Abdominals are found between the thoracic and pelvic cavities and have several important functions. First of all, these muscles protect the inner organs (stomach, intestines, liver, kidneys, gall bladder, pancreas and spleen), they enable the movement of the trunk and make up the abdominal wall which helps us with elimination and also plays an important role during the childbirth. These muscles are also essential during the respiration process, more specifically during the exhalation. These muscles effectively protect the area of lower back. This is the reason why it is recommended to walk with your pelvis slightly tilted and activate the lower belly so we prevent the hyperlordosis. Last but not least, we should not forget about the importance of the pelvic floor that we also need to activate if we want to strengthen the abs – we lift the muscles up and in and try to maintain this action during the whole power yoga session.
Although we already have nice aesthetic waistline and visible abs, it does not mean we actually engage the muscles effectively. These are only superficial muscles; there are many more deep muscles invisible for our eyes that are also crucial for effective and healthy movement and posture. There are actually 29 muscles (deep or superficial) that are situated around the spine, abdominal wall and pelvis. This group of muscles is one of the most important and it is also called the core. When our deep abdominal muscles are strong we can prevent back pain and injuries during the unexpected movements. Fortunately, power yoga offers effective principles that help us to strengthen the deep muscles without even noticing.
Power yoga has many postures to strengthen the abs exclusively, however, I have chosen those that are also great to work on the legs and glutes.
Description: Plank is one of the most complex postures in power yoga because a lot of muscles are engaged in this static pose. We bring our palms and feet on the floor and press away from the floor. Our arms are straight and the wrists are right below the shoulders. In case that our elbows are hypermobile we bend the elbows a little which is more convenient for the joints but more challenging for the triceps. We keep reaching with our head forward as we wanted to press it against the wall, neck is an extension of our spine. Shoulder blades are in and the head and the back, buttock and legs are all aligned. We keep the lower back straight especially, as we want to bring the navel in and up towards the chest. This is how we activate the abs and protect the lower back. We stand on our toes and feet are at the hip distance. The whole body is engaged, it is a typical isometric exercise (the tension in the muscles changes), but we can also take a variation in the plank so it becomes more isotonic – dynamic, for example, we bring the knees toward the chest or lift the feet from the ground, we can move to the side plank or move on the forearms and back on the palms…etc.
Most common mistakes: Pulling our buttock up or down, palms far away from each other, missing activation of the abs, hypermobile elbows or lifting the head up.
Effect: We activate and engage all the muscles of the abdomen, so they create kind of corset. In variation on one arm – side plank – we can perfectly tone the waistline (the oblique muscles).
Other benefits: We also strengthen the shoulders and legs if we add some variations to it. We can stay there during several in and out breaths and also test the strength of the mentioned muscles if we hold it for longer than 2 or 3 minutes.
Description: Although it is a posture while being seated, lifting the legs towards the trunk is an effective way of strengthening the abs. We start the position from seated posture and with our legs bended, we put our palms on the floor behind the back parallel with the hips. We lift the legs bended in the knees so the calves are parallel with the floor or we are gradually straightening the legs and we can also stretch the arms alongside the body. We need to be careful not to relax the abs otherwise we can hurt the lower back. We can also add several different variations to change the posture from isometric to isotonic. For instance, we can draw number eight in the air with our legs, we can alternate bending and stretching the legs, bringing the legs above the floor and then lift them up again and many others.
Most common mistakes: we should be especially careful to activate the abs and deepen the breath, so we avoid harming the lower back. Also rounding back should be avoided.
Effect: We activate all the muscles of the abdomen. If we want to work more on the oblique muscles we can move our legs to the sides or rotate the trunk. The respiration is more difficult which helps us to work on very deep muscles of the abdomen wall.
Other benefits: This pose is also perfect to tone the thighs and back muscles that are activated during the whole posture. Navasana is perfect to test the strengths of the core.
Description: At the first sight it might look like this pose is stretching the legs and the back mostly, but if it is done technically correctly, we can strengthen the abs, too. Since we mostly sit on the chairs, this pose in which we are sitting on the floor with our legs straight might be quite challenging for most of the people. In dandasana, on the other side, in order to keep the spine in the correct posture we need to keep the core strong. The spine should be vertical to the floor and our pelvis slightly tilted as we do not want to curve the lumbar spine too much, head is reaching upwards, chin is close to the neck. Legs are ideally straight and feet are flexed, we press with our hands into the sticky mat just right next to our hips. Again it is an isometric action of the muscles that we can change into isotonic with different variations, for example, rotating the trunk with our arms raised or lifting one leg at a time just right above the floor. Abdominal wall is also working already with the legs apart.
Most common mistakes: Big bend in the spine, rounded back, shoulders close to the ears, abs not activated.
Effect: Primarily we strengthen the abs at the front; if we use any of the variations to the side we can engage the obliques, too.
Other benefits: Back muscles are nicely strengthened, too, in variations like alternative lifting of the legs we can nicely strengthen the thighs. Already few minutes in this, at the first sight, easy pose, and doing it correctly, our muscles can get quite sore.
Description: There are several bending postures, and the basic is to stretch and prolong the muscles on the side that is being stretched while on the other side the muscles are being pressed and strengthened. Because we are moving the trunk, we are also working on the abs. When bending from the mountain pose (Tadasana) with our arms lifted alongside the head, we keep pulling the shoulders away from the ears; we inhale in the starting position and with exhale we do the bend. The longer the exhale, the deeper the bend which means we can stretch one side and strengthen the other side of the muscles to the maximum extend. When bending, we keep our body in one line, we do not want to bend forward or backwards, we can imagine we are in between two walls and do not want to touch either of them.
Most common mistakes: Shoulders close to the ears, bending forward or backwards, arms further than the trunk. We can harm the neck and we also strain the trapezius.
Effect: Definitely a perfect posture to tone the waistline, strengthening and stretching the obliques.
Other benefits: Back muscles, spine, shoulders and equilibrium are being trained, too.
When we are more advanced, we can also try Crow (Bakasana) pose, Scale pose (Tulasana), Headstand (Shirshasana) or Shoulderstand (Sarvangasana).
Before we actually start to tone the belly, we should keep in mind that we need to stretch the back muscles first (cat-and-cow or dog facing downwards) and afterwards we need to relax and stretch the abs (upward plank pose, Purvottanasana).
Text: Petra Satinová, Joga Zdravo