After having practiced yoga for over 20 years, it’s easy to pick up bad habits
In the last 2 years, I have had to bring my practice right back down to basics due to suffering a hip injury. With lots of physiotherapy, one to one yoga instruction, pilates, patience, and ahimsa, I have learnt that the core is vital to a strong yoga practice. This is something that I definitely overlooked, and lots of students do, especially students new to yoga who think it is all about stretching. I have decided to share some asanas that I have learnt on my journey back to health that help to regain strength, confidence, and a deeper awareness and control in your yoga practice.
How to Activate your Core:
Start by warming up with a couple rounds of surya namaskar/sun salutations to prepare the body. After you’re warmed up, lay down on your back. Bend the legs, feet hip-width apart and tilt the pelvis forwards and backwards until you find the neutral spine (somewhere in the middle). Next, draw up your perineum and feel the sit bones coming together. You can feel for the activation by placing your fingers on your hip bones then sliding them off onto the lower abdomen and feel the muscles engaging slightly; it is very subtle. Draw you belly button down towards the spine as if you are zipping up jeans, then draw your lower ribs down so they are not sticking out. Take a deep breath in, draw it down to the depths of the lungs, then exhale. Take a few more deep breaths like this, keeping the connection with the core. Remember not to be too forceful, a gentle contraction is enough.
1 – Elbow to Knee Pose
Once you’ve warmed up and found your connection with the core, stay relaxed for a few more breaths. Inhale and exhale. Now, draw up the core and inhale, drawing the knees to the chest. Bring both hands behind the head and exhale, sending the right leg away to hover off the floor whilst the right elbow moves towards the left knee. Inhale, draw the knees together and bring the upper body to neutral. Exhale, send the left leg away to hover off the floor, and bring the left elbow to right knee. Inhale, draw both knees to the chest, level out the head and shoulders and then continue like this for 5 times on each side, building up to 10 on each side as you get stronger. The lower you hover the stretched out leg, the harder it gets. Feel the fire starting in your core.
2 – Paripurna Navasana/Boat Pose
Next, start in the half boat pose until your core gets stronger, then start to extend the legs. Come into sitting spine tall, equal weight on each sit bone, and draw up the perineum after the exhale. Find your focus point as you are balancing. Take a deep inhale and exhale, lift the legs to bent if you’re just starting out, or straight if your core is stronger. If you find yourself leaning too far back and your spine is rounding to help you lift the legs straight, then bend them again and lengthen through the spine and draw the lower ribs in; don’t arch your back. Stay here for 5 breaths.
Coming down from full boat pose to bent knees (half boat pose), we are going to add a more challenging strengthener. From half boat pose, inhale, exhale and start to lower and straighten the legs as you lower your upper body at the same time. Keep the perineum lifting, the lower ribs tucked in, and don’t arch your back. Bring the arms out wider as you lower down to help with support. Try to maintain control as you move over your pelvis, this “bump” makes it a little tricky! Then, take a few deep breaths and then inhale, rise up to boat pose, then rest. Bring the feet to the floor, knees up to the chest, and hug the knees in, lowering the head to the knees, and relax the legs. You can make this as challenging as you like. I like to start in half boat pose, come up into full boat pose, and then lower down to extended boat pose, then come back up and repeat this 5 times. Builds up a good sweat!
3 – Adho Mukha Svanasana/Downward Dog
Next, from downward dog, lift the right leg in the air, keeping the hips neutral. As you inhale, come up onto tip toes on the right foot. Exhale, draw up the perineum and move the right leg towards the forehead. Round the back, and drop the head as you bring the forehead to the knee. Exhale, extending the right leg away and repeat 5 times. Do the same on the other side. This is great for upper body flexibility and strength.
From here you can then add more challenging options: Right knee to right elbow and right knee to left elbow. This can be made into a sequence of it’s own: Raise right leg, forehead to right knee, raise right leg, right knee to right elbow, raise right leg, right leg to left elbow. Repeat on the other side. Build up to repeating over time as you gain strength. This is also great for upper body strength!
4 -Vasisthasana/Side Plank
For this next pose, start by sitting on your right side. Right arm on the floor, fingers spread, right shoulder away from right ear. Extend the legs out to the side and stack either one foot on top of the other or by the side if you need a bit more stability. Inhale, and as you exhale lift up the hips as high as you can reach, up to the ceiling, extending the left arm unto the sky looking up towards the left hand. If thats challenging on the neck, turn the gaze down to the floor. Repeat 10 times.
From high side plank, to make it a bit harder, keep your right side as it was and lower your hips towards the floor, hovering off the floor. Then inhale and lift them up to the sky. Repeat this 10 times.
Start small and work your way up! If you’re just starting out, do a few on each side of all of these and as you gain more strength increase the repetitions. Make sure you always maintain the connection between the breath and the core. Finish by releasing any tension in Savasana; time for the body to relax and re-align.
If you’re feeling hungry after all this, try our delicious power-balls recipe for a nutritious post-workout snack.
Photographs by Jo Thorne