Over a decade ago, I came across a picture of myself standing on a dock, caught unawares. I was in my element – salty skin, wet hair – but my relaxed nature only exacerbated my dreadful posture. My upper back rounded and my chest collapsed; my head lurched forward as if it were about to tumble off my spine. I didn’t think of myself as someone with terrible posture, but I knew this image wasn’t a fluke.
At the time the photo was taken I was the owner of my first yoga studio and the snapshot made me shockingly aware that the yoga I was practicing was missing something. Forget the party poses, I needed to simply learn to stand upright with ease and dignity. What I needed was strength – a deep strength that I knew could only come from within. What I needed was to find my core, my authenticity.
Most of us have a rather distorted view of “the core”. I certainly did when I first started uncovering the layers of torso musculature. In yoga classes, we are sometimes given the guidance to “use our core” but this seems like a loaded cue. For me, the prompting made me suspicious that I should be using my abdomen somehow – Should I be squeezing or bracing? If so, where? But when I started to unpack the subtleties of the core, I came to understand that the strength of our center is more nuanced and less crude than mere clenching.
“Most people think it’s an external gripping,” my friend Maryellen told me when I interviewed her for this article. But true core strength, she explained, is more of “an inside-out thing.”
Maryellen is a dear friend, Certified Yoga Instructor, Registered Nurse, and has been practicing and teaching Pilates at a very advanced level for nearly two decades. She described core strength as an “in-and-up” sensation. She told me, when you feel your insides narrow and feel naturally uplifted, you are feeling the vitality of your core.
Think of the core of the body like the core of an apple. If you cut off your arms, legs, and head you would be left with your body’s core. While the four muscles of the abdominal wall play a vital role in core strength – enough that I will cover them each in more detail in this article - they also tie in with other muscles like the upper hamstrings, the glutes, and the multitude of obscure intrinsic spinal muscles that offer support to the stability of the pelvis and spine.
Also included in the core-strength entourage, you have muscles like the quadratus lumborum (QL), the psoas, and the diaphragm; muscles that can be easily overlooked if we focus too heavily on the abdominal wall. Entire books have been written about the mighty psoas (the "p" is silent when pronounced) – a muscle that, among its numerous wonders, helps anchor the diaphragm to the vertebral column.
Yes, breathing does play a key role in the health of your core. A major one. Healthy breathing begets a healthy core. And vice versa.
In your body, the transversus abdominis (TA) and breathing are in a partnership. The TA (one of the four muscles of the abdominal wall) literally becomes the diaphragm. These two so-called “distinct” muscles seem to have no border. They simply meld into one another, connected and embedded.
But core strength is not just about the front of the body. Your amazing transversus abdominis has fibers that actually wrap around the back of the body like an apron that ties at the back. The TA is a circumferential muscle, offering nearly 360 degrees of support to the mid-section of your torso.
Probably the most famous of the four abdominal muscles is the rectus abdominis: the celebrated 6-pack. This incredible runway of muscle fiber extends anteriorly from your rib cage all the way down to an anchor point on your pelvis. If you place your fingers on that bony, intimate part of your groin where the pubic symphysis is located, you have palpated the lower attachment for your rectus abdominis muscle. Yup, all the way down there.... It’s pretty inspiring to envision the extent of the rectus abdominis and understand how much support it can offer.
Your obliques – the external and internal – comprise the final two muscles of the abdominal wall foursome. These two side abdominal muscles are bilateral (on either side of the rectus abdominis) and, like the other two, help connect your ribcage to your pelvis. By facilitating movements like side-bending and twisting, these muscles can help wring out the core – squeezing and detoxifying – while also working like rigging to help keep the “lampshade” of your ribcage centrally and evenly situated over the “lamp” of your pelvis.
Ah, the pelvis.... We haven’t even gotten to the pelvic floor! The pelvic floor is more like a funnel of muscles at the base of your pelvis than a flat floor. The health of your pelvic muscles plays a vital role in the strength of your core. (And these muscles keep organs from falling out of your body. Just saying.)
So how can we incorporate this core strength onto our yoga mats? When I asked Maryellen about this she exclaimed enthusiastically, “Samsthiti!”
(The word samsthiti translates into “equal standing.”)
Maryellen explained that checking in with your samsthiti pose (a pose also referred to as tadasana) can be helpful in the pursuit of maintaining sturdy core strength. She encouraged me to not just think of the torso alone in regards to core strength, but to check in with my “equal standing” and the foundation of core strength rising up from the legs.
You can try it too. Standing in samsthiti (or sitting), when you exhale, you may notice a slight movement of the spine. It’s subtle, but this is the TA contracting. Inhale and exhale again and see if you notice the pelvic floor lifting as you breathe out. That lovely internal lifting – that’s your core activating on a deep level.
Take a few moments to breathe sometime today, preferably standing. And see if you can feel the updraft of strength rising up from your feet, connected to the earth, feeding up through your leg muscles, igniting your core muscles, so that you feel free and light and mobile in the neck, shoulders, and arms. This is your core supporting you in your entirety. A whole-body core strength. An aliveness of your center.
I used to tell students that if you change your posture, you will change your life. Your spine is a marvel of architecture within you. Your backbone is literally what holds you up, gives you the perspective and the gumption to carry on. Your core gives you far more than just flat abs or a rippled torso. Your core ensures that the tower of your spine stands tall. When you have proper core strength, standing up to your utmost height is not a chore, it’s a natural by-product. And it truly feels uplifting.