In magazines, fitness videos, tv shows, at gyms, you name it, there is a constant theme about ‘the core’. In today’s society a lot of this emphasis is put on having a washboard stomach and a 6 pack with little to no fat covering rock hard muscles, but there is simply more to it than that. In fact, if we look at ‘our core’ as a whole, and as a whole a part of something even bigger, the term itself takes on quite a different meaning. Let’s start by looking at it anatomically in a western sense.
Our core area, or torso, includes pretty much everything from the pelvis up, to the intercostal muscles of the ribs and also the diaphragm. Not just the front, but the back and all they way around, the muscles, the skin, the fascial layers, all of it! Huge players in this area are also the iliopsoas muscles, which stem from the lower lumbar vertebrae and go down to the base of the femur, acting as major hip flexors and spine stabilizers. Key word here? Stability. It is not just having strong abdominal muscles we require, but to have an all around strength and flexibility to stay stable from our ‘centre’, from our spine, and have a firm base from which all other movements of the body can be carried out gracefully. Especially with repetitive movements and certain asanas, core strength is essential to complete these motions safely and effectively while still maintaining the integrity of the spine and surrounding joints. Walking, standing, sitting and laying down are all dependent on a functioning core centre for good posture and alignment, and keeping it supple and flexible is equally as important as strength.
Now let’s look that the energetic body. The chakra, or wheel of energy, associated with core function is ‘Manipura’ or the solar plexus chakra. Traditionally a yellow color, it carries the element of fire, and is associated with the belly button, pancreas, adrenal glands and digestive processes. It is also called the power centre, and for good reason. In keeping this energy centre moving healthfully, we are creating a strong standpoint from which stems the courage, determination, strength and stability that are necessary in life, working in harmony with all the other aspects of our being that make us whole. In keeping this particular area healthy, we also maintain our ‘agni’ or digestive fire, the flame that fuels digestion and healthy elimination processes. We also foster confidence, drive, and a fiery energy, hence, the power centre. You can imagine manipura like a fireplace, fuelled by the appropriate wood (food) and given the right wind or oxygen (activity), our fire will sustain it’s warmth, light and energy without waning away into only embers. A block of energy, or too much of too little activity in this space, whether felt as physical (like a stomach ache) or emotionally, creates blocking in other channels as well, and can create imbalance through other energy centres and physical processes.
Luckily, we hold it it in our hands to listen to ourselves and carry out what is necessary to maintain a happy balance!
Feeling a little sluggish or fatigued? Digestion feeling off? Maybe just a little down in the dumps, or even a little too fired up? Try these asanas to balance and enliven Manipura.
**Note: Remember to listen to your body and be safe and mindful through all parts of practice! It’s more important to be in your own harmonious pose, not in someone else’s.
Downward Dog to Plank Rolls
Beginning in downward facing dog, keep the feet hips width distance apart and hands shoulder widths distance. Press firmly into the ground with the fingers, taking weight off the wrists. ‘Plug’ the shoulders into their sockets and aim to keep the body in one long line from the feet to the head, maintaining the natural curves of the spine. Inhale deeply. On an exhalation, press back to downward facing dog, keeping the knees a little bit bent. Draw the navel in towards the spine. Exhale fully. On an inhalation, press into the hands, round the shoulders and begin to ‘roll forward into plank, utilizing the sides of the abdomen and upper abdominal muscles to bring you forward. Once back in plank, hold here for a few breaths, focusing on the front and back body, and engaging Mula Bandha if this is familiar to you. (See this link for a great article on Mula Bandha http://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-2583/Bandhas-for-Beginners-Intro-to-Yogas-Interior-Locks.html) Repeat sequence 2 or 3 times, however many feels comfortable.
Salabasana (Locust Pose)
Salabasana is a great pose to incorporate into your practice to supplement the emphasis that is normally put on the front of the body and strengthen the back! It also helps to strengthen the muscles around the sacrum, important for stability and injury prevention. Lay on the stomach and place the hands close to the shoulders. Slightly rotate the thighs inward and lift the legs and chest as you inhale, using the lower back muscles. Press the pelvis lightly into the ground and lenthen the tailbone toward the ground to protect the lower back and sacrum. Keep the chest open and the gaze soft. Hold for a few steady breaths and exhale to lower, resting for a couple breaths. Repeat 2-3 times.
