Learn About Your Core And How to Strengthen Those Muscles

Well-trained abdominal muscles are pliable, not chiseled or hard, and adapt quickly to change.

Your core is more complicated than just your muscles

When we talk about core power, abdominal muscles come to mind. But our core is much more than that. It connects us to our feelings and moods via the nerves of our gastrointestinal system and our enteric nervous system, or “belly brain.” We might feel off kilter when our gut health is out of whack or disconnected from life when our bellies are hard and tight. We can also experience upset stomachs when we feel stressed, depressed, or sleep-deprived.

Here’s a fuller view of your core, or the space between the diaphragm and pelvic floor, wrapping around the torso—also known as “the midsection” and “abdominopelvic cavity.”

  • It includes numerous muscles, superficial and deep: rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques, transversus abdominis, multifidus, erector spinae, quadratus lumborum, and distal latissimus dorsi.
  • It is home to most of your viscera: stomach, spleen, small and large intestines, liver, gall bladder, kidneys, pancreas, bladder, and reproductive organs.

See also Yoga Anatomy 201: Tension in Your Neck and Shoulders? Why You Should Focus on Your Rib Cage for Relief

Core Muscles

Your core muscles help control your posture and body position. For instance, the rectus abdominis works primarily to stabilize your rib cage in relation to your pelvis. The transversus abdominis and multifidus work with the pelvic floor and diaphragm to stabilize your lumbar spine. Your core muscles also produce and transfer force during dynamic movements such as vinyasa yoga or running, maintaining spinal stability in order to protect your nerves, disks, joints, and connective tissue. Try these asana to explore abdominal stabilization:

See also Retrain Your Core: 5 Steps for More Stability in Standing Poses

Box Breath Muscles

Among your core muscles, your abdominal muscles—rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques, transversus abdominis—work as accessory respiratory muscles, affecting how well you breathe, which, in turn, affects how you feel. Use this simple breath-based practice, which manipulates pressure in your belly space, to explore how changes in muscle activation affect your mental and emotional states.

  • Sit or lie down with as much support as needed to feel comfortable.
  • Inhale and exhale at your own pace for 6-10 rounds of breath, allowing the body to move with the breath.
  • After at least 6 rounds of breath, exhale and pull the navel toward the spine without moving the pelvis or rib cage.
  • Hold the navel in and take 4-6 rounds of breath, noting the depth and other sensations of the breath.
  • Inhale, relax the abs, and breathe at your own pace until you feel recovered.
  • Then, exhale and pull the lower abs in toward the sacrum without moving the pelvis or rib cage.
  • Hold the lower belly in and take 4-6 rounds of breath, again noting the depth and sensations.
  • Inhale, relax the abs, and allow yourself to recover.
  • Finally, exhale and pull the side waist in toward the center of the body without any accessory movements.
  • Hold the side waist in, like a tight wide belt, and take 4-6 rounds of breath.
  • Inhale and breathe naturally, noting any changes in breath and body sensation.

See also Strengthen Your Core Without Crunches with this Simple 5-Pose Sequence

Core Viscera

Your sense of well-being relies deeply on the condition of your enteric nervous system, which connects to your central nervous system via the vagus nerve and several other pathways. The belly brain and central nervous system work together to control digestive function and how you react to stress. When your belly feels painful, acidic, or heavy, your nervous system and perception often mirror these qualities; you may find yourself sticking to a hard, narrow view, and have trouble adapting to change. In particular, stressors such as chronic disease, sleep deprivation, work-life imbalance, and emotional suffering stimulate the vagus nerve and changes in hormone levels, blood pressure, metabolism, and mental clarity.

Research shows the damaging effect of chronic stress on vagal tone, especially the correlation between an exaggerated stress response and gastrointestinal conditions like irritable bowel syndrome. Restorative Yoga is one way to allow your body to rest, digest, and repair itself. In particular, supported and restorative back extensions take pressure off the belly region by positioning it higher than the heart and head. Most of us remember a time when our gut feeling was so strong that it drowned out the voices in our head; practicing these back extensions lets us further develop our intuition. With our soft belly lifted, we open ourselves maximally to the present moment and might find clarity if we feel confused or conflicted. There is no greater position of vulnerability and strength.

See also Why Your Diaphragm Could Be the Core Strength Game-Changer You’ve Overlooked

Learning to trust your gut requires gentle, consistent practice. When you feel anxious, depressed, or fatigued, take at least 20 minutes to practice an extended-leg variation of Setu Bandha Sarvangasana. (This pose is contraindicated for pregnancy, diastasis recti, spinal conditions such as lumbar stenosis and spondylolisthesis, abnormal uterine bleeding (menorrhagia), and GERD.) Supported Bridge Pose can help release tight hip flexors and abdominal muscles. It may relieve anxiety and depression by taking energetic pressure off the brain, inviting the body to lead. And it can alleviate insomnia by giving the mind a back seat through lowering the head’s position relative to the heart and belly.

Setu Bandha Sarvangasana

Setu Bandha Sarvangasana

You’ll need 2 bolsters and 1 or 2 belts. Blankets, blocks, and eye pillows are optional.

  • Place the bolsters end to end. They will support you from your heels to the wingtips of the shoulder blades. If your feet or legs hang off the end, place blocks under them. If the bolsters are too thick for your comfortable range of motion, use folded blankets instead.
  • Sit on top of the bolsters or blankets. Roll your thighs inward. Comfortably tighten a strap below your knees and around your greater trochanters (the uppermost part of your thighs) to keep your legs stable. If it’s more comfortable, bend your knees (skip using a strap below them) and place your feet alongside the props.
  • Lower your torso so that the bottom tips of your scapulae rest on the edge of the prop(s) closest to your head. Rest your head comfortably on the floor, placing a blanket under it if needed. You must be able to swallow with ease.
  • Place your arms comfortably in a T position or overhead. If your arms need support, place folded blankets under your wrists only; lifting the wrists drops your elbows and relieves your shoulders.
  • Cover your eyes and body with a blanket. Rest for 20 minutes.

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To come out of the pose, loosen the straps, bend your knees, and take several rounds of breath. Ease yourself onto the floor, and gently drop your knees from side to side or practice Jathara Parivartanasana (Revolved Abdomen Pose). Follow with CatCow Pose or Apanasana (Wind-Relieving Pose). Notice how you feel in your core.

Remember, a soft belly is a strong belly. 

See also Anatomy 201: What’s the Difference Between Deep Core Strength and All-Around Trunk Stability?

About our expert

Mary Richards has been practicing yoga for almost 30 years and travels around the country teaching anatomy, physiology, and kinesiology. Mary, a hard-core movement nerd and former NCAA athlete, has a master’s degree in yoga therapy. Learn more at maryrichardsyoga.com.