While most of us are familiar with yoga as a gentle form of exercise that improves flexibility, many would be surprised to find that yoga can be just as effective as pilates at strengthening and toning the body; in particular the core muscles. The ‘core’ has become a buzz word in fitness over the past few years, with people trying everything from sit-ups to pole dancing in an attempt to get an enviable washboard stomach. However, there is a lot more to core strength than a flat stomach; these important muscles are responsible for the general strength and stability of the whole body, and yoga is a great way to get them working.
The core consists of a band of muscles that wrap around the mid-section of the body and are responsible for a person’s posture and alignment. The main muscles of the core are the rectus abdominis, the transverse abdominis and the internal and external obliques. These muscles work together with many other deeper and smaller muscles to support and stabilize the body; every activity from sweeping the floor to playing football requires the use of the core muscles.
A person with weak core muscles can suffer with back pain, widespread muscular weakness in the arms and legs and even incontinence problems. When the core muscles are strong, the body is less prone to injury and pain and balance and posture are also greatly improved. So you see, having a strong core means so much more than having a six pack; it also improves the general quality and enjoyment of life.
Yoga’s emphasis on alignment and posture is very beneficial for developing strong core muscles. The standing and balancing poses in particular, such as warrior two or tree pose, use the core muscles for support and stability. Poses like side plank and boat pose focus explicitly on the core muscles, requiring these muscles to activate strongly to hold the pose. Inversions, poses like headstand where the heart is higher than the head, require a lot of core strength also, as the core is responsible for keeping the body supported and upright.
Yoga also helps to create flexible core muscles through breathing exercises and poses such as forward bends and back bends; where space is created in the front and back of the torso by stretching the muscles. It is this combination of strengthening and stretching, that is part of every yoga class, that results in the effective toning of these muscles.
So next time you go to the gym to do your usual stomach crunches or core class, give yoga a try, you’ll be surprised by the results.