Our core is a complex array of muscles that extends beyond the abs. When we mention the word “core”, usually we think of our abdomen. That’s the common perception. Though the key muscles of the core lie in the abdominal region, it goes beyond the abdomen and includes other muscles too.
Interestingly on a spiritual level, the core is connected to our vital life force. Hence, when we have a strong core we are better grounded to cope with life’s ups and downs.
From the physical dimension, the core muscles are the ones that administer balance, stability, and mobility. The core is a range of different muscles working in unison to support our spine and pelvis and enable us to lift and move the body as a single functional unit. Muscles of the core are also associated with respiration. Lacking dexterity in the core muscles can affect our breathing dynamics.
The yogic way of strengthening the core muscles does not necessarily mean having a “six pack”. It has got more to do with connecting to the deep tissues and strengthening a coordinated group of muscles that support us in all our bodily movements.
The first three outermost layers of the core are the abdominal muscles and are involved in forward bends and twists. These layers and most of the prominent core muscles are further described below.
The contours of the Rectus Abdominis are what form the famously known “six pack abs”. This runs vertically on the front surface of the torso from the middle of the rib cage to the pubic bone.
It is the first of the three layers of abdominal muscles responsible for the support and movement of the spine. The active function of the RA is rotating and bending of the trunk. It also protects the abdominal organs.
The RA is put into action in poses such as Half Boat Pose (Ardha Navasana) and Crane Pose (Bakasana).
The second layer of the abdominal muscles are the obliques which are slanted and come with internal and external sub-layers. Commonly known as the side muscles, the obliques run diagonally along the sides. They emerge from the lower eight ribs and run down along our pelvis. They wrap around the front torso and reach almost all the way back, to the spine.
Both the external and internal obliques provide stability to the spine and help to twist the torso and bend it sideways. The obliques protect the spine during twists and bends, ensuring that the spine twists evenly to avoid any injuries.
When it comes to functionality, there’s one difference between the two. The external obliques help the trunk rotate towards the opposite side of the body. On the other hand, the internal obliques allow the trunk to rotate towards the same side.
Ardha Matsyendrasana (sitting half spinal twist) puts the obliques to work. It involves twisting the neck, waist and shoulders and so it involves both the external and internal obliques. Twisting Navasana (Boat Pose) is another posture where the Obliques come into play.
This forms the deepest of the four layers of the abdominal muscles. This set of muscles protects the spine by bracing it especially when you are lifting something heavy. It wraps around the torso embracing the entire abdomen from the breastbone to the pubic bone.
The TA works with the diaphragm and muscles of the pelvic floor to stabilize the lower back and pelvis. It also compresses the abdominal contents and protects the spine.
The Plank Pose (Phalakasana) on one arm and Four-Limbed Staff Pose (Chaturanga Dandasana) make use of the TA.
This term is extensively used in yoga classes as a problem area. The deepest muscle in the body, which connects the torso to the leg, the Psoas, is also known as one of the hip flexors. The psoas originates at the outside of the lumbar spine(lower back),comes forward across the pelvis and then attaches to the thigh bone, the femur(inner thigh).
The psoas contracts to pull the thigh and torso towards each other. It aids us while walking, sitting, standing by applying a powerful pull on the leg in the inner thigh. Psoas plays a crucial role in forward bends, working together with the abdominal muscles. It is extremely important as it renders structural support to the spine. It is so central and deep that when we lie down, our abdominal organs rest on it.
Serious postural problems can arise from a tight psoas. When we stand, it pulls the low back vertebrae down towards the femur. This may result in lower back pain and stiffness.
Navasana or the Boat Pose is one yoga asana that can help you strengthen your psoas. To support the V-shape of the pose, the psoas provides this connection between the spine and the thighs. Navasana engages not just the psoas but also the abdominals, back muscles and the quadriceps.
This set of muscles enables the rotation and tilting of the spine by supporting the vertebral joints. Multifidus comprise back muscles located on the surface of the torso, which we use while arching the back in yoga poses. The multifidus is closest to the spine and they connect one vertebrae to the other.
These muscles are engaged when the whole length of the spine needs to be be extended. They support motion by protecting the spine whenever we sit, stand or engage in larger movements. If we place our hands on our lower back and walk about, the shifting of the muscles we feel, is our Multifidi. Do the plank to strengthen the multifidus and other core muscles.
Having a crisp understanding of the anatomy of the core is essential for augmenting our practice of yoga. An awareness of the core muscles, that help in movement and stability, gives us greater clarity as we practice. We begin to appreciate how the human body is supported by a complex set of interactions that synchronize to work as a whole.