I’m sure that you’ve admired the highly toned six-pack of Jess Ennis during the Olympics games last year, maybe even admitting to a little six-pack envy! A toned muscular torso is symbolic of strength and power and as we spring into action this summer, it's worth considering how important our core is in Yoga, whether we have a six or a one-pack!
But when we go beyond the physical outer aesthetics of a strong core you discover a deeper importance; it not only creates strength and stability for the whole body, in many Eastern traditions it is also the origin of our innermost guidance and wisdom. The benefits of being in touch with our core expand deeply beyond physical muscular strength, but connect us to a highly intuitive support system, which guides all our movements and decisions whether on or off the yoga mat.
I recently gave acupuncture to a patient for acute back pain caused by overstretching during a Pilates class. At a time when her body was telling her to wind things down and rest, she was pushing beyond her reserves physically and energetically. Modern living doesn’t always allow for this basic need to slow down or withdraw. Yet just as nature ebbs and flows, so too does our energy. I’ve certainly been reminded of this at times when I’ve been practising yoga a little too enthusiastically, usually at the expense of an old shoulder injury that starts to niggle!
Sustaining our natural rhythms
Yoga teaches us to be in touch with our natural rhythms by focusing on the breath as it travels into the abdomen. When our movements are integrated with our breath in this way, we can discern the needs of our body with greater sensitivity. In this way we know whether we maybe overextending, which can result in compressed joints, overstretched muscles or our energy feeling dissipated. A house may be aesthetically beautiful on the outside but may be inefficient in its use of energy. Developing a connection with our core is like tapping into an inner support system that teaches us to adjust and conserve our energy in a way that is sustainable in the long term.
These days there is a much greater understanding of the importance of sustainability versus short-termism in many different areas of life. In professional sport, economy in movement can sustain your career. There is a much stronger focus on long-term care, injury prevention and looking after your body. Football and rugby clubs are investing heavily into podiatry, physiotherapy, yoga and other rehabilitative therapies to sustain the professional life of their teams knowing that preservation, strength and success lie in the small details, such as: maintaining a healthy spine, good balance, alignment of the feet, sustaining good muscle tone and a healthy diet, and not least the importance of resting players for longevity and ensuring that they are match fit.
Less is often more
In an productivity and action focused culture constant effort is encouraged. In Chinese philosophy, the idea of ‘wu wei' means "natural action, or action that doesn't involve struggle or excessive effort". It recommends that we stop trying to force things and align with our own intrinsic energy flow; adjusting what we do, where possible, to reflect the energy available to us. It recognises that there is a natural ebb and flow to life which we can learn by observing nature: nature has a period of stillness, "eagles aren’t always soaring and gliding", waves rise and fall. When we stop doing for a while, or do a little less, our actions become more energized, focused and efficient. Likewise, creating stability in our core brings an efficiency and freedom of movement.
Moving from the 'centre'
In yoga it is the ability to be able to move from our ‘centre’ that teaches us how much or how little to extend, when to wait for our muscles to open, when to conserve energy or challenge ourselves more. Responding in this way brings more integrity, balance, and relaxation to our actions. In environmental terms it’s better recycle our energy: storing it up for use later on, rather than ‘down-cycling’, which pushes us beyond our energy reserves.
In dance and martial arts moving from your core creates an ease of changes in direction, shifting of weight and balance. An experienced dancer moves with an effortlessness and fluidity of movement that comes from being able to move from the inside out. Chinese martial artists develop internal strength and move with a minimum of effort and tension, by nurturing a strong connection to their centre, also known as the Dan Tian. It is the place from which the navel expands and contracts when we practice deep abdominal breathing. Breathing in this way makes the mind and body more relaxed, reduces stress and anxiety and increases the body's vitality and energy.
In all of these movement forms there is a constant moving away from and returning to the centre. The extensions of the arms and legs are always supported and informed by a connection with the core, the periphery is always an expression of the whole or a deeper connection to the inner body.
A deeper awareness and connection with your core through yoga will help you to develop your understanding of your practice. Remembering these key points will ensure that you move in a safe, sustainable and efficient way:
- Integrate breath with movement
- Being attentive to details that refine your alignment to create greater stability and minimal muscular tension
- Don't force movement, align with your natural energy flow
- Move from your centre - this will be the region from which the expansion of the abdomen on the inhalation seems to originate
- Trust your inner feedback, let your yoga teacher know if something doesn't feel quite right for you, for example, if an old injury begins to niggle or you're experiencing discomfort