Most of us don’t associate yoga with defined abs, but it turns out that vinyasa and hatha yoga classes are excellent ways to build core strength.
In a 2013 study, researchers measured the intensity of core muscles working in different exercises — including boat pose, side plank and forearm plank on a Swiss ball — and found the intensity of these three poses ranged from 63–96% of maximum muscle output. In layman’s terms, that means the muscles were working 5–54% harder than they do in a crunch. “Yoga-style exercises can be used effectively for abdominal training and conditioning,” the study authors concluded.
You also have to rely on your core in balancing poses like tree, warrior III, half-moon and all arm balances and inversions.
“In yoga, you have mula bandha,” says Irina Ovsiannikova, international yoga teacher and creator of Yoga Tone. “It means ‘root lock,’ the root of all your power — and when you find that, connect with it and engage it, you’re firing up your core muscles.”
Using your core muscles helps you find balance, strength and flexibility, on the mat and in life, she says. “The core is the beginning. Once you ignite that power and turn on your pelvic floor and abdominal muscles, all poses are easy,” she adds.
Try these three yoga poses from Ovsiannikova to fire up your mula bandha and build serious core strength.
ROCK YOUR BOAT
To get the most out of each pose, picture what your muscles are doing. “If you visualize pulling your transverse abdominis in toward the midline of your body, they actually fire up,” Ovsiannikova says.
- Sit up straight, pull your knees in toward your chest and lift your legs up so your shins are parallel to the floor, coming to boat pose. Flex your feet and glue your legs and knees together. Contract your entire abdominal region and your pelvic floor muscles.
- Inhale, and on your exhale, straighten and lower your legs and upper body down to half-boat pose. Your feet and torso will hover a few inches off the ground. Keeping your chest open, shoulders relaxed, and toes in line with your nose, hold this pose for 3 breaths.
- Roll onto your right sitting bone and left butt cheek. Hold here for 3 breaths.
- Roll back to center, then to your left sitting bone and right butt cheek. Hold for 3 breaths.
- Continue alternating for up to 15 times per side. The slower you go, the harder this is.
L LEG LIFTS
“This exercise looks simple, but if you do it correctly, it’s incredibly effective and really targets your obliques,” Ovsiannikova says.
- Lay flat on your back and bring your knees to your chest. Inhale, and on your exhale, lift your legs to the ceiling. Keep your legs together and as straight as possible throughout this exercise, as if you only have one leg. Place your hands out to the sides in a T shape, palms down.
- Pull your belly button down and in toward your lower back. On an exhale, lower your legs to the right until they touch the floor. (Your body should be in L-shape.)
- To return to center, anchor your hands to the floor, engage your core and bring your legs up, keeping them as straight as possible.
- Repeat to the left side.
- Build up to 10 times per side, going as slow as possible and resisting gravity on the way down.
This variation on warrior III works your transverse abdominis (the muscles that lie underneath the “six-pack muscles”) and pelvic floor.
- Stand up straight and pull your lower-belly muscles in toward your lower back. Hug your right knee tight into your chest. Balance for 5 breaths.
- Keeping your knee close to your chest, fold forward, bringing your body parallel to the floor. Balance for 5 breaths.
- Keeping your core tight, relax your shoulders and on your next exhale, stretch your right leg back and both arms forward, coming to warrior III.
- On your next inhale, bring your knee back to your chest to balance. Repeat up to 5 times.
- The last time, hold warrior III for 5 breaths. Bring your knee back to your chest and stand up straight. Place your foot back on the ground.
- Repeat on the left side.
GEAR UP FOR YOUR NEXT YOGA SESSION