Mention the word “core” in a yoga setting and an array of responses typically follows. Some students will instinctively think of chiseled abdominals. Others will contemplate a dreaded abs exercise. Many will take it as a prompt to cultivate concentration, calm, or even their sense of personal integrity.
Although the concept of “core” is common in classes, an explanation of its intended meaning is often missing.
What constitutes your core?
On a physical level, your core consists of the muscles, tendons, bones, and joints that comprise your shoulders, chest, back, abdominals, hips, and glutes. In order for there to be some measure of stability in your core as you dynamically move through the poses and transitions of your asana practice, certain elements in your body need to remain still while other parts move. Part of strengthening is to create this stability.
Breath is another component of your core. When you weave a gentle Ujjayi breath—smooth, even inhalations and exhalations—throughout your practice, it creates a single, continuous, silken thread that connects your mind to your movements. Training yourself to consistently breathe this way cultivates concentration, patience, and calm—centering qualities that affect your life well beyond the asana.
When you connect with all of these aspects of your core—strength of body, mind, and heart—you will start to experience a different sort of stability. Become curious when your attention rests on the subtler parts of your practice. You might observe steadiness and integrity there, too.
A sequence for finding core strength
The poses below—and the transitions between them—require stability and strength derived from a steady core. As you practice, notice which areas of your midsection engage to help stabilize you. Also, notice what you can relax. Integrate a smooth Ujjayi breath and an attitude of awareness and curiosity into this sequence. Let the practice challenge you and illuminate the many aspects of your core.
(Photo: Jordan and Dani)
Supported Virasana (Hero Pose)
Kneel with your knees together and your feet a little wider than your hips. Sit back on 1 or 2 blocks. If needed, place a blanket under your shins. Elongate your spine and close your eyes. Relax and inhale, allowing full expansion in your core—back and front, side to side, downward and upward—then exhale thoroughly. Repeat for 10–20 breaths.
Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute), variation
Stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), feet hip-width apart. Inhale, and reach your arms straight up, shoulder-width apart, palms turned forward. Draw your front lower ribs in. Firm your feet into the earth to activate your glutes. Soften your eyes as you hold the pose for 7–10 breaths. On an exhalation, lower your arms to your sides.
Remain in Mountain Pose for 7–10 breaths. Exhale, bend your knees, and sit back into Utkatasana (Chair Pose), sweeping your arms up and alongside your ears. Feel the stability in your core.
One-Legged Mountain Pose
From Chair Pose, shift your weight to your left leg and sweep your arms down at your sides as you lift your right knee in front of you, foot flexed. Straighten your left leg and stand rooted and tall in one-legged Mountain Pose. Inhale, then slowly lower your right leg and bend both knees to return to Chair. Exhale, and repeat on the other side. That’s one round. Repeat 5–8 rounds. Rest.
Virabhadrasana III (Warrior Pose III), variation
Come back to one-legged Mountain Pose with your right knee bent. Lean forward, and extend your right leg behind you. Keep your right foot flexed as you lift your leg toward hip height to come into Warrior Pose III. Broaden through your chest. Touch your fingertips to your front low ribs; draw them into your body. Lengthen the spine. Take 5 breaths.
From Warrior Pose III, step your right foot back to a lunge. Bring both hands to the mat, and step back to Plank. Shift your shoulders back so they are slightly behind your wrists. Roll onto the outer edge of your left foot and the inner edge of your right foot. Reach your right arm up. Take 5 breaths. Lower your hand to the mat. Repeat poses 5 and 6 on the other side.
Transition to Salabhasana (Locust Pose)
After completing Side Plank on the second side, move into Plank Pose. Lower your knees and then lower the rest of your body to the mat. Reach your arms back alongside your body, palms facing inward. Inhale, and slowly lift your head, chest, shoulders, arms, feet, and finally your legs off the mat. Take 7 breaths. Release and rest.
Jathara Parivartanasana (Revolved Abdomen Pose)
Come onto your back. Open your arms straight out to your sides, palms down. Lift your right leg, bending your knee 90 degrees. Then lift your left leg to meet the right. Exhale, and lower your knees to the left any amount. Inhale as you hold the pose. Exhale as you return to center. Repeat on the other side. Do 10 cycles. Come back to center.
Supine Marching Mountain
From your back with knees bent 90 degrees, reach your arms overhead. Draw your front low ribs in, keeping a tiny space between your lumbar spine and the mat. On a slow exhale, straighten your right leg and lower it toward the mat without touching the mat, then return your leg to the starting position. Inhale slowly, then repeat on the other side. Repeat 5–8 rounds total. Rest.
Siddhasana (Adept’s Pose)
Roll to either side, and slowly come to sit on the floor or on a block. Bend your right knee and draw your heel in toward your right inner thigh; repeat on the left side. Position your ankles one in front of the other, with the tops of your feet on your mat. Lengthen your spine and close your eyes. Feel the echo of the practice as sensations move through your body and your being.
Sarah Clark has a passion for engaged, committed yoga and Buddhist practices that guides her as a mother, wife, artist, and human. Based in San Diego, Sarah teaches yoga, meditation, and continuing education. Learn more at sarahclarkyoga.com.