Setu Bandhasana (Bridge Pose)
Bridge utilizes the back body muscles and frees the front body for a liberating but gentle backbend. Begin on the back with heels close to sitbones and arms at the sides, palms facing down. Inhale, press into the feet and lift the hips up, lengthening the lower spine toward the knees. Only lift as far as it feels good! Keep the legs parallel and breath even. You can keep the arms at the sides or walk the shoulders further under the body and interlace the fingers. Breathe into the opening of the chest. Exhale to lower back down and rest the knees together for a couple breaths.
‘Rock the Boat’
Begin by laying on the back with arms out to the sides. Slightly rotate the thighs inward, and inhale deeply. On an exhale, keep a slight pocket of air underneath the lower back to maintain the natural curve of the spine, and lift up to Navasana or Boat Pose. Keep the legs bent or straight here. If you don’t come fully up to Boat Pose it’s all good! The important part is focusing on using the deep abdominal and psoas muscles to lift you up. Imagine that you are lifting from the very top of where the legs connect to the torso, instead of the tops of the thighs. Keep the shoulders back and heart toward the sky, and aim to maintain a soft jaw. Inhale and lower down slowly, taking the arms wider out to the sides, almost all the way down, then lift again. Continue to ‘rock the boat’ for 5 complete breaths.
Begin on the back with heels close to sitbones and spine long. Bring the elbows out to the sides and touch the fingertips to the ears. Bring the legs up to a 90 degree angle, flex the feet and inhale. As you exhale, extend the left leg and contract the belly as you take the left elbow to the right knee. Inhale back to centre. Exhale, extend the right leg and bring the right elbow to the still bent left knee. Inhale back to centre.
Laying on the back with the arms out to the sides, palms facing down, lift the legs up, feet toward the sky. Keep the stomach muscles strong and inhale. Exhale and take the legs over toward the right, as far as is comfortable, and inhale the legs back to centre in strong controlled movements. You can use the arms to help keep you the upper body on the ground. Align the breath with the movements of the legs. Exhale lower legs to right, inhale back to centre. If it is more comfortable, keep the knees bent to take pressure off the spine.
Tolasana (Scale Pose)
Start in a cross legged seated position, or if not crossing the legs keep them straight out in front. Sit up tall with a long spine and either tent the fingers beside the body or use the hands placed on blocks beside the hips. On an exhalation, press the hands into the ground, tighten the belly and use your core muscle to lift the legs off the ground, or as far as you can go, engage mula bandha. Hold here for as long as possible and focus on lifting up from the very root of the pelvis and keeping a steady breath. Exhale to release back down when ready and take a moment to rest the palms on the knees or out to sides, breathing normally.
This is a nice cooling posture. Laying on the back, tuck the knees into the chest and hold the shins or backs of thighs. Inhale and loosen the grip of the legs, lengthen the spine, and as you exhale, draw the knees closer in toward the chest and the navel toward the spine. Keep the lower back on the mat. Apanasana is great for balancing the lower extremities and deals with descending energies relating to digestion and elimination. Visualize all the stale energies that you have mobilized descending down the spine and leaving the body as you exhale. It’s ok to laugh.
Jathara Parivartasana (Reclined Supine Twist)
This is such an amazing twist to release tension from the spine and mid body, as well as the shoulders and chest. Be gentle with your body and allow poses to come gracefully and with ease. Laying on the back with the knees bent, heels close to sitbones, take the arms out to the sides, palms facing down. Bring the knees to 90 degrees and slightly shift the hips to the left. Inhale and lengthen the spine from the root all the way to the crown of the head. Exhale as you lower the legs over to the right, twisting from the mid section. If available, look over the left shoulder. This is a passive twist, and revitalizes the nervous system as you move spinal fluid and joint debris to make way for new and vibrant engergies. Breathe normally and allow a calm mind. Inhale slowly back to centre and repeat on the other side.
Sivasana (Corpse Pose)
Awareness is the key to core strength and flexibility. As you lay in corpse pose, allow the limbs to be held by the earth, the feet to hang out to the sides and the face to be soft. Close the eyes and breathe deeply, expanding the belly and drawing your attention to the area just behind your belly button. Visualize a warm yellow light radiating from this space and emanating to all parts of the body in a sphere. Keep breathing and feeling this warmth, seeing this light with your mind’s eye. Spend as long as you need in this place. Notice how your mind and body are feeling and what may have changed from the beginning of your practice to now. What feelings have been cultivated?
No matter where you are, no effort is ever wasted, and the best thing we can do for ourselves in asana practice is listen to our bodies. Remember to breathe, and never force anything that doesn’t feel comfortable. Be safe in your practice and have fun!