Every so often when I read a yoga magazine, I shake my head, sigh a little, and say, “Oh my.” I find it disheartening that despite the wealth of yoga-related anatomy available today, articles are being published that have misleading intentions and that provide misleading information.
In the August issue of Yoga Journal, there is a subheading on the front cover that declares “The Ultimate Pose to Build Core Strength.” Being the initial publisher of Yoga for the Core, by Suzette O’Byrne, and being interested in anything “core” – whether it refers to physical anatomy, breath, subtle energy flow, or bandhas – I was quite excited as I opened the pages to look for the article. And then . . . disappointment.
The article highlighted Urdhva Prasarita Padasana (Raised Stretched-Out Foot Pose), UPP, as the ultimate pose to build core strength. It described the pose as
· having “a well deserved reputation as an abdominal strengthener.”
· “This simple movement strengthens a muscle that passes through the very core of your body, which aids your posture, your movement, and . . . even the way you breathe.”
· “UPP’s real benefit is to a pair of deeper abdominal muscles, the psoas, . . . deemed one of the most significant muscles in the body.”
My disappointment stems from one primary point. Core stability is a hot topic in all things movement – yoga, fitness, athletics, and rehabilitation. People who are interested in learning more about the core will be highly attracted to this article. The problem, though, is the article didn’t speak about the core. Sure, it spoke about a muscle that passes through the core, but it left out transversus abdominis, multifidus, the pelvic floor, and hip adductors. The focus of this article was on the psoas.
To be clear, I love the psoas – it is a powerful muscle from all sorts of angles. From a purely anatomical place its importance manifests broadly. The psoas
· is the only muscle that connects the spine to the leg,
· is closely connected to the adrenal glands and is impacted by the stress response,
· interweaves with the crura of the diaphragm,
· is vital in connecting the movement of T12 to the SI joints to the femurs during walking, and
· contributes to posture.
However, its ability to do all of that relies on its relationship with the muscles described above in addition to balancing with the hip abductors and hip external rotators. If the editors of Yoga Journal took that into account, UPP wouldn’t have made top billing.
To be able to perform UPP without cramping in the neck, holding the jaw, holding the breath, and gripping the butt, all the muscles I just mentioned need to be working well. If they aren’t, the yogi is going to suffer. And truthfully, in all my time teaching I have yet to see someone who could do this pose without proper abdominal contraction and without face tension, neck tension, or breath holding. Not so good for posture, breathing, and better movement.
Which begs the question . . . is it the ultimate core exercise?
When considering the ultimate core exercise, a teacher needs to understand how to build core strength safely and effectively.
Here is what I have found to work for the yoga teachers and yoga students I have taught:
– Get into the primary core muscles – feel them, experience them.
– Think about the muscles as an interconnected web.
– Breathe easily while keeping the rest of your body at ease.
– Now move. Can you move easily, maintaining the above three points?
A primary feature of truly building core stability is this – you know you have it if you feel light after doing the exercise. It is as if your spine has lengthened, and you experience lightness. You won’t feel rigid; instead, you will float.
I love the following analogy: Having good core stability is much like a boat on water, where the body is the boat and the external stimulus is the water. Both (body and boat) are able to respond to the inevitable wobbles, turns, and shifts only when they are in balance. This balance enables you to move from fast to slow and slow to fast.
So what, then, is the ultimate pose to build core strength?
To determine that, we need to delve into the current research being shared amongst the core stabilizing experts around the world and relate it to the physical practice of yoga. Know that there are many great exercises, they just aren’t yoga poses. If we filter all the exercises so we focus solely on yoga asanas, the ultimate pose to build core strength is . . . drum roll, please . . .
Vasisthasana (Side Plank Pose).
Many yogis consider Vasisthasana an arm balance. It is, but in order to stay out of the wrist and to feel freedom in the shoulders, your core needs to be working well. Those are good signs to help you practice. And, if you have Yoga for the Core, review pages 54-57. There is good instruction on moving from Plank to Side Plank in an effective and resilient way.
If you feel that someone would benefit from this, please pass it along.
All the best,