There was a time when we wore corsets, then we were taught to pull our bellies in to fit into pencil skirts. Then came fitness, rock hard abs and the ongoing obsession with “core strength”. But where has all of this left us? We are confused about our cores, we don’t know how they really work, the media has told us we should look a certain way, and our relationship to our breathing, and center has been taken for a ride. I’m not much for a big rant, but this might be the one thing that really gets me going.
First thing first, as a culture we suck our tummies in, so much that we have lost the ability to really engage our cores, and engage in great breathing habits. We have confused tight abs with a strong core, and we work on posture from the outside in, rather than the inside out.
We have to re-learn how to use our cores, our natural body intelligence around this part of the body, and stop teaching our students, and children that pulling their bellies in will give them better posture, more strength, safety from lower back pain, a better handstand, and whatever else. We have to stop marrying the idea of visible abs to the idea of a strong body.
In the posture and alignment world, there are great minds who are putting the pieces together on why so many of us live with chronic pain. We understand how an anterior pelvis can affect our entire structure, but we are correcting it from the outside in, rather than the inside out. In many cases, we can work on our posture through our breathing. Breathing is the one thing we constantly do, and let’s face it, we adapt to the movements we do most often. If our resting state breathing is done with our diaphragm, and we can see/feel movement going into the lower parts of the core, we are on the right track. The problem I see happening so often is as soon as we put on our workout gear, and tight clothes, most of us have a tendency to pull our bellies in, which throws the breathing pattern off, which throws everything off.
I grew up practicing yoga, with the ongoing cue of “pull your navel to your spine”, this is how I learned about core strength. With nearly every pose came the instruction to pull my navel in, as your can imagine that didn’t have the best results.
The confusion around what a strong core looks like is not something that is gender specific. Here is a funny personal story for you…
When I moved to Cornwall, I moved in with a young man (who would later turn out to be my partner in life and everything else) who at the time was my roommate and gym buddy. It was the summer, so it was hot out. I came downstairs one morning to find him frying potatoes in the kitchen with his shirt off, and I noticed he was flexing his abs quite a bit. I caught myself looking at his six-pack abs, and as I giggled I asked him what he was doing with his core. He looked at me surprised, and answered, he was flexing his abs to have a strong core. I wondered out loud, if frying potatoes required him to contact his abs that much, or if there was something else going on. We had a cute moment, and he admitted that he was brought up in the fitness culture to always contract his abs, for that’s what made a “strong core”. That was the beginning of operation relax your abs, which by the way, we are both still working on.
The last thing I will mention is the core of our body is not just our abs. Some of us describe the core as a canister shape around the torso, but in my opinion even this is too limited. Lately, I talk about the full body core, and that the movements of the limbs coordinated with the trunk is core strength. Its also necessary to note that if we are truly in great shape, like when we were three years old, we shouldn’t have to think about using our cores.
I want to give some ideas on how I work with my core, after years of way too much “core strength”, and many realizations around my core, trauma, body image, and pelvic health. I think there are ways we can work with our bodies to awaken our innate intelligence around core strength, and it doesn’t have to be as punishing as doing a hundred leg raises.
Exploration One – Bracing Rather Than Pulling In
There is a difference between pulling the belly in and contracting the abdominal muscles. I’m not saying we should let it all hang out, all the time. In many cases, i.e. heavy lifting, core tension is great, it helps protect everything that lies behind the abdominal wall. To brace your abs (I hate this visual, but it’s just so clear) imagine someone was going to punch you in the stomach, your inclination would not be to suck it in, you would probably create tension and brace the muscles. Take a moment to play around with that, and notice the difference between bracing and pulling it in. Now let’s take a more gentle approach. Imagine you were a coffee cup, with one of those sleeves that fits perfectly snug, but not too tight. Let the bracing sensation gently wrap around your midsection as if you had on the perfect sleeve, but again notice the difference between pulling it all in, and turning it all on.
Exploration Two – Let It All Hang Out
For those of us who are more on the tight knit side, either physically or any other way, take a moment next time you are alone and just completely let your belly relax, it’s likely going to hang out. Notice how that feels. Notice if it moves as you breathe. If this isn’t easy, that’s ok.
Exploration Three – A Little Bit of Both
Come into child’s pose, if that is a comfortable position for you, separate your knees so your belly can hang down a bit. Take a couple gentle breaths with your nose, and try to make your belly, waist, lower back, and pelvis move as you breathe. Inhale, try to let your lower core expand, exhale, it will naturally shrink back. Can you feel the ballooning of the lower core (belly, waist, lower back, pelvis)? For many people this method of breathing is going to feel very freeing, and calming to the nervous system. This is one way to address diaphragmatic breathing.
Exploration Four – Add It All Up
Lie on your back, and bend your knees with the feet on the floor in a comfortable position. Take a couple gentle breaths with your nose into the lower part of your core, notice where it moves. If the lower core isn’t moving, try to manipulate it a little bit, and use your core muscles to get the breath going lower into the body. Once you can feel that, try the same type of breathing, but gently brace your core at the same time, remember the coffee cup. Notice if you can do both those things at the same time. Breathing into the front of the belly is usually easier, notice if you can get the breath moving into the waist, lower back and the pelvis. I like to poke around in certain parts, until I feel that movement really happening.
Some of us have so much tension around our core muscles from years of training, habits, stress etc… that we will require more than breathing exercises. Yoga Tune-Up has made rolling the belly on a soft ball a cool thing again, which is great, this is another one of my favorite ways to work with my overly tight abs, and pelvic floor.
We might also notice other factors like diet, or anything else that can create inflammation in our guts, because this will play into our innate core strength.
The point of this post is to open the floor for more conversations about core strength, and how we embody more Mindful Strength in our lives and different fields of practice. Recycling old information and turning it into something more relevant will help us adapt with the times, and help more people feel strong in their bodies.