Yoga For Killer Abs, Pt. II
June 3, 2012
The heat of the summer is finally upon us, and with this we are forced to wear less clothing in public. This is a good opportunity to feel good about your midsection when at the beach or picnicking in your bathing suit. If you’ve been eating properly and exercising regularly week to week as explained in Part I of this entry, your abdominals should look great or be well on their way to looking amazing, a model of health. If this is not the case, you know exactly why and what habits to cut out of your routine. I will begin to introduce some yoga poses and movements that specifically target the abdominals to build strength, stamina, and endurance to the midsection and surrounding areas. I recommend including one or two of these movements into your regular asana practice and putting them in rotation so you can experience all of these movements within a week and start the cycle again. I don’t recommend only doing these movements and no others as you will gain more benefit from engaging the entire body and including these to target the midsection rather than engaging the whole body and excluding these.
I am a big fan of the Side Plank Pose. Others may know this movement as the Iron Cross. The reason this pose is so powerful is that it challenges your balance, your ability to hold up your own weight on one arm at a time, and it targets the external obliques where things like muffin tops can form. It is classified as a basic one arm balance pose, so if you can’t do it, don’t be discouraged and keep trying; each time you revisit the pose, the body will have adapted and it will become easier with subsequent attempts.
Like most yoga poses that seem difficult at first, holding this position becomes easy when you find the neutral alignment of the spine and legs with the effortless structural support afforded by the arm position against gravity. If you enter this pose without the notion of struggling, you should naturally arrive at a pretty close approximation of how to hold this pose with minimal effort and therefore the least strain on maintaining balance. This exemplifies the simplicity of the pose, yet the difficulty of achieving it. Breathing can be deep in this pose, but this runs the risk of destabilization. Also, the use of abdominal and thoracic musculature in stabilization of this pose makes deep breathing difficult in side plank. By finding the efficiency afforded in neutral alignment from shoulders through spine, hips, and legs, minimum effort can be combined with minimum breathing that is not too shallow in order to provide the muscles with enough oxygen to hold the pose.
Great, but how do you get in and out of the pose? This is a challenge in itself! I recommend starting in a pushup position. Looking at the diagram above, imagine rotating the body so the chest is facing the floor and both arms are now on the ground holding you up. This moment is crucial, because just as the above illustration shows a neutral efficient position with minimal stress in any one specific location, so must the pushup position start in a neutral position where both arms hold up the body and the biomechanics of the skeletal system against gravity essentially hold you up effortlessly. This pushup position is called Plank Pose. So, to get into Side Plank, we momentarily start in Plank.
But what of the feet? This is another crucial point that must be explained or will cause problems. In an ordinary pushup position, your feet are hip-width apart, and this is where we start. Once you are balancing efficiently in Plank Pose with your spine down to your ankles in a straight line, begin to rotate the body to one side while lifting the opposite arm off the ground. Your feet will naturally rotate and your heels will fall to the side while your feet are still apart, and this will help stabilize you as you get fully to one side and lift one arm straight up to the sky. Once you are successfully in Side Plank Pose in an efficiently balancing neutral position, you can place one foot directly over the other as in the illustration. To complete the pose, turn your head in the direction on the lifted arm as shown.
Because I tend to challenge myself further, I like to add motion to the pose by slightly dropping the hips a few inches, carefully stretching the side that faces the floor while slightly contracting the side facing the sky. Then I bring my hips back up to a neutral position and symmetrically lift the hips a few inches, stretching the side that faces the sky, while contracting the side facing the floor. Do this while breathing smoothly and as deeply as balancing will allow. Then, drop into pushup position and balance on the other side, using the arm that was reaching up to hold up your weight, and repeat the hip dropping and lifting movements while breathing smoothly and deeply. You’ll know when you’ve had enough, and when it’s too much you just might fall out of the pose.
My next favorite pose that sums up much of what yoga asana is all about and is great for targeting the abdominals is called Boat Pose. This one is particularly difficult for me because my legs are quite long in relation to my torso, and those of you with shorter legs and longer torsos may find this pose easier to some degree, so you can push yourself harder and get better results!
