You know core strength is important. After all, it’s why you bought (or at least considered!) that exercise ball to replace your desk chair at work.
But do you know why core strength is so important to overall health?
According Harvard Health, a strong core has far-reaching benefits. A strong core gives your whole body strength to do even the most minor daily tasks, from typing at your desk to carrying your 20-pound toddler.
Whether you’re a master yogi or more like Yogi Bear when it comes to hitting the mat, you can still use key yoga poses to strengthen your core.
Michal Duffy, a yoga teacher and practitioner in Boulder, Colorado, shares her favorite series of yoga poses for core strength. Each pose is suitable for beginners, but can be incorporated into any yoga routine, no matter your experience level.
“A great place to start any yoga practice is in the fundamental mountain pose,” Duffy says. “What appears to be a simple standing pose actually allows you to collect yourself, prepare your body and breath for movement, and begin to integrate mind and body.”
Mountain pose is the perfect warm-up for core strengthening exercises as you’ll slowly engage the muscles in your core and perform a body scan that will bring awareness to your practice.
To do mountain pose, Duffy says:
- Start standing with your feet hip-width apart.
- Lift and spread your toes and lightly rest them back down one at a time onto the ground.
- Feel the little pockets of air underneath the wide expanse of the bottom of your feet—here you are establishing your foundation and stability.
- As you inhale, ensure you’re in a strong stance with your knees over your feet and your hips over your knees, keeping your leg muscles nice and tight.
- Drop the tailbone slightly, bringing a gentle tuck to the pelvis—this opens the low back and begins to active your core.
- Expand your breath wide through your ribs and upper lungs.
- Gently lift the back of the skull, subtly tucking your chin toward your chest to really lengthen the spine, reaching the crown of your head toward the sky.
- Bring your shoulder blades toward one another and slide them down your back, allowing the chest to open.
- Keep your arms relaxed by your sides with palms gently open, facing forward.
- Concentrate on your breath filling your body, starting at your feet and moving upward.
- Each inhale expands big and broad, each exhale empties from the top of your core to the bottom as the navel draws in toward the spine.
- Ground in mountain pose for several breaths, allowing the mind to clear as you focus on the breath and the physical sensation in your body.
Fierce Pose (aka Chair Pose)
Command core strength like a queen.
This pose is aptly named because it looks like you’re sitting in an invisible chair or throne, like a fierce queen, meaning it’s totally ok to channel your inner Beyoncé during this pose.
To move into fierce pose from mountain pose:
- Open your eyes and inhale your hands wide and high above your head.
- As you exhale, bend at the knees and send your seat back as if you were going to sit in a chair behind you.
- Keep your legs hip-width apart with the knees over the ankles (don’t let them extend forward over the toes or knock in together—you should be able to see your toes as you sink back).
- Lift your chest and draw your shoulders back, spreading your collar bones wide.
- You can keep your arms extended overhead, shoulder width apart, with the biceps pulling back in line with the ears, or, if extending your arms isn’t working for you, bring the palms to your heart center and press them into one another.
- Keep your shoulders down and away from your ears regardless of your arm variation.
- Keep your spine long by imagining your tailbone extending out diagonally behind you to meet the ground and your crown reaching up above and beyond you.
- Keep most of the weight in your heels and your hips; allow the toes to rest lightly on the earth without gripping.
- Take long slow breaths, again expanding wide through the ribcage and chest on each inhale.
- On each exhale, draw the navel toward the spine to empty completely.
Don’t be afraid to allow the heat to rise through your body, Duffy says. “Cultivate this warmth with lips closed or explore lion’s breath by inhaling deeply and exhaling with a wide open mouth and wide eyes, stick out your tongue, and make an audible exhale—breathe fire!”
End fierce pose after holding it for several breaths. Return to mountain pose for a moment to feel your heart rate and control your breath before moving into the next pose.
Time to Take Flight
“Also called airplane pose, there are various ways to come into warrior III from mountain pose,” says Duffy.
