Core Strengthening

Core strength in Yoga practice.

As we have observed throughout this term our core muscles are very important in Yoga practice and by now it is becoming very noticeable that these core muscles are linked intricately with the breath. So whilst we may hold some of the core muscles in practice it is imperative that we release them once we come out of the asanas.
Equally there are some bandhas that can only be held with the breath out and it would be pointless to attempt to hold them whilst breathing in. (The most obvious of these is Jalandhara bandha or chin lock). Traditionally the bandhas are practised to awaken the chakras and encourage the rising of the kundalini.
However our intention in using these mudras and bandhas is to identify and engage them to support our asana practice and to learn to use these core muscles to support the spine and to strengthen the internal workings of the body.
Let’s look at Moola Bandha first as there is often some confusion when locating these muscles.
Moola Bandha is the contraction of certain muscles in the pelvic floor or perineum.
In the male body the contraction takes place a little lower in the area between the anus and the testes, whilst in the female body the contraction takes place higher up behind the cervix where the uterus joins the vagina.
It is not easy to locate these muscles and it is often better to begin with Vajroli (contracting the urethra) and Ashwini (contracting the anal sphincter muscles) Mudras.
When first coming across these practices I remember contracting all the muscles in that region of the body in order to draw the energy and focus into this place which we so often ignore in our daily lives.
After some time with the help of some internal visualization I began to map out the different areas and get a feel for where they might be located in my body. This allowed me to start attempting to isolate them.
To be honest I like to start each practice by contracting all three places so that I start to feel where I am working in my body.
Working with internal muscles requires greater concentration than working externally, yet without that concentration it can be hard to appreciate the subtle strength that develops with practice. I find that isolating these muscles demands my complete attention.
We have started our classes this term seated in sukhasana practising Ujjayi breathing and once the breath is smooth and comfortable we have introduced this strong contraction which engages the urethra, the pelvic floor and the anal sphincter on exhalation.
We continue to contract all three places until we feel familiar with these internal workings of the body, we can then begin to isolate the contractions, so as we exhale we contract the urethra only.
This is Vajroli mudra. It becomes apparent that much less effort is required to contract the urethra separately.
The contraction feels weaker but more concentrated in one place.
I have encouraged you to start counting the number of breaths here because it allows you to keep a focussed mind and gives you some idea of the progress you make. At first five breaths may be sufficient and it may be hard to sustain the practice for much longer but you will gradually notice improvements as the contraction feels easier.
Continuing with Ujjayi breath we move to contracting the anal sphincter as we exhale, being sure to release on the inhalation.
This is Ashwini Mudra. Even after many years of practice I am not entirely sure that I can completely isolate this contraction so that it does not engage the pelvic floor, but I am told that this is possible so I continue to practice watching what takes place and experimenting with the intensity of the contraction in the hope of experiencing greater isolation of the muscles.
I do however feel that this contraction is different from Moola Bandha (Perineum contraction), so I believe that I am getting there.
Once we have counted the specified number of breaths in Ashwini Mudra we can attempt Moola Bandha by contracting the perineum as we exhale. Again counting the number of breaths can help to keep a focussed mind.
We can now return to contracting in all three places and start to engage the transverse abdominal muscles located below the navel pulling them in towards the spine as we exhale. Always ensure that you release on inhalation.
Now we begin to move the spine lifting the chest and arching the back as we inhale whilst engaging those core muscles with each exhalation. To enhance the practice we have introduced Jalandhara Bandha (throat or chin lock position) at this stage which creates a vacuum type effect in the abdominal cavity allowing the contractions to be firmer and more effective.
This requires that we lift the shoulders firmly up towards the ears, pushing them forwards whilst straightening the arms and pressing the chin to the chest.
Many of you have experienced problems here as the arms need to be locked straight as the shoulders lift up around the ears and the palms press down on the knees pushing the knees down to the floor.
I am aware that for students who are unable to sit with the knees down in sukhasana, Jalandhara Bandha is impossible. It may be that we simply move the arms as we stretch the spine without achieving the full effect and that we are still achieving a really useful stretch for the spine as well as developing core strength. Alternatively we could adopt a different sitting position such as Vajrasana (sitting on the heels with knees apart).
Modifying postures will always alter their effect but will still have benefits and we can progress from a more comfortable place.
Contra-indications: Moola Bandha is extremely powerful as a meditative practice and can unleash very powerful physical, mental and spiritual energies. When practised this way a student should always seek guidance from an experienced teacher as it can be potentially dangerous if unleashed too quickly.
Benefits: Using our current method the benefits include strengthening and toning of the uro-genital and excretory systems. It encourages peristaltic movement in the colon and is said to relieve constipation and piles. It is said to activate certain areas of the brain and help to balance the endocrine system. It encourages efficient breathing and can help in the treatment of asthma and bronchitis. Strengthening core muscles will help support the structure of the body so that we place less stress on the skeletal system.
For more information on the Bandhas have a look at our spring newsletter on the home page or post up your questions as a reply on this topic in our forum.
If any teachers or trainee teachers reading this would like to contribute and share their experiences they will be most welcome.

Published by liz on Thursday, 14 November 2013, last updated on Thursday, 14 November 2013 at 5:08PM
Categories: Yoga Practice

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