Core Issues: Accessing Strength and Beauty from Within
Do you experience difficulty activating your core muscles or keeping them engaged? If so, you’re not alone – several of our students have expressed similar challenges.
So my classes over the next few weeks will explore how we can tailor our Hatha, Yin and Kundalini Yoga practices to reconnect to the most central part of our anatomy. We will bring awareness to the deeper mental, emotional and even spiritual reasons for why disconnection to our core power occurs.
First of all, let’s define what we mean by “core muscles.” Many of us were taught that the core refers to our abdominals. The Western fitness world generally includes in this group anything that is not the limbs – which would then add the muscles of the pelvic floor, gluteals, hips and even shoulderblades. Either way, when we are instructed to “engage our core,” most of us have been taught to brace any or all of the muscles listed above in an isometric contraction.
Traditionally in Hatha Yoga we generally refer to Uddiyana Bandha (“upward-flying lock”) as the drawing in and up of the solar plexus of the upper/middle belly or navel and Mula Bandha (“root lock”) as the squeezing and lifting of the pelvic floor or “stop peeing” muscles. This is how I was taught, and this is how I have been teaching core engagement.
The effect of “engaging the core” or “applying the bandhas” in isolation over an extended period of time is that the abdominals will carry a lot of tension. There is a strong tendency to draw our bellies inward like we’re living in perpetual bikinis and wanting to look our thinnest. That’s not necessarily what our intention is – but that is what our habit has become.
Beyond not needing the stress of worrying about how we look, the major reason why bracing the abdominals is not a healthy habit to keep is because the residual tension in this area of the body creates stress on the lumbar spine that results in lower back pain. It also prevents the diaphragm from moving freely, causing the shallow breathing pattern associated with anxiety disorder and panic attacks. So if we suffer from both low back pain, anxiety, and the tendency to hold in the belly… is it just a coincidence? Probably not.
As we continue to progress and deepen our yoga practice, there will come a time when we outgrow our current way of doing things because it no longer serves us or might even hurt us. We may feel stuck in a rut because a difficulty persists and we haven’t figured out a way to solve the issue. These feelings are indicative of the need for change, growth, learning, refinement, or a new way entirely. This may mean moving beyond the appearance of the pose, beyond the engagement of superficial muscles, to start going deeper.
Asking the Deep and Meaningful Questions
Whatever patterns show up in the physical body are often symptoms of an underlying psychological or emotional belief system. So some questions we can ask ourselves include: in my daily life, do I lose connection to my core values, my central relationship with who I am and what I stand for in order to look good, save face, or keep up appearances?
Where am I giving away my personal power of self-determination and self-esteem to external factors or other people?
In my practice do I often go on autopilot then look to my classmates or the teacher to tell me I’m doing the pose right – just like where in my life do I go with the crowd and rely on others/society to validate me or tell me I’m living it right?
Do I believe that what the pose (read: my body, my life) looks like on the outside is more important than how it feels on the inside?
If the adage goes, “if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten” then the converse would be “if it doesn’t work – stop doing it and try something new.” Sure, it’s nice to have the freedom of choice to direct our own practice, but when we notice we keep choosing the same thing again and again and expecting different results – that’s our reminder to stop the insanity and start learning something new.
When Western medicine fails patients with chronic illness, many of them begin investigating alternative complementary medicine from the Eastern traditions. So when Western fitness paradigms no longer work for us, where do we look?
Yin Yoga and Fascial Lines
Yin Yoga is a practice that involves long-held poses to elongate and hydrate the fascia or deep-set connective tissue that holds our bodies together and gives us shape, that runs deeply throughout the body to join our muscles, tendons, ligaments, joint capsules and bones (which are all structures consisting of different variations of fascia). Fascia even stores emotional tension and thus connects mind and body. The fascial lines largely correspond to the major meridians of Traditional Chinese Medicine and link together various muscle groups and organs in what anatomist Tom Myers calls “anatomy trains.”
To redefine what we mean by core muscles we must go beyond the superficial abdominals of the outer body to the deepest muscles that are attached by fascia to the central structure of our inner body created by the lumbar spine and pelvis: the iliopsoas and intrinsic back muscles. To activate and engage these deep core muscles we must look to that which they are connected.
