A student came to me for an Alexander Technique lesson, referred by a yoga colleague, hoping to relieve her agonizing neck and shoulder pain. I began by explaining Alexander’s central concept: Release your neck to free the spine and relieve the shoulders. Then I stepped back to consider her overall stance. Though she had what might be considered “good” posture, I noticed a strange contraction in the front of her torso.
“What are you doing with your abdominals?” I asked.
“Holding them,” she replied.
“Well,” I suggested, “let them go.”
She did. Her torso did not collapse without that alleged “support.” After her first and, as it turned out, only lesson, her acute shoulder pain disappeared. What does this show? 1) That a symptom may be far from its cause and, 2) A flawed concept of abdominal support can be damaging.
Such a quick resolution is rare. Usually, in a private Alexander session or yoga class, we are on a quest to change neuromuscular habits bit by bit, week by week, in an ongoing process of refining awareness, unraveling tension and marshaling the body’s true postural support. Many students pat themselves just above the navel and say, “I’ve got to strengthen my core.” There are legions in the fields of physical conditioning and performance who will tell you that maintaining a conscious contraction in the superficial abdominals—those we can see and feel—will resolve back pain, foster better balance and improve posture. But misusing abdominal muscles can actually compress the spine and increase back pain, send you off balance, restrict your breath, and compress your posture.
Let’s correct some prevalent misconceptions and expand our idea of what core support really is.
Don’t Hold Anything
You wouldn’t strengthen your biceps by holding them in contraction all the time, so why do that with your abs? No muscle group should be held.
Muscles work reciprocally, and abdominal muscles work in relation to the head, neck, back and legs. As you walk, your abdominals, which connect from the pelvis up to the skull, work automatically. You don’t have to think about it. It may take some enlightened instruction to get there, but when you let your abdominals release and allow ease and length in your spine, they operate as they should.
The body is a marvelously complex creation—easy to move, hard to understand. Trust me: you can’t wrap your brain around it. Our body’s real function is a dazzling interplay of forces. As we try to sort out how it works, we over-simplify. People try to stabilize one area rather than coordinate the entire body in motion. But a little anatomical understanding and some guiding principles can help you access your torso’s genuine support and truly enliven your core.
There are four layers of abdominals:
Rectus abdominis are straight up and down, easily felt on the front surface of the torso. The goal of crunches is to develop these into “washboard abs.” Washboards—not much in use these days—are made of metal, a hard substance unlike human tissue. I’m all for strong abdominals, but they can be strong without being hard.
Oblique abdominals are slanted and come in two layers—internal and external. They work when you do a yoga twist, when you breathe and as you walk. They wrap around your torso and go almost all the way back to the spine.
Transversus abdomin is is the deepest of the four layers. Roughly horizontal, transversus helps contain the internal organs and participate in upright posture.
Core is So Much More
Let’s keep going, to the under layers you can’t consciously feel or directly engage, deeper within the body.
Diaphragm – This mushroom-shaped structure at the bottom of the rib cage is the primary muscle of respiration. It coordinates with other torso muscles to expel CO2—the waste product of breath —and inhale O2, the oxygen we need for survival. You can’t get more “core” than this. The entire rib cage expands as we inhale and contracts as we exhale. Allowing your breath to work fully and easily supports upright posture, calms the mind and conditions torso muscles—subtly and without effort.
Psoas – You’ll hear this word thrown around a lot in yoga classes and nailed as a problem area. The full name is iliopsoas. At the top, it connects to the diaphragm, relates to each breath we take and helps support upright posture. The “ilio” part coats the inside of the pelvis. The “psoas” part loops under the thigh bone and, when it contracts, bends the hip joint. Sometimes called “the muscle of the soul,” it is so central, so deep, that it reflects our internal emotional state and level of stress.
Multifidus – Some back muscles—the ones you use when you arch your back in yoga—are more superficial and extend the whole length of the spine. Beneath those big surface muscle are these little ones: multifidus, linking one vertebrae to another. They support us to stand, sit well and initiate larger movements. Studies have shown that, to protect the spine from injury, the multifidus muscles activate before any motion.
The Body Works as a Whole
When you bend your elbow, your biceps work, and your triceps release. When you straighten it, your triceps engage. If both are working, your shoulder and elbow joints will compress. For muscular work to be efficient, one muscle group needs to be active, and the opposing group should release. That release is a neuromuscular function called inhibition. We can make that function conscious by pausing before we do a yoga posture, envision the posture as a whole, and move into it with ease.
When you learn how to throw a ball or swing a racket, you don’t analyze a sequence of muscles engaging. You look where you wanted the ball to go and imitate your teacher, an athlete, or an adept older kid. You get a whole picture. Your eyes deliver that picture to your brain and nervous system in a flash, and you do your best to fulfill your image. Over time, you practice and get better at it, not from analysis, but from keeping your eye on the ball and repeating a whole body experience. When we see the objective of an action in the mind’s eye, we are better able to engage the body’s complex, integrated response.
Many people think that surface muscles—the back and superficial abdominals—support upright posture. But here’s the big news: If the outside shell of muscle is tense, the inner muscles fail to engage. Rather than working, the core muscles actually inhibit, making the spine less spacious and more vulnerable. Before we do something, the spine can enliven and lengthen to prepare for our next move. When you understand this, it can bring more ease and balance to your daily tasks and to the practice of yoga.
We’re not like an ice cream sandwich, with a slab of muscle on the front facing another slab on the back. We are round and multi-layered, with large muscles on the outside and the smallest deep within. Isolating and overworking one surface muscle group is misguided. It’s not how movement and function work. In fact, one part of engaging the core is breathing fully and easily. And you can think of your core as beginning from the long arch in your feet and ending at the top of your head.
Ways to Build the Core
Here are some ways in everyday movement to build a truly strong core:
Standing – Whether waiting for the subway or standing in tadasana, Mountain Pose, notice whether your weight is more toward the front of your feet or the heel. If you’re not centered, envision the top of your head guiding you right over your feet. If it feels totally weird, you’ll know that you habitually stand back on your heels. Once you’re in balance, upright poise can become effortless.
Sitting – To sit well, envision space and ease where the spine joins the head—a point between the ears. Balance your weight on your sitbones, breathe easily, and envision those little muscles along the spine supporting you from within. If in yoga class you find it a strain to sit with legs crossed, sit on a folded blanket or bolster to make upright posture easier. Let your rib cage be buoyant with breath.
Breathing – Believe it or not, a full easy breath is one of the most accessible ways to improve your posture. Your lungs go from your shoulders to near the bottom of the rib cage. Allow your breath to fill the whole torso, including the back where you have more lung tissue.
Many yoga poses demand and can inspire core support. Here are just a few:
Seated Spinal Twist – Allow your breath to support the easy movement of your rib cage and shoulders as you wring out the waist.
Plank – When you do this pose in yoga class or at the gym, allow your head to rotate slightly at the top of your spine. That will allow the spine to lengthen and give this strong pose a foundation of ease.
Side Plank – In vasistasana, allow that slight rotation as you send the crown of the head away from the heels of your flexed feet. Practicing plank as you hold a block between your legs can spark deep, genuine core support. ◆