First published in What Doctor’s Don’t Tell You Magazine.
With lower back pain and other posture-related issues on the rise, many people are being advised to tone up their core as a therapeutic or preventative measure. For many this translates as just toning the belly, but the core of the body is so much more than our abdominal muscles.
Physically, the definition for the core is stated as, “the part of something that is central to its existence character”. True, our abs
are postural muscles and vital for support when we stand and move, but they are isolated or work alone, but part of a system lifting us up from the ground and they affect how we move outwards into the limbs. With more anatomical interest in the fascia (a thin sheath of fibrous tissue that connects all organs and muscles continuously) the core is being approached as from the bottom of the pelvic floor (or even up from the insteps) to the top of the head. Feeling this as we move and support the body allows us to grow into our natural shape, rather than simply tighten in one area and create imbalance in another.
Movement is part of life and our meditative movement practices (yoga, t’ai chi or others) are not something separate; they are to enhance how we move through life and to help us unravel patterns conditioned in our nervous systems, fascia, muscles, skeleton and organs. All of these constitute one system, only separated out by our words. In reality our whole bodies express the stresses, postural habits and emotions of our past.
The diagram shows the natural posture our bodies can reveal through intelligent movement and bodywork. This person is lifted up easily through the central line of gravity, whilst those to its right have the natural spinal curves distorted in different, common patterns. Natural core stability supports the lower back by design, so posture easily has a feeling of lift up the front body and descent down the back body, overall creating a balance front and back.
This is the place where we can support with stress or strain, but with strength and ease. Healthy muscle can both contract and release, so overworking just one set of muscle groups can create a rigidity that simply signals tension and tires muscle so that ultimately it becomes less strong.
Supporting the lower back with abdominal (and other postural) muscles is not necessarily done best with loads of reps and targeted work. Some key poses with skill and awareness of natural body organisation can mean that you also move these habits into how you move through life, so you have consistently natural support.
Common sitting patterns that affect core stability
Sitting on chairs all day can have the effect of gravity compressing weight into our lower backs. Since it is easy to allow this to drop into collapse, it is common to lose the inward curve that is the natural setting of the lower back. This can result in tendencies to curve outwards there and for this to feel normal, so that when students sit on the floor e.g. cross-legged, they take this muscular habit along. This doesn’t allow the space for the abdominal muscles to draw upwards as front body support.
This also tends people towards lifting the chin as they need to look forward when from a hunched posture. This common pattern for sitting at a desk and looking at a screen causes much tension in the neck and shoulders as they take over from core stability to create uplift. They are not postural, but muscles of movement, so they tire easily at this task. This lift is also part of the stress response, so it keeps communication of tension to the whole body.
You can see that sitting on a block provides the uplift needed to create space through the front body, with a ‘suck-in’ response through the middle like squeezing a tube of toothpaste as the area between the ribs and the pelvis naturally lengthens. It is rare that people have the natural hip setting to be able to sit directly on the ground without some collapse back and one (or usually two) blocks under the sitting bones allows upward engagement through the whole core. In the picture the arms are raised to show the upper body and this is also a great pose for core strength; if you keep the shoulders relaxed (with spacious breathing) and draw in the lower ribs, the front postural muscles take over to lift the weight of the arms.
Because collapsed posture can become a set state, when we open up the body (and here in particular creating more length in the front and contracting overstretched muscles through the back body) the change can create feelings of release and even soreness after practicing. People even feel quite tired from sitting up onto a block as the muscles are not used to holding this configuration. Inviting your body to come back to natural patterns can come with teething issues, but you’ll find it responds well and knows where to go towards your natural limits pretty soon if you practice with awareness.
This is where taking our physical yoga practice into life is key; body awareness on the mat can help us revisit old patterns in life eg sitting up from the belly on chairs and noticing when we push our heads forward. Looking down at phone screens reinforces this habit and is said to put up to 7lbs of weight onto the neck.
Loosening to strengthen
From all fours, exhale back into Balasana and then exhale up towards a low plank position, where there is a line of uplift through the front body from the knees, through the inner legs, up from the pelvic floor to the lower abdominals and up to the crown of the head. If you drop the hips too low and backbend, you’ll lose this line and feel more dropping into the lower back.
The uplift of the inhale can be felt rising up through the belly with very little weight on the hands to encourage core stability and lower back support.
Exhaling the knee in towards the chest rounds the back to counter the lengthening out of the inhalation. Supporting the weight of the leg involves drawing the breastbone and pubic bone closer together by contracting the abdominals. Drawing the breastbone towards the sky prevents you from collapsing into the shoulders and helps the belly action.
