Last week someone who attends my Beginners yoga class was asking me about whether yoga develops core strength. Yoga is holistic and yoga teachers don’t tend to think of muscle groups in isolation , so my immediate, slightly defensive reaction was, ‘Yes it does, but yoga does lots of other things as well.’
However I have been thinking a lot about this question and decided to do some research to see if I could provide a better answer.
Core strength is a common expression these days, but what does it actually mean and what is the core? To a lot of people it means having great abs and a washboard stomach. However it seems that the core muscles are much more than that and include the superficial and deep spinal extensors, abdominals, pelvic floor, shoulder girdle and hip girdle muscles.
Something else to consider is why do we want core strength in daily life? Is it just to look good or is it to help us physically – for example to aid good movement and posture, reduce the chance of injuries and back pain and to maintain a healthy spine?
In yoga we combine stability (stira) with ease/relaxation (sukha). The abdominals need to have the capacity to be soft and relaxed for deep, healthy breathing, but also elastic enough to support vital organs and stabilize the body.
There are yoga poses which target core muscles: plank, boat pose, balancing cat to name just a few and an advantage of yoga is that practices can be introduced gradually, slowly and with awareness and adapted to suit everyone’s needs. It can also be a varied and creative practice as there are many different postures to choose from, so it is unlikely to become mechanical and repetitive. But yoga is never a fast workout if that’s what you want.
Unlike some practices yoga develops a healthy ‘flexible’ strength’ (Tom Seabourne -exercise scientist and author of ‘Athletic Abs’.) There is no overemphasis on strengthening muscles in the mid section of the body at the expense of flexibility- which can cause more back ache- and reduce movement, in the pelvis and hips as an example, so adults lose the ability to squat.
In fact a well rounded yoga practice with a safe combination of back bends, forward bends, side bends, twists, balances, inversions and restorative poses develops core strength and stability and also flexibility, healthy breathing and relaxation-all of which can help backs.
Finally in yoga there is a holistic approach to the core, emotionally and mentally as well as physically, so we can feel strong and centred from the inside to deal with life’s challenges.
So I think I am back to where I started, but armed with a bit more knowledge now. Yoga does help strengthen the core, but it also has much more to offer!
Image courtesy of nenetus at FreeDigitalPhotos.net