To perform Boat Pose, you will have to start by lying flat on your back with your arms at your sides. Breathe in smoothly and deeply for a few breaths while relaxing physically as much as possible and preparing mentally for exerting large amounts of tension for a short time. These two extremes of going from intense relaxation to controlled extreme physical tension is the essence of yoga asana, and swinging back and forth like a pendulum enables you to reach new, previously unexperienced realms of both extremes. Because yoga asana can be so intentionally strenuous and extremely relaxing, done regularly it can restore health and synergy to the human body where it may be lacking through dysfunction, revitalizing and renewing to a state of youthful strength and appearance.
Still lying flat on the ground and ready to exhale, the only place the body should now bend is at the hips. Keeping the spine straight and erect, slowly start to fold in the middle by evenly bringing your torso up off the ground and bringing your legs up at an equivalent angle. In the meantime, keep your arms in front of you and parallel to the ground. Once you are feeling secure in your balance and are aware that you are continuing to breathe without interruption, take this pose to the next level where you will reap all the benefits of abdominal strength and toning: tense up your abdominals as much as you can while making tight fists with your hands, tighten and tense up the muscles in your legs, and keep a steady breath. Become metal, become steel in this pose, and just as you previously relaxed and prepared for extreme tension, breathe and prepare for extreme relaxation as you are putting yourself into the most tense expression of your body in this position. It is not necessary to express any tension in the face, and it is not recommended to create or express extreme tension in the face, so be aware if you do this involuntarily, and learn to separate the two; expressions of extreme tension need not be expressed in the face at any time in any yoga pose, and throughout this focus and concentration you can carry this practice into other aspects of your life. When you’ve had enough, slowly come down evenly and return to the original lying position, and feel the new depths of relaxation you are able to achieve with the next few breaths. Prepare again and repeat, preferably for a total of 3 to 4 repetitions.
Shoulder Stand is another pose that although is not directly targeting your abdominals like these previous poses, it uses the abdominals and back muscles together to stabilize the body in an inverted posture. The reason I am including it in this entry is that it activates the thyroid in the chin lock position and will push your metabolism forward out of a slump so you can burn extra unwanted fat in the body. The illustration below shows an unsupported version of the Shoulder Stand, but to begin doing this pose you will want to support your back with your hands, and therefore your legs can reach higher straight up, lengthening and standing tall while upside-down. Keep in mind that this pose is not called Neck Stand. Because the entire static weight of the body is resting in the muscles that raise, lower, and rotate the scapulae, these muscles need to be strong enough to support that weight, otherwise the cervical spine will be subject to what the shoulders cannot handle. A related pose is Plow Pose, and it has similar chin-lock benefits with added stretching of the spine extensors. Often, I will first attempt Plow Pose before Shoulder Stand, and in that order Shoulder Stand is both a relief and seemingly easier to endure.
To get into this position, you will start by lying flat on the ground on your back, and with an exhale bring your legs up by bending only at the hips. Now that your two halves of your body are at a 90 degree angle, with your arms at your sides slowly lift your pelvis off the floor and begin to bend your arms at your elbows to bring your hands to the small of your back for support. Continue lifting the pelvis until the hips straighten out once more and the only angle now is the one between your neck and torso at the shoulders. Your chin should press firmly against your sternum as you reach high with your feet and support your back tightly by reaching for the thoracic spine in the middle of your back. Breathe smoothly and deeply while pulling in the navel and activating the gluteal muscles. You should begin to feel the heat that this pose generates rather quickly, and before you come down out of the pose you can expect to be covered in sweat.
Finally, the Belly Twist, or Jathara Parivrtti, is a great way to end your abdominal stressor movements to tighten, shape, and tone that midsection. With the body supported by the floor and the main action provided by gravity, breathing method becomes very important to achieve specific effects. By choosing how to direct the breath, either to the abdomen or the thoracic structures as in mula bandha, extraneous muscle tension can be released from the lumbar region or the costovertebral joints. The twist although is in fact for the belly, the lumbar spine does not twist as it is extremely limited in axial rotation (5 degrees total!) A neutral spine must be maintained, meaning without lumbar flexion for example. Lumbar flexion during the rotation would put pressure on the lumbar vertebrae and discs, particularly loading the T11-T12 disc. Furthermore, spine extension would lift the far shoulder off the floor, compressing the brachial plexus, often resulting in a numbness or tingling sensation in the arm.