Increasing core strength can transform your yoga practice, improving your balance and bringing more ease to difficult poses while protecting the overworked and fragile lower back. In addition, it is likely to have a tremendously positive impact on the rest of your life, improving your posture, reducing back pain, improving your breathing and digestion, and even increasing emotional resilience. This week I will be teaching some powerful core exercises I learned from Ana Forrest that address all these points.

When we think “core”, we tend to think of the abs (the “six pack”, or rectus abdominis), but the rectus abdominis is only one of four abdominal muscles, and the abs are only one of several muscle groups of the lower trunk that comprise “the core”. And while many conventional core exercises target the rectus abdominis to achieve the currently desirable look of a wash-board stomach, overworking the six pack in isolation can actually contribute to back pain, so finding a balanced approach to core strength is paramount. In addition to the rectus abdominis, the major core muscles that we want to strengthen also include the transversus abdominis, the internal and external obliques, the lumbar erector spinae muscles, and the ilio-psoas (sometimes referred to as two separate muscles, the psoas and the iliacus). Other perhaps less important core muscles include the quadratus lumborum and the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus. If this is all Greek to you (actually it’s mostly Latin) :), no worries; this week you will get to know the different groups of core muscles and what they do through asana practice, experiments and exercises.

How does a strong core protect the lower back, and why is this so important? If you look at a human skeleton, the architecture of the torso is quite striking. A rather dense assemblage of bones in the lower trunk (the pelvic girdle) is connected to the somewhat less dense but more complex bony framework of the ribcage and shoulder girdle. The connection, however, is a narrow series of 5 relatively small bones, the lumbar vertebrae. This clearly weakest link in the chain may seem like a faulty design, but it gives us the ability to flex, extend, twist, and side-bend the torso to a surprising degree. Strong core muscles, however, are necessary to compensate for the fragility of the lumbar spine that results from this amazing mobility. Strong core muscles—in the front, back and sides of the torso—help transfer the weight of the upper trunk into the legs, which the lumbar spine cannot bear by itself without sustaining damage.

However, even building balanced core strength is not enough. As muscles get stronger, they get shorter unless the strengthening is realized over the full range of motion and is coupled with stretching, and overly short core muscles can wreak just as much havoc on the lower back as weak core muscles. Thus we will also conduct experiments to see if any of your core muscles are overly tight, and will learn how to stretch them to generate the maximum benefit by balancing strength with flexibility.

While there are specific yoga poses and exercises that seem particularly designed to work the core, it is quite useful to think of every yoga pose as an opportunity to engage the core, not only to protect the lower back, but also to be able to effectively stretch other parts of the trunk. The stabilizing effect that the core muscles have on the lower back prevents us from overworking the lower back, but also effectively directs the stretch into other parts of the body that are less flexible, whether that be the hamstrings in uttanasana, the upper spine in bujangasana (cobra), or the shoulders in hasta tadasana. Without effective core muscles, not only will the lower back suffer, but the hips, the upper back and even the shoulders will lose more and more flexibility over time, because if you don’t use the core to keep your lower back in its neutral position, you can’t effectively stretch these other joints.

Lastly, tuning up your core can also have a positive effect on your digestion, and even on your emotional wellbeing. A vibrant core can do wonders for a sluggish digestion because the contraction and relaxation of core muscles moves and stimulates the abdominal organs and thus can help undo blockages. Working the core can even help heal emotional trauma, as it can give you access to unprocessed emotions stored in your subconscious and thus allow you to process them. This works because the part of the brain that stores painful unresolved memories also is responsible for holding muscular tension, especially in the hips and core, and in fact such held muscular tension is a common side effect of having experienced emotional trauma. The common description that “we store emotional trauma in the hips” is technically incorrect, but it does get at an important truth, the connection between hip tension and emotional trauma is real. Core work helps to release the physical tension, and in the process stimulates the part of the brain that is responsible for holding the physical tension. Stimulating these brain centers in turn can trigger a release of the stored unresolved memories that are connected to the held physical tension, allowing the memories to be consciously re-experienced and thus resolved.

So if you ever find yourself overcome by strong emotions or charged memories during your yoga practice, don’t push them away, but turn your awareness towards them and set them free. If that means taking a break from the physical practice, please do what you need to do. This is very important work, more important than another round of sun salutations.