A group of my internet friends likes to take this time of year to dedicate a forty day sadhana (practice) to our mothers. Each day the sadhaka (seeker or aspirant) dedicates her practice to her mother or grandmother(s), or even to the concept of motherhood or mother earth. Each sadhaka has a personal approach to her sadhana. Some people want to keep the memory of their mother burning bright in their lives. Some want to share that light with their daughters. Some seek to delve into the relationship they have with their mother and perhaps find a higher level of understanding or acceptance. I’ve been blessed with a world-class mom who has been a teacher, friend, confidant and supporter throughout my life. She has been the strong core of my family and provided stability for my sisters and me. It seems appropriate to dedicate a month of core power to my mother.
As part of my process in developing these monthly challenges, I first sit down with Light On Yoga and search for a selection of asanas that fit the theme. This month was a bit different because I wasn’t just looking at a single category or type of pose. I spent much more time looking at what Mr. Iyengar said about the effects of each pose. I concluded not only that are there a lot of poses that develop and maintain abdominal and core strength, but also that there are a lot that require not only core strength, but the ability to know how and when to engage your core. This is a very complex subject.
So, in contemplating this complex and very important subject, I decided the best approach would be to attempt to divide and conquer. I have made a list of seven categories of asana that develop or require abdominal or core strength and a list of suggested poses for each category. I also include an eighth category for the series of abdominal poses developed by Ana Forrest, which combines yoga kriya, pranayama and athletic abdominal training. I think that she has developed a unique fusion of yogic practice and modern athletic training that is worth exploring.
Here are the categories of poses that I will recommend for developing your core power:
- Standing poses
- Forward bends
- Prone and supine poses
- Arm balances
- Kriyas and bandhas
- Ana Forrest abdominal training
As you can see, this list leaves practically no yogic stone unturned. Just about the only categories left off this list are back bends and restorative poses. Of course, it is very important to engage your core in back bending. But I’ll leave that for another monthly challenge (May back bends, anyone?). Since this list is so varied, you may correctly conclude that you can incorporate some core strengthening asanas into your yoga practice every day. I’ve listed here asana suggestions for each category. Obviously there will be some crossover between categories. For example many of the categories include twisted or revolved poses. I find in my own practice that the twisting and revolved poses offer a good combination of strength and stretch for your core.
Standing poses, particularly standing balances and twists require that you recruit your core muscles to stabilize and support the actions in each pose. For beginners, I would suggest that you make the standing poses the core (no pun intended) of your daily practice. The strength and focus that you develop will be your closest friend as you journey down your yogic path.
- Tadasana (mountain pose)
- Vrksasana (tree pose)
- Parivrtta Trikonasana (revolved triangle pose)
- Utthita Parsvakonasana (extended side angle pose)
- Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (revolved side angle pose)
- Virabhadrasana I, II and III (warrior poses)
- Parsvottasana (intense side stretch or pyramid pose)
- Parighasana (gate pose)
Forward bends recruit the core muscles in the front body to lift your abdomen up from your pelvis. They also stretch the muscles of the side and back body. Forward bends work well in combination with the other categories of poses.
- Padangusthasana (hand to foot pose or standing forward bend, holding toes)
- Padahastasana (standing forward bend, palms under feet)
- Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana (half-bound lotus standing forward bend)
- Maha Mudra (one legged forward bend with bandhas held or sealed)
- Parivrtta Janu Sirasana (revolved one legged forward bend)
- Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana (half-bound lotus seated forward bend)
- Krounchasana (heron pose)
- Paschimottanasana (seated forward bend)
- Parivrtta Paschimottanasana (revolved seated forward bend)
- Kurmasana (tortoise pose)
Prone and supine poses are the category of asana that we usually tend to associate most closely with abdominal and core work. Two or more of these poses could be incorporated into your practice daily.
- Salabhasana (locust pose)
- Chaturanga Dandasana (staff pose)
- Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward facing dog pose)
- Paripurna Navasana (full boat pose)
- Ardha Navasana (half-boat pose)
- Akarna Dhanurasana (bow pulling pose)
- Jathara Parivartasana (revolved belly pose)
- Urdhva Prasarita Padasana (30-60-90 pose, or as John Schumacher says “a fancy Sanskrit way of saying leg lifts”)
Arm balances offer us the opportunity to engage our core muscles to provide stability to the balance. I certainly haven’t included all the arm balances. You can refer to the April Arm Balance Challenge if you love arm balances and want more challenge.
