Once an esoteric spiritual discipline reserved for hippies, flower children and cult devotees, yoga is now about as mainstream as bangs, triangle tattoos and gluten-free water. Still, as amazing a workout as it can be, it has its weak points - specifically, core strength.
“But, yoga’s a full body workout!” I can already hear a herd of Lululemon-clad folks marked by well-defined tricep hallows protest in choral sing-song.
I was nine years into my six-day-a-week Ashtanga practice when my spine freaked out, rendering me hunched over, partially paralyzed, and wracked with pain. The chiropractor diagnosed me with five compressed discs in my upper cervical spine.
“You have no core strength,” he admonished, explaining why my body had given out on me.
“I’m a third series Ashtangi,” I huffed, offended at the mere suggestion that I was anything but a fit, lean, über-bendy muscle machine. “I can contort my body into shapes most people can’t even imagine. Of course I have core strength.”
Except I didn’t. I was, in fact, compensating for an alarmingly weak core by using my back, and other parts of my body that weren’t actually meant to support me in five-breath arm balances while I squeezed my anus, focused my gaze at the tip of my nose, and tried to pretend I wasn’t thinking I was hot shit. Six days a week. For nine years in a row.
It’s no wonder my back gave out on me.
As it turns out, yoga doesn’t actually work the core. Not directly, at least. Take Ashtanga, for instance. The primary series doesn’t even touch on the stomach until a good two-thirds of the way in, when the practitioner takes five rounds of navasana (boat pose), at which point they are likely exhausted, and running on fumes. Sure, a vinyasa teacher can toss in some belly work early on in their sequencing, but without an initiatory core connection, it is highly likely that the practitioner is relying on some muscle groups that might not be in their best interests to rely on while soaring through their Suryanamaskars.
Pilates is a core-based practice that demands a deep and intimate connection between the practitioner and their belly. It’s what allowed me to heal my back, and to inhabit my body in an infinitely more supportive, sustainable way after the great spine collapse of 2009. Still, I am a yogi at heart. I like to flow, and to sweat, and to Ujayi breathe my way through my morning prayers, and so it is that I have merged the two into a super compatible tag-team practice.
As my Pilates teacher, Liz, says: “Pilates isn’t just a workout, it’s a method of movement,” which means that with the just-right combination of focus, intention and connection, any movement can be Pilates, even yoga.
I still practice traditional Ashtanga, but I’ve modified my internal focus such that I am consistently tuning into my core, and to the intricacies of the muscles therein, such that every movement I take originates from, and is supported by, my core. To this end, I find it super helpful to start off with a few Pilates mat exercises before I start my sun salutations – either the Hundred, or a set of Roll-Ups, or even a dozen Double Leg Stretches – just enough movement to wake up my lower belly, and to allow me to feel into those muscles so that I can track them throughout my yoga practice. From that point on, it’s on me to maintain that connection. I use the Ujayi breathe as my compass, drawing the breathe deep into my lower belly on the inhale, and intensifying the contraction on the exhale. Sure, it’s exhausting as all hell, but it makes a huge difference – allowing me to feel infinitely more stable and grounded throughout the entirety of my practice, as I cultivate a deeper and deeper connection to that magical Hara the ancient mystics considered a vital energy center, as well as one’s personal gravitational anchoring point.
By simply adjusting my focus, and my attention during my morning practice, the Ashtanga series now doubles as an intensified ab workout, which has stabilized my spine, as well as my entire bodily orientation, and gifted me a rock solid mid-section that happens to look rad in a bikini.
Yay for strong cores, happy spines and rock star multitasking!