Cornwall. The Head, Assistant head, a Class Teacher and an HLTA joined me last week (in their summer holidays!) for a one day training in teaching basic yoga and mindfulness to children in school.
“This was an excellent and inspiring day! My colleagues and I learnt a lot and we now feel eager and confident to include elements of yoga and mindfulness into our day, in order to calm and re-focus our learners. We are now also thinking about including it into the PE curriculum to combine the physical with the mental and emotional side, we can really see our pupils benefitting from it.“ Tim Cook, Head Teacher.
In an ideal world…
Every school teacher would be practising yoga and a form of mediation – for their own benefit. The peace, calm and rational thinking that comes from their personal practise will automatically come through in their teaching.
“This calm, broadened awareness will help you to recognize and respond to teachable moments and develop creative ways to present your content to your students, enlivening your teaching and stimulating your students’ learning.” (Jennings, 2015)
The teachers’ mindful and calm behaviour is modelled by their pupils, who find that they can then concentrate and focus more intently and for longer periods of time because they are learning in a calm environment, where they feel safe and secure. The teachers receive training in how to share simple mindfulness, breathing and yoga techniques within the classroom. In addition, the pupils receive regular yoga classes from a yoga teacher that reinforces the attitude and behaviour that they are learning subconsciously from their class teachers, whilst adding to the physical mindful movement, which enhances bodily awareness, coordination and raises self-confidence. They can self-manage their behaviour, able to notice when negative emotions are arising, they are thriving: academically, socially and emotionally.
With mental health being amongst our greatest health concerns in the West, it may be time to consider the state of your own mind and its affects on your emotional wellbeing.
How well do you manage your emotions? Are you aware of your thoughts and their affect on you? A Radio 4 documentary this week highlights the importance of a mindfulness practice for good mental health. See how yoga can help cultivate awareness and happiness for you and importantly how we can share this with children and young people.
According to the show The Science of Resilience, aired on Radio 4 this week, mental health problems are the biggest health concern amongst the working population. Knowing this, we need to be aware of our emotions to keep our mental health in check, to avoid depression and other stress-related illnesses. We need to learn the techniques and strategies to do this and share them with our children.
In times of stress, the rational thinking part of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex, cannot function normally because the amygdala, the brain’s reactionary centre takes over, meaning we think and act from a place of stress and anxiety, rather than with clarity and control. This can lead to perpetuated feelings of stress and anxiety, as heightened levels of cortisol are produced. But there are strategies to effectively overcome this, to stay in control of your mind and reprogram your brain in times of trauma. This can be referred to as resilience, meaning that we deal with adverse situations better, but achieving this positive change in thinking can also be called mindfulness, or yoga.
Do you recognise when you’re angry, annoyed, anxious or depressed? Awareness of your thoughts and emotions is the first step in taking control and feeling better. Acknowledging your thoughts and naming the emotions that arise is a great way to reprogram your brain – helping you to change your thoughts, and therefore change the way you feel. Most people are so unaware that they are thinking, they have let their minds control them, rather than controlling their own minds. The physical practice of yoga increases the awareness of the body, helping you to draw your senses inward (pratyahara*). By feeling and noticing the sensations that arise in your body more, you can bring your mind in closer contact with your body and away from external thoughts. Meditation practice helps enhance this awareness of your ‘inner zone’, try this each day:
Sit up tall or lean against a wall. Notice your breathing without changing it. Watch to see when your mind begins to wander, and gently tug it back to paying attention to each breath. Be aware if you are forcefully altering your breathing, and gently relax. With practice your mind remains calmer for longer periods of time.
Some schools are beginning to teach breathing techniques such as this to pupils as coping strategies. It seems they can now be referred to as Resilience lessons, sometimes mindfulness – but we can also call it yoga! Whenever you are aware of your breathing, your posture, your thoughts and sensations, you are practising yoga.
A vast number of young people are suffering from mental health issues, due to a range of reasons including school and peer pressures. If they can be taught effective relaxation and mindfulness strategies (yoga), they can use them in current and future times of adversity. And this is a really important aspect highlighted in the radio feature – drugs may help a current spout of depression/ stress/ anxiety, but if strategies are learnt with how to deal with these effects of the mind, then a set of skills is provided to help deal with future adversity. Economically speaking, we could be saving millions on drugs if more focus was put into providing yoga/ psychological therapy – from school age and up.
