The term “core” has become quite the buzz word in the fitness industry and as a yoga instructor who specializes in core and pelvic floor work, I think it’s important to clarify the role of the core system as a whole and help reframe the mindset that the goal is to have a six pack by summer. It took me three pregnancies and recoveries to fully understand what to focus on in retraining my core to stabilize and support my frame and what I learned is simple, yet often under emphasized when learning core exercises. The core is an intelligently designed system of muscles that hold you upright and stabilize your body when moving through space. Due to our modern lifestyle of sitting on chairs, in cars, and on couches our core is often relaxed and we develop compensation patterns over time that tell our muscles to turn off, you guys don’t need to work. In order to create new and efficient patterns of movement to create new neuronal pathways and retrain the muscles to support the skeletal frame, two essential elements must be addressed first: posture and breath.
As the wife of a chiropractor, I have been educated on the importance of good posture for years. Even with this level of understanding, the truth of how my own posture habits affected me didn’t sink in until my yoga teacher trainer led me through months of bodywork. She spent time helping me align my pelvis into a neutral position while I moved through space and in finding that, it gave me the ability to engage muscles I hadn’t been able to after my second pregnancy. Once training concluded I continued my education with pelvic floor guru, Leslie Howard. Leslie’s training took my understanding to a new level guiding me into reconnecting with my pelvic floor, a vital piece of the core system as a whole. You see, if your posture is suffering, you aren’t fully able to connect to your breath (the other essential element in engaging your core to its full potential), which affects each core muscle, especially the pelvic floor.
Breathing. Is. Life. Literally. Stop breathing, stop living. How often do we take our breath for granted? Whether we attend to it or not, our breath continues to move through our bodies all day every day. Our breath has the ability to bring us into the present moment. Focusing on our breathing patterns can actually pull our nervous system out of the fight or flight response state and begin to shift the levels of stress hormones in our bodies. Some of us have developed poor breathing patterns from childhood. Many clients I work with have become “reverse breathers” from being told to or feeling like they needed to suck in their tummy. When we breathe, we inhale and our diaphragm expands and flattens, pressing our organs down and out into the pelvic floor. On the exhale, our diaphragm lifts back up and domes into the ribcage, allowing more space to draw the organs in and up and lift the pelvic floor. So, if you are sucking in your belly as you inhale, you are reverse breathing and not fully connecting to the power of your core system. Have you ever heard a fitness instructor ask you to engage your core on the exhale? That’s why!
Revisiting posture, if you practice poor posture, your diaphragm cannot completely lift and lower at it’s potential and you are not only creating strain on the joints of the spine, you’re not breathing fully and completely. So what is good posture? It depends. Every body is different, but a good rule of thumb is trying to line up your ribcage over your pelvis and your skull over your ribcage. I like to start with the pelvis as we often tip our pelvis in one of two directions a little too much. When we tip our pelvis forward and allow our low back to sway forward, it is called an anterior tilt. If we tend to tuck our tailbone under and flatten the low back, it is called a posterior tilt. Most people have a tuck or tilt pattern they fall into when not paying attention and knowing yours is a great first step in trying to move into a better posture pattern. Try lying on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Bring your fingertips to your frontal hip points then slide them down to your pubic bone, bringing your thumbs to touch below your belly button. Notice if your pubic bone is higher than your hip points and if so, press it down so the pubic bone and two frontal hip points are in the same plane. From there, the low back should be slightly lifted and the bottom back ribs pressed into the floor. Take a deep breath filling the torso from the base of the pelvis all the way up to the collar bones, inhaling to allow the belly to swell and exhaling to cinch the ribcage together and hug the frontal hip points together while drawing the navel to the floor. Once this breath and posture pattern begins to feel natural, see if you can bring yourself upright stacking the ribcage over a neutral pelvis and taking a moment to ensure that text neck isn’t pulling your chin forward. Take several deep breaths allowing the belly to swell on the inhale and draw in and tighten on the exhale.
Creating healthy breathing and posture habits is essential for a strong and healthy core. Any core exercise that is not addressing these two elements first is not allowing your body to meet its full potential and ability to support your frame. My hope is that you spend some time with the simple, yet profound work of taking a full, deep breath and exploring the natural curves of your spine. You may find your core is not the only part of your body that benefits from slowing down and paying attention.