Holding this position with the added challenge of balance and less weight distribution on the ground creates more length in the belly, so the action becomes refined. If we move this into a backbend, we move into the deeper muscles and are not able to engage the belly, so a flattening there and opening into the upper spine supports posture. This can be done just bending up the back leg or taking hold of the inside of its ankle with the opposite hand, softening the shoulders and jaw to keep the support from becoming strained.
Intelligent plank pose
Plank pose is a used in many systems for core stability as holding up the weight of the body sideways to gravity ups the strength needed. It is easy to hang off the shoulders and not use the belly muscles at all. Drawing up the breastbone to lift away from the ground allows the area between the shoulder blades to flatten rather than ‘hammock’ between. This means the shoulder blades can support the postural work of lightly tucking the tail-bone under to contract the belly and where you can feel a lightness through the breath in the diaphragm that you cannot if just hanging.
From there, you can move backwards and forwards between downwards-facing dog and plank, gauging with smooth breath and a released jaw where you can still lengthen out to the heels and neck with core support in between.
Tadasana and posture
In yoga, tadasana (mountain pose) is an important foundation for exploring how we stack up from the ground. It has been observed by many osteopaths (and I certainly see this in class) that there is now a common tendency for many to stand with the pelvis pushed forward. In an example of this posture we can see that the front body is pushed forward and more open than the back. In this picture the chin is lifted, but this may also be with the head pushed forward of the chest. In each of the examples you can see the pelvis moving further forward of the mid-line.
In a happily aligned tadasana, drawing back at the fronts of the ankles, tops of the thighs, bottom of the ribs and drawing the chin in to lift up from the back of the skull lifts up the centre of gravity directly up through the midline. The lower back is allowed its natural curve, so we can uplift through the insteps and inner legs to support rise through the spine from natural pelvic floor support. It is also where the weight of the pelvic and digestive organs are naturally supported by the lower back.
When the tops of the thigh bones are forward of the ankles, this organ weight drops into the pelvic floor, which then has to grip to hold and we lose integrity for the core from the inner legs. Can occur from ‘tucking the tailbone under’ when standing, which over time can even create an over-flattened lower back. Allowing the tail to be free means we then need to draw up postural support from the lower belly with the pubic bone pointing downwards.
Standing feet hip-width apart in tadasana is more stabilising with the ankles under the hip bones, so those with lower back issues can feel this is more supportive. The more ‘classic’ feet together is more energising than grounding as our bodies are constantly shifting weight in the feet to keep up gathering towards the midline.
Standing core support
In these poses, active feet that earth through all four corners create the ‘press-lift’ down of our weight dropping into gravity as we organise most efficiently upwards.
- 1 – raising the arms for a side-flank stretch is felt deeply opening up the connective tissue through the each side abdominal area at a time and gauge different side lower back needs.
- 2 – from tadasana we can interlink the hands and turn the palms upwards. Then with easy breath, raising up onto the balls off the feet and down again can really steady our focus, whilst rooting through the big toe base encourages a stable rise up through the core.
- 3 – utkatasana (fierce pose) helps us feel where the optimal lower back position supports how we are able to engage the core. Stick the bum out and we lose integrity there, but tuck the tailbone under and we lose the supportive natural curve. Finding that place where the ribs sit happily mirroring the pelvic bowl and we can lengthen up through the sides of the waist.
- 4 – vrksasana (tree pose) demands we gather everything up into the midline as a balance and opens up the front body after utkatasana.
This is a classic ‘core pose’ but can be executed in a way that compounds collapsing the lower back if we are not open enough in the front body to continually lift up through the back of the pelvis and open the chest. Arm support can create continual press-lift to help and if tight hamstrings add to difficulty finding length in the front body, then bending the legs with either arm position can take that out of the equation.
Releasing and relaxing
Every muscular practice needs unwinding time and care to allow the release that healthy muscle needs. A supported or restorative twist and a long savasana with a focus on the breath in the belly gather in and imprint the awareness in the area that we need to take our practice into our daily habits.
Explore the Natural Health Library
Are you looking for a little more guidance on restoring your mind and body after a busy few weeks? The Natural Health Library is packed full of tips on everything from nutrition to exercise, giving you the information you need to recharge, unwind and build up your strength as we enter the warmer spring months.
Anatomy Trains – Thomas Myers
Somatics – Thomas Hanna
Yoga Mind, Body and Spirit – Donna Farhi
Yoga Fascia Anatomy and Movement – Joanne Avison
Intelligent Yoga – Peter Blackaby
Core Awareness – Liz Koch
Yogabody: Anatomy, Kinesiology, and Asana – Judith Hanson Lasater