March is when Spring comes in to full swing so we’ll continue to work with the Wood Element you can read more about the Wood Element here. This month we’re going to approach it from the energetic qualities of the Gallbladder – The Gallbladder is like a General giving orders and directions, it knows what steps to take and when. The wood element as we know is about growing and developing and moving towards our goal or purpose. Sometimes we don’t have a vision or a goal that we are working towards which can at times be frustrating therefore this month we will take steps towards building a strong solid foundation that we can build upon. Rather than been stuck in indecision we can take action by adding in one or two things that we know will bring positive effects into our lives and from there we might gain better clarity and vision.
Very often we think of the foundation as building from the ground up or from the feet up and this is valuable and important (I even have a post about the root to rise principal here) however if we think of the foundation from a body and movement perspective the foundation actually comes from the core. When our core is strong and stable we can more easily move our arms and legs without putting undue pressure on the spine or pelvis/pelvic floor.
The core consists of the abdominals in the front, the paraspinals, erector spinae and multifidus along either side of the spine, the big lat muscles on the back that connect to the arm, shoulder blades, ribs, spine and pelvis, all the hip muscles including glute max, meds and minimis, hip flexors and psoas muscles and of course the pelvic floor muscles. That’s a lot to focus on so we’ll hone in be on firing the abdominal core muscles correctly.
What and where are the abdominal muscles?
There are four main abdominal muscles:
The Rectus Abdominis (6 pack muscles) – these muscles are closest to the surface and help us to round/flex the spine.
The External Obliques – these muscles lie below the 6 pack muscles and insert at the lower half of the ribs in the sides and front of the torso attaching to the front of the pelvis and help to pull the front ribs down as well as assisting to rotate the trunk and side bending and exhaling.
The Internal Obliques – Lie below the external obliques and run in the opposite direction, they are attached to the back-side and front of the pelvis and attach to the ribs. The internal obliques help with expiration, rotating and side bending the trunk.
The Transverse Abdominis (TA’s) – These are the deepest layer of the abdominal muscles and run between the ribs and the pelvis, they run horizontally from front to back and when activated they create a corset effect and help to stabilize the pelvis. Anytime we move our arms or legs, these muscles should kick in to support us.
So when we activate our core we want the deepest layer to fire first, rippling to the outer most layer. Therefore our TA’s should kick in first, then the Internal obliques followed by the external obliques and then the rectus abdominis or the 6 pack muscles. Very often the TA’s don’t kick in correctly.
How to engage the core correctly
It’s pretty common to hear the cue draw your naval to your spine and I’ve used this many times myself however I’m not sure that this cue is correct anymore! Another familiar cue we hear and that I use is to engage your core which is valid but how do we engage the core correctly?
The TA’s as we know by now are our deepest abdominal layer but it doesn’t fire all at the same time. It’s divided into the lower, middle and upper abs. When we give the cue draw your navel or belly button towards the spine we activate the middle section of the TA’s and if the lower TA’s haven’t kicked in first then we risk putting extra pressure down on the pelvic floor this is something that we need to be mindful of not only for postpartum women, but also for people who are at risk of a hernia, and for everyone else it can actually create a lower belly pooch! I’ve recently learnt this from the pregnancy and postpartum corrective exercise specialist course that I’m studying with Sarah Duvall and it’s really informative and quite fascinating and it’s what has inspired me for this months focus.
To get the lower TA’s to activate just requires a little bit of awareness to begin with and then with practice it should all happen without over thinking it too much. It begins with good quality breathing and we’ve been practicing this during our yoga practice so for a gentle reminder a good quality inhale allows movement in the rib cage so ideally we’re looking for the whole ribcage to gently move outward and away from the spine therefore we’re looking to feel the breath move into the front, sides and back body with a sense of evenness without too much expansion in one area. All of our abdominal muscles assist with the exhalation but especially the internal and external obliques and if we don’t get a good inhale to begin with we’re not going to be able to recruit these muscles on the exhale.
The lower TA’s are located low down between the hip bones. One of the easiest ways to think about activating this area is to imagine when you exhale that the two front hip bones are drawing towards each other or that the skin between the hip bones are moving towards each other and up towards the belly button.
The internal and external oblique muscles work opposite to each other. So for example the right external oblique (that’s inserts on the right ribcage ) and the left internal oblique (that inserts at the left hip) move towards each other on the exhale, and move away from each other in the inhale. Which means that we’ve got a cross body connection that provides a great deal of support and stability. We don’t need to worry about this on a day to day basis but whenever we’re exercising and working with the body it can be useful to be aware of how the body works and connects, this way we can work with the body rather than against it.
As you can see from the above picture we don’t actually at any point need to pull our belly button towards the spine, instead its almost like everything is pulling towards the belly button, having a tightening and knitting in effect. This should all be able to happen without the shoulders lifting of the floor.
Exploring the Value of Good Quality Core Strength in the Yoga Practice
We use our core throughout the yoga practice . Sometimes there doesn’t need to be a strong core engagement and simply exhaling gives us enough core support, other times a stronger core connection is required and the more skilled you become at knowing how and when to engage the core correctly, the greater sense of ease you’ll experience as you move and breath. It’s important for the abdominal muscles like all muscles to be able to relax, if it’s constantly working and being engaged they’ll actually become weaker and other muscles will have to take over to meet the demand, this is why a full complete inhale is important and taking opportunities in the practice to rest in child’s pose, prone savasana (lying on your belly) or even poses like uttanasana (standing forward fold) are really valuable in the yoga practice.
Uttitha Hasta Padangusthasana C – Extended Hand to Big Toe Pose C
Uttitha – Extended
Hasta – Hand
Pada – Foot
Gustha – Big Toe
Asana – Pose
Level: Intermediate (1-2)
Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana C is used as a transition pose in the Ashtanga style of yoga. It’s normally only held for one breath and is a challenging pose. It provides the perfect opportunity to explore the engaging the core to understand the value of the cross connection. It might also highlight the default of sucking the belly in rather than engaging the correctly. We’ll have fun with this one!
Mental and Emotional Benefits
Increase ankle strength
Strengthens and stretches the hamstrings
Cautions and Contraindications
Chronic ankle pain
Lower back injury
Hints and Tips
Know that if your leg doesn’t straighten fully that’s ok, just straighten it as much as you can.
Don’t worry about how high the leg goes, focus more on keeping the spine tall and hips level.
Don’t lean back instead activate the core from the lower TA’s and connecting opposite rib to hip.
You can check out my post on Uttitha Hasta Padangusthasana A here