There is a train of fascia that Myers calls “The Deep Front Line” (see photo) which runs through and includes:
- soles of the feet
- knee joint capsules
- inner thighs
- hip flexors (the iliopsoas which weaves through the front of the pelvis to connect the thigh bone to the lumbar spine)
- lower back muscles (quadratus lumborum on either side of the lumbar spine)
- the diaphragm
- the lungs
- the pericardium (sac surrounding the heart)
- the throat
- the scalene muscles of the neck
- the muscles on the sides of the skull
- even the tongue!
The Eastern tradition tells us that everything is interconnected; nothing (and no one) acts independently without affecting the rest. So what if the reason why we haven’t been able to effectively activate our core muscles in our Hatha Yoga practice is because we’re not engaging everything that is connected to them?
When we try to act in isolation without considering our surroundings, when we try to do it all on our own – we’re never quite as powerful as we would be when we collaborate.
So instead of our abdominal muscles wasting energy trying to compete with the rest of our disengaged body, what if our entire body worked together as one? The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit for “to yoke,” and what if we were to view the Deep Front Line (also known as the Deep Core Meridian) as the yoke with which we unite our whole body to move with strength from the inside out?
Come join me in my classes in the coming weeks (click on the link for Timetable) to have a direct experience of the Deep Front Line. Learn how it feels to move from the ground up in a graceful wave-like motion in order to access our deepest core strength. We’ll make the leap from entering a pose and then making adjustments to our body … to building the pose during the transitions so that when we arrive, there’s very little correction needed so we can simply be and breathe. It’s not about reminding yourself to engage your bandhas – it’s about moving in such a way that this happens naturally and organically from moment to moment. We may not look like we’re practising how everyone else practices, but at The Sanctuary – would you expect anything less?
Strength and Beauty in the Inner Body vice the Outer Body
By evolving our yoga practice from an externally validated practice of how geometrically aligned or aesthetically pleasing our bodies look in the pose to an internally validated practice of how strong, fluid and balanced our bodies feel in the pose, our yoga mat can become a mirror for our lives as we start redefining how strength, beauty and balance are measured. We can start to draw connections between our practice and the world around us.
This coming Friday, April 24th I’m hosting The Sanctuary Friday Night Movie (click on the link for Workshops & Events to sign up online) where we’ll be watching “Embrace,” a social impact documentary on body image that explores a similar paradigm shift from defining standards of beauty based on the “perfect” (because they’re photoshopped) bodies we see in magazines to a new sense of inner beauty and strength that manifests as a deeply felt love and esteem for the self.
This movie contains so many parallels to the core issues of self-esteem and self-determination that we might experience on the mat when faced with “the way poses have always been taught” or “what the pose should look like.” Many of us have felt shamed for our bodies not looking like the photos on Instagram and Yoga Journal captured in “perfect” poses or even like the teacher leading the class. But where does the expectation to look like the photos come from?
As “Embrace” demonstrates, the cultural belief that the standard of beauty is set by the model in the magazine causes us as a society to forget that we are each inherently different – that there are 7.4 billion different bodies in the world, each with its own unique set of bones, its own arrangement of muscles and tissue, its own needs for strength, grace and effort.
So every pose you see another body in is actually impossible for your body to do in the same exact way because your body will do the pose in your own unique way. We will never look just like someone else – nor should we try to. Since when is uniformity and conformity beauty? When our eye falls on a flower – do we find it beautiful because it looks like an exact replica of all the other flowers around it? When we fall in love with someone, is it because they are just like everyone else? Do we love ourselves only if we can look like this person or be like that person, when our true beauty lies in our deep inner strength to unabashedly be our most authentic self?
If self-esteem contains the word “self” in it, then why let others determine it?
If yoga is a practice and not a perfect, are you ready to stop performing and start exploring?
Nadia Nauss teaches regular yoga classes at The Sanctuary on:
7:30-8:45am Yin Yoga
9:30-10:45am Hatha Yoga
12:00-1:00pm Yin Yoga
6:30-7:45pm Hatha Yoga
6:00-7:15am Kundalini Yoga
7:30-8:45am Hatha Yoga
5:00-7:30am Kundalini Sadhana
8:00-9:15am Yin Yoga
9:30-10:45am Hatha Yoga
Nadia also offers private lessons by appointment between 1:30-4:30pm on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.