Yoga instructors, health care and wellness practitioners, fitness trainers, and athletes speak about core strength. But what does core strength really mean and why is it so important?
When we talk about core strength, we mean strength in the musculature of the torso of the body. I like to think of the core like a canister with a top, bottom, front, back and sides. Most commonly, when we think of the core, we think of the front of the container or our abdominal muscles. However, our back muscles, pelvic floor muscles, and diaphragm also play a role. The respiratory diaphragm bisects our trunk like an umbrella that attaches along the bottom of the ribcage. The pelvic floor muscles line the bowl of the pelvis. These provide structure to the top and bottom of the canister. Imagine a balloon like the ones used to twist into animal shapes. If you press into one area of the balloon, another area bulges out. All core muscles need to have a balance of strength and flexibility to work optimally and provide structure to our bodies.
When we sit and stand, a strong core helps to maintain natural spinal curves, good posture, and balance. When we move, a strong core provides a stable foundation to keep us centered, prevent falls, and prevent injuries to our spines, joints, ligaments, tendons, and muscles. Activities like gardening, household tasks, cooking, hiking, woodworking, golfing, playing sports, you name it---all require core strength.
How can we build and maintain a healthy core?
Core muscles work in unison and are postural muscles that are meant to work without conscious thought. The best way to strengthen them and encourage our bodies to activate them properly is by using these muscles during yoga and other movement practices. Cues to engage your belly, lengthen your spine, lift up on your pelvic floor, knit your belly in, and utilize ujjayi breath are examples of cues meant to encourage core engagement. With practice, you will find that this engagement carries into time off the mat as well. Tadasana, the foundation of many yoga poses, is a great and simple way to practice core engagement. Translating the core engagement that you experience in tadasana to other poses and daily activities, can help build a healthier core, prevent pain and injury, and promote optimal function.
Tadasana or Mountain Pose (also called Samasthiti or standing still pose)
An important note: Although typically described in standing, sitting tadansana can be an important part of practice as well and reminds our bodies to keep natural spine curves in sitting. Follow the same cues except center your upper body over your pelvis, rather than your feet, so that you feel the weight resting on your two sitting bones (not your tailbone). Moving your belly button forward and back until you feel centered is a good way to find proper alignment.