- Lolasana (pendant pose)
- Tolasana (scales pose)
- Astavakrasana (eight bends pose)
- Vasisthasana (side plank)
- Bakasana (crow pose)
- Parsva Bakasana (side crow pose)
Twists are great poses for alternately contracting and relaxing the abdominal and back muscles. There are twisting and revolved poses included in almost every category here. As I mentioned above, I find these poses particularly valuable in my own practice. I’ll delve more deeply into the subject in next month’s challenge, which will be exclusively devoted to twists. I find it interesting that many of the seated twists are named after Indian sages or mythological figures. Unfortunately this makes it difficult to translate the Sanskrit names into English. In case you need more information on any of these, I have included page number references from Light On Yoga.
- Marichyasana I, II and III (pages 159-162 and pages 254-259)
- Bharadvajasana II and II (pages 251-254)
- Ardha Matsyendrasana I and II (pages 259-262 and pages 270-271)
- Malasana (garland pose) this is not actually a twist, but I’m including here as a warm-up for the next pose.
- Pasasana (noose pose)
Inversions, like standing balances, use core power for balance and stability. It is especially important in headstand and shoulder stand not to rush into the full pose and neglect the intermediate stages. The intermediate stages are very important in developing the necessary core strength for control in moving into and out of the inversions. If you want to explore inversions more deeply into you can check out the Upside Down June Challenge.
- Salamba Sirasana I (head stand)
- Urdhva Dandasana (upward facing staff pose). This could be considered an intermediate stage of sirsasana, but as you will see if you work in this pose, it is a great pose for developing core strength and balance.
- The sirsasana cycle includes several revolved poses, which will further develop your core power once you have become comfortable in headstands.
- Salamba Sarvangasana I (shoulder stand). Moving slowly into and out of shoulder stand works your core muscles throughout their range of motion.
- The sarvangasana cycle also includes several revolved poses and variations which will help you to further develop your core power once you have become comfortable in shoulder stand.
Bandha and Kriya are not, strictly speaking, asanas, but restraints (locks) and practices (processes) which help to regulate the flow of prana in your body. Some of them do specifically use the abdominal muscles, which is why I’ve included them in this month’s challenge.
- Uddiyana Bandha (belly flies up) I’ll refer you to page 425 in Light On Yoga or Ana Forrest’s Intensives for specific instructions.
- Nauli (churning or wave) On page 427 in Light On Yoga, Mr. Iyengar points out that “nauli is a kriya or process and not an asana. Care should be observed in its performance, otherwise the process leads to numerous diseases. It is not, therefore recommended for the average practitioner. First master Uddiyana Bandha before attempting nauli.” I’d suggest starting with instruction from a qualified teacher if you are interested in working on kriyas. I've also linked to an article below.
One of the unique contributions of Ana Forrest to the field of yoga is the abdominal training that she has developed. She combines traditional yogic practices of pranayama, bandha and kriya with athletic abdominal training. Here is a list of the exercises and poses she incorporates. For more information on these I’ll list her media practices below. If you want to take a workshop from her in person (I highly recommend it), you can take a look at her national workshop schedule.
- Elbow to knee
- Abs with a roll
- Twisting abs with a roll
- Agni Sara
- Frog lifting through
- Straddle lifting through
- Twisted root
There are several good media practices that focus specifically on abdominals/core:
All of Ana Forrest’s media include her style of abdominal work
The Pleasure of Strength
The 5-day Intensive Series (this is a set of audio practices accompanied by a book)
Shiva Rea’s Yoga Shakti also includes a beautiful segment featuring Forrest style and traditional yoga abdominal work.
Judith Lasater has a new book Yoga Abs: Moving From Your Core
Gaiam markets Rodney Yee’s Yoga for Abs (as is their habit, they keep changing the name of it, but I think the link is the current title)
Yoga Zone has a Yoga Abs for Beginners video
Sarah Ivanhoe has a video called Flat Abs, that doesn’t include many traditional yoga poses, but is a nice little 20 minute video with some good core strengthening exercises
Ana Brett and Ravi Singh teach Kundalini yoga and have several DVDs including on focusing on the core called Navel Power
Articles to read for further study:
Redefining Great Abs by Carol Krucoff
Forget Six-Pack Abs By Fernando Pagés Ruiz
Face Your Fears of Falling By Julie Gudmestad
Benefits of Nauli By Lisa Walford
Coming Up to Headstand Alone By Tias Little
For Beginners: Vrksasana By Barbara Kaplan Herring