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When we think of core strength, our society often envisions hard, flat abdomens. This, somehow, has become the embodiment of a healthy physique in our culture and sells everything from yogurt to underwear. But is this healthy? And most of all, is this important? If we look at the most prominent yogis of the past (including the Buddha himself), we see that not one is “blessed” with a six-to-ten-pack. In fact, many have quite the ‘Buddha belly’. But does that make them weak? According to yogic, Ayurvedic, and even traditional Chinese medical philosophy, it is quite the contrary.

The belly, or the abdomen, is a centre of power, and where a large reserve of energy/qi/prana is held. Thus, if one has worked to develop a supple, flexible, and innately strong midsection (not tense, hard, and blocked), they can tap into an infinite resource of energy. This does not mean that the bellies we see in IHOP or at a buffet are healthy – too much belly fat is detrimental to health. However, the opposite – overworking the abs to eliminate all fat and harden the muscles beneath- is also detrimental to health. Women, especially, are not usually made for six-pack abs naturally. And striving for this is quite unrealistic. If you think of a healthy muscle or muscle group, it is at it’s optimal strength when it is both strong AND flexible – springy and elastic. A tense muscle, especially a stabilizing muscle, cannot attain its optimal strength.

Not only does overworking the abs harm us physically, but it also creates some psychological blockages as well. It only overemphasizes “control” – making our bellies hard to try to “keep it together” and avoid vulnerability. It causes a sort of “mental constipation” – where we are not following intuition, only rules and order… where we are not free to act on our will, but according to standards or society. Yogis, though also warriors and soldiers, require a supple belly in order to connect to a strong core of space and calm within.

In addition, the core encompasses much more than just abdominals. Our posture is greatly determined by the balance of local and global muscles around the spine. Some shorten as they weaken, some shorten as they are overused. Some become overstretched, while others need a good stretching. It is the balance of these muscles that determine what our default posture becomes. And often, in our society, it can be an ugly balance. Again, yoga practice does not only physically attempt to bring the body back into alignment, but in strengthening the core, we are also strengthening a mental core as well. Our internal strength translates in our integrity of character and the ability to remain stable, calm, and authentic despite external conditions. By reconnecting with our body’s optimal alignment and strength, we take stress off of the nervous system, we create space within, and we feel good about ourselves.

Asana of the week: We begin with breath. Our asana this week, is easy seated pose (or Sukhasana). We are going to connect to our core with breath. A supple (but strong) belly is needed to use one’s full breath capacity. Activated core muscles are required to sit tall, without back support, with our legs crossed. (If you feel as if your sit bones are rolling forward when you sit, roll up your mat, use a blanket, or a cushion/bolster to prop up your bottom. Your knees should fall below your hip bones, and you should be seated right on your sit bones, spine long.) Keep in mind that deep, diaphragmatic breathing does not entail pushing your belly out deliberately. Full belly breathing just requires a naturally alternating engagement and release. To assure deep diaphragmatic breathing, first engage the abdomen in a complete exhalation, then allow your lungs to fill up naturally, relaxing the abdomen but not pushing it outward.

Place your right hand on your abdomen so that you may feel your breath moving your diaphragm, your left hand at your heart centre. Breathe slowly and deliberately, sensing the strength of your inner core as your obliques and deep transversus muscles compress to expel the air from your lungs completely. Then enjoy the flow of oxygen that fills your chest as these muscles release, creating space for prana to stream into your heart like water flowing into a basin. After a few minutes, allow your breath to resume its natural pattern. Observe it without criticism or effort. Imagine your abdominal cavity as the fluid container of your deepest wisdom and feel the energy at your navel radiating throughout your body.

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