Think more about others and less about you… Consider for a moment how much time you think about yourself. Self absorption is one of the greatest sources of angst, particularly with young people but also in the working world. It has been shown, and is practised by Buddhist monks, that thinking more about the wellbeing of others has a greater impact on our own happiness than constantly thinking about ourselves. If we can teach compassion as being a greater skill than competition to young people, and old, then normal, happy mental health would become the norm in the West and we wouldn’t be needing to find ways to fix it.
*Pratyahara: withdrawal of the mind/ senses. Pratyahara is one of the eight limbs of yoga, written by Sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. Written over 2000 years ago, it is Patanjali’s Sutras on which all modern day yoga is based.
The first time I tried yoga, as a 15 year old at home along to a DVD, I remember thinking it was too easy and not challenging enough, and yet I wish I had been offered yoga classes at school – I really wonder how I would have responded! The varying responses to yoga from teenagers is fascinating, understandable and sometimes surprising. They are generally intrigued and curious, sometimes resistant and reluctant but quite often completely engaged and willing! Recently I have been asked to grade yoga as part of GCSE PE and I have mixed feelings about doing so.
Amongst the various groups of teens I teach, since last September I have been teaching yoga to the Year 11 girls at a local school as part of their PE classes. I have seen two groups a week for 6 weeks and we are now on the third block, with the head of PE saying, ‘it brings me joy to be offering this’. It’s been so interesting to observe the difference in the groups, particularly between those who are taking PE as a GCSE qualification, compared to those who detest taking part in PE at all!!
YOGA FOR GCSE PE – yay or nay?! These girls were a real joy to share yoga with! Most of them were totally into it and the hardest part for them is quite obvious – meditation and relaxing! These girls are active, sporty and competitive. Apart from the few who go to yoga class outside of school, they rarely spend much time sitting still unless they have to. But it clearly got easier for them once they knew what to expect and became more comfortable; and then…
“Give them a mark out of 10”, says the head of PE. I am overjoyed at being able to offer yoga to these girls, and I know the teacher is, however is it right to grade them? Is it going to ruin everything I have taught them?! About doing everything to your own degree? About the importance of it feeling good over looking good? According to the exam board syllabus I was meant to give them a grade out of 10 on developing physical skills (including poses, breathing and relaxation) and also for being creative and making decisions. I gave them all 9s and 10s, which they deserved – they all tried hard and were all clearly benefitting, despite some difficulty with relaxing for some, and obvious difficulty for some with certain postures. How can you give someone a low score for not keeping their eyes closed when you have no idea what is going through that young person’s head? Or for not being flexible?! Especially when you know that they play netball 5 times a week! Anyway – as we know, we all excel in some areas and not in others. The beauty of yoga is discovering our strengths and our weakness, inside and out (more on this another time).
At the same age I know that I would have found sitting or laying down with my eyes closed difficult because I was too concerned with what my peers thought about me, too concerned with doing what was cool, and not doing something that I may have enjoyed on my own – but not with others because I was too self-conscious. In addition, I was used to working hard and pushing my body physically, and I (my ego) couldn’t see the point in anything physical that didn’t challenge me.
I want to teach athletic young people that they need an element of relaxation in their lives, how much stretching with awareness can benefit them and how yoga in general can aid their sport. In addition, I know that yoga asana practice can be physically challenging and I want to make the link between this and the mental focus that it can give to young people.
I will be personally writing to the exam board with my suggestions for the content of the yoga ‘syllabus’, and with my recommendations on personal reflection and growth, perhaps journaling, rather than a formal grading system.
As for the non sporty girls – they love the yoga, because they can all do it. In fact, after my current group’s first session the teacher told me, ‘that is the most I’ve seen them do all school year!’. Result.
Would you like to share yoga with adolescents? would you like how to learn how to teach them effectively with greater empathy and compassion? Whether you are a yoga teacher, parent, school teacher or even social worker – you could be eligible to join a 5 day TeenYoga teacher training course. I am leading the next one here in Cornwall 29-31 January and 6-7 February. See my TeenYoga page for more details and booking.
I would love to know your thoughts, so please leave a comment below and please share with anyone who you think may be interested!