To flow into warrior III from mountain pose:
- For beginners, take a deep inhale, and on your exhale fold forward until your hands reach the ground, blocks, or another stable surface positioned strategically in front of you.
- Inhale and reach the spine long, keeping your back flat and hips bent at a 90° angle.
- Ground down into the left foot and lift the right leg straight back behind you.
- Work to bring the right heel as high as the back of the hip to create a long line from the heel forward through the torso to the top of the head—all of which are parallel to the ground.
- Think about lifting the inner thigh up toward the sky.
- The back of the hips should stay level with the back of the shoulders as much as possible, as if you are creating a table with your back.
- Find a steady focal point with your eyes and slowly try lifting your hands off the ground.
- As you find stability, you can explore arm variations: palms pressed together at heart center, arms along each side of the torso with open palms facing down beside the hips, or arms extended straight forward beyond the top of the skull.
- Stay with your breath and maintain your steady focal point to bring yourself into balance.
“The lift of the torso and challenging balance of this pose activate the core and build strength,” Duffy says.
As you finish one side, inhale back up to mountain, then repeat on the other side.
Core Strength, Old School
Plank is the OG core-strengthening move, and plank variations can look deceptively easy. But don’t be fooled—these yoga poses are a serious core workout.
To do a traditional plank:
- Begin with your hands grounded under your shoulders, fingers and palms spread wide to create a good base.
- Your feet are extended behind you with the toes curled under and your body is lifted off the ground so only your toes and hands are touching down.
- Press into your fingertips and try to create a pocket of space under the palms of the hands by subtly lifting your palms off the mat. This activates the lift through the arms and engages all your muscles.
Hey NYC friends! 👋 Who wants to do some partner yoga in the park before it gets too cold? I’m co-teaching a fun little workshop with my friend Mel (@headstandsandheels) at Brooklyn Bridge Park on Saturday, October 14th at 11am. All you need to bring is a mat + a friend (or your S.O.?!). If you can make it, let either of us know via DM and we can share exact location deets! Can’t wait to see you there 🙂 #HapaYogis
- Forearms spiral slightly inward and upper arms spiral slightly outward to open the chest and integrate the shoulders. To achieve this, bring the inner edges of your shoulder blades toward one another and maintain a broad chest.
- Avoid a sway in your back by preventing your hips from sagging. Likewise, don’t allow the hips to point upward. Instead, find a position that creates a long line from the tailbone to the crown of your head.
- Return to your breath—long, full, and steady.
“Dolphin plank is another challenging variation that is especially good for those with wrist issues,” says Duffy. “In this variation the elbows are bent and the forearms are pressed into earth, the hands fold together. The body is closer to the earth, but keep that long line of the body without allowing the hips to dip down or pop up.”
Your breath is your tide.
- For Duffy’s final core strengthening pose, come to sitting with your legs extended in front of you.
- Begin to lean back slightly and lift your legs up—ankles together—to create a wide V shape with your torso and legs.
- Arms extend forward, parallel to earth on the outside of the legs.
- Draw your shoulders back, spreading your collar bones wide.
- Maintain a long spine and draw the back of the skull in line with the back of the spine.
- Spread your toes and breathe deeply.
- Experiment with different distances between the torso and legs and your legs and the floor, leaning further back into a wider angle or drawing up in a tighter V shape.
- Notice the shift in balance and muscle engagement.
- Find your sweet spot and hold there for several breaths.
- Focus on the contraction of the abdomen as you exhale and the expansion of the chest as you inhale.
To end, stretch out on the ground with your legs hip-width apart and your feet open. Allow your arms to rest by your sides with your palms facing upward in savasana or corpse pose. Close your eyes and relax your breathing to a slow, steady pace.
As you finish this core strengthening sequence Duffy says you should, “Lay quietly for several minutes to rest and integrate your experience. This allows the body to absorb the good work you’ve done. As you’re ready, roll to one side and rest in fetal pose for a few breaths.”
When you rise up from your mat, you’ll be ready to implement your core strength throughout your day!