Not many yoga poses can be done without the help and access of your core. Your abdomen is home to an incredible amount of power, and when regularly engaged and properly worked, it can help you reach new levels in your practice. The following poses can help you tone, strengthen and find power in your center. Practice each pose individually, or link them together for a dynamic, ab-blasting sequence!
Plank is an amazing foundational pose that not only seriously works the core, but also strengthens your arms, wrists and helps you to find more strength in your transitions between poses.
Start in table top position (on all fours). Stack shoulders above wrists, spread the palms and fingers wide, and press down firmly through the knuckles of the fingers. Reach the feet back, tuck the toes, and hug the navel to the spine. Engaging your core, bring the entire body off the ground. Make sure the back of the neck is long, the crown of the head is reaching forward and the gaze is slightly down and towards the front of your mat. Energetically, push back through your heels. Feel yourself pushing away from the floor and open the upper back, drawing the shoulder blades apart. It is key to keep the shoulders and hips level with one another. If you feel like you’re unable to keep from drooping the belly and dumping into the lower back, modify by lowering the knees. Hold for eight to 10 breaths.
*For an extra challenge, try moving from regular plank to forearm plank and back, one arm at a time, for a few rounds of breath.
Knee to Nose/Elbow
This fluid sequence is a great warmup and can also help familiarize a practitioner with the movements needed to progress to more challenging arm balances.
Begin in downward-facing dog. Take a strong inhale to lift the right leg up high, keeping the hips in line with one another by pointing the toes of the right foot down toward the ground. On the exhale, shift the body forward to plank while simultaneously drawing your knee deep in toward your face, hugging navel to spine and rounding the upper back. Try to bring your knee as close to your forehead as possible. On your next inhale, sweep the right leg back up. Exhale and bring your knee in to tap your right elbow, drawing the knee as high up on the arm as possible. Inhale to sweep the same leg back up, then exhale and draw the right knee across the torso and toward the left elbow. Inhale to raise the leg once more, then lower to downward dog on the exhale. Repeat with the left leg.
*Remember to keep the hips level and the arms strongly engaged throughout the sequence. Allow a micro-bend in the elbows, especially if they tend to hyperextend. For more advanced practitioners, instead of just tapping the knees to the elbows, take an arm balance on each side. Eka Pada Koundinyasana 1 and 2 are good options!
Dolphin is not only a great pose for your core, but also strengthens the shoulders and opens the back. It is also a great preface for any inversion or for forearm stand, allowing the practitioner to become more comfortable with being upside-down.
Begin in downward-facing dog. Keeping the hips high and the heels drawing down toward the ground, come down to the forearms. Keep the elbows stacked under the shoulders (not wider!) and the arms parallel with each other or in a fist. Begin to shift the weight back, reaching the chest toward the thighs. Keep the heels drawing down toward your mat, the thighs drawing back, and press down firmly through the forearms, raising the shoulders away from the floor. Belly is strongly engaged, hugging up and in. Let the head hang freely and take your gaze towards your feet. Hold for eight to 10 breaths.
*Try shifting back and forth from Dolphin to forearm plank, inhaling as you move forward into plank and exhaling as you shift back to Dolphin. If you find it difficult to keep your elbows from jutting out towards the sides, loop a strap around both arms to keep them firmly in place, and no wider than your shoulders.
Boat Pose (Navasana)
Navasana (and transitioning to the low version) can be an intense ab workout. Moving the body in and out of the pose will not only fire up your core, but also help with balance, focus, and strengthening your hips and thighs.
Begin seated with the knees up, legs together, feet grounded on the floor. Next, draw the feet up off the ground, lean your weight back, and allow the shins to come parallel to the ground. Hug the ankles, shins, and knees strongly toward your midline, sealing the legs. Grab the back of the knees and draw the chest open. Keeping the chest lifted and the torso long (resist the urge to collapse!), move the arms to outstretched on either side of the legs, palms face up. Engage the belly by deeply hugging the navel in toward your spine and relax the shoulders. From here, you can extend the legs to fully straight, or remain with shins parallel to the floor. Keep the chin lifted, the gaze slightly up, and the toes and fingers engaged and awake. Breathe here for eight to 10 breaths.
*For a more energetic variation, try moving from high to low boat for one full minute. Begin in original boat pose (high boat), then inhale to extend and lower the body to hover right above the ground, straightening the legs, arms by your sides, toes and feet active. No part of your body should be touching the mat except your glutes! Exhale strongly back to high boat, drawing the knees back in. Repeat for 60 seconds, using the breath to guide each movement.
Side Plank (Vasisthasana)
This pose targets your obliques and works the side abdomen as well as creating more strength in the wrists, arms and shoulders.
Begin in plank pose, then lift up your right hand and place it in the center of your mat. Shift the weight to the right hand, spread the fingers wide and begin to stack your weight on the right arm as you open up with the left arm, reaching it towards the sky. You’ll come onto the edge of the pinky-toe-side of the right foot. Your feet can be stacked, left on top of right foot, keeping them active and engaged. For more stability, place the left foot slightly in front of the right foot on your mat. Engage your core and lift your hips up and high off the ground. Stay here for eight to 10 breaths before moving through plank and onto the opposite side.
*A good way to find more stability in the grounded arm and shoulder is to shift the palm slightly in front of the shoulder, creating more of a diagonal line with the arm, rather than directly stacking it underneath the shoulder. Be careful not to hyperextend the elbow, which can be damaging to the joints.
As always, find time to cool down after any intense practice. Any variations of twists will feel amazing after a vigorous ab sequence. Try a seated twist or a reclined variation on your back. You can also take bridge or wheel to expand and stretch the abdomen, and release any leftover tension in that area.
Adding any of these poses to your yoga practice will allow you to gain more access to the powerhouse that is your core. They will also help you build foundational strength to be able to move onto more intense poses such as arm balances and inversions. Remember, a strong core leads to a strong practice!