October Focus Week 2: Core
The word “core” is often mentioned in yoga, dance and fitness classes, and in classes involving movement in general. It is a term which points to something “central” and “deep”. But, how clearly do we understand what it refers to? Many times we confuse the core with the abdominal muscles, but in reality, it is much more than that.
By the term core we describe all those muscles that support and stabilize the spine during movement. So, the core system integrates the abdominal muscles, but also, the muscles of the waist, the back, the pelvis (e.g., muscles of the pelvic floor), and of the hips (e.g., gluteus and psoas muscles).
One of the main functions of the core is the protection of the abdominal organs. In contrast to what happens with the lungs and the heart for example, which are protected by the thorax, there is no similar skeletal structure around the so important belly organs. Therefore, it is the muscles surrounding them that undertake this protective role.
Furthermore, the balanced strengthening and flexibility of the core muscles is very important, not only for sports, but also for our everyday life. It is what supports the spine and the pelvis when it bends, and it also stabilizes the upper with the lower body. It is instructed on the mat, but we use it all the time: it protects us from injury when lifting something heavy, and it upholds us when we run or dance, or when we slip. In addition to stabilizing us, a strong core allows kinetic energy to be produced and transferred along the kinetic chain, also making our movements appear light and effortless!
In the context of our training and connecting to our core, we are going to also work with twists.
Please see below for an article on twists, written by one of teachers, Effie Psiahoulia.
To twist is to turn the shoulders in a different direction than the pelvis. Twists rotate the spine and have a lot to do with the torso, by greatly involving the abdominal muscles, front and lateral, the muscles that support and move the spine, the back, the shoulders and the neck. They help us maintain the torso’s rotation range of motion, which is often overlooked, resulting to the “stiffening” of the spine and to the weakening of the surrounding muscle tissue or to it eventually becoming dysfunctional.
The act of walking involves a constant rotational motion along the spine, and especially at the waist and lower chest, since these areas are located between the pelvic zone and the shoulder zone, which move in opposite swing. The intercostal muscles function like a clock spring, winding and unwinding the thorax at every step, storing dynamic energy towards one direction, which is consequently manifested as kinetic energy towards the other direction.
The muscular system along with the connective tissue, the fascia, provides the body with structural stability and controlled mobility, while also protecting valuable organs. Most of the joints and other moving body parts, can bend or twist, while the ones that can do both are more prone to injuries. When it comes to the spine, the lumbar spine has a great capability to bend, the thoracic to twist and the cervix can do both. While many people have a different perception of the body, the lumbar vertebrae are those with the lowest twisting ability, at 5 degrees, the thoracic with the highest, at 50 degrees (as a general description, since every person and every age can be different). We often push the lumbar spine more, because we think that the thorax with its dense rib cage is not capable of twisting that much, which can take a toll on our lower back on the long term. So, if we take our expectations regarding spinal twists down a notch, we might be able to enjoy an approach that involves the entire spine evenly.
The central nervous system, which includes the brain and the spinal cord, penetrates the vertebrae along the spine, and it is protected by them. Most of the nerves currying information from and to the various parts of the body extend from the spinal cord to the peripheral areas. When we bend, elongate and then twist our spine, the location of the vertebrae is being redefined, reducing the pressure to the spinal nerves (four branches between most vertebra pairs). Twists work with the spine towards creating a “sensation of space” between the vertebrae. When there is no space there, the spine feels compressed, while twists provide an immediate lift, since they decompress the vertebrae in a healthy and safe way, when performed with caution.
Twisting can help with the function of the digestive system, by assisting movement inside and around the belly organs.
During pregnancy, some intense twists should be avoided, and the milder ones should be performed with caution, and under the supervision of an experienced teacher.
There are twists in lying, sited or standing position, or in a balancing pose. Some examples include the following: lying twists such as Supta Jathara Privartanasana, supta Udharakarshanasana, sited twists such as Bharadvagasana, Ardha Matsyendrasana, Parivrita Janu Sirsasana, Marichyasana, standing twists such as Parivrita Parsvakonasana, Parivrita Trikonasana, Pasasana or balancing twists such as Eka Pada Koundiniasana, Astavakrasana.
The most dynamic twists in sited, standing or balancing poses, i.e. where the spine takes the weight of the torso, the head or even of the whole body, strengthen the muscles surrounding the spine, which act in synergy with the abdominal muscles. Passive twists, mainly in lying poses, release tension along the spine and help with the flexibility of the joints between the ribs and the vertebrae, which facilitates their movement during breathing.
At this point, we must remember that in twists we move rotationally, from the bottom up. Beginning with the waist, following with the thorax and ending with the cervix, the head and the eyes. In that way, the entire torso participates evenly. We begin with a steady foundation, and then, the head follows the heart. Then, after we get a new perspective by looking over our shoulder, all the expectations of a one-sided outlook melt away, and we can accept new forms and feelings, or even ideas, which can be reassuring on many levels.
If we want to reap the rewards of twisting asanas, we should remember sutra 2.6: sthira-sukham asanam, which can be translated as “an asana is a sited and comfortable position”. So, it is a position which we can hold without much effort and in which we could surrender ourselves to meditation. An infallible indication of comfort is the breath. We do not need to regulate our breath; we just need to listen to it.
Suggestions to explore:
*Follow the wave of breath. Breathe out while allowing your spine to become light, with one end surrendering to gravity towards the earth and the other end extending towards the open space. Breathe in and allow the extension of the entire torso. Through that space, explore the twist towards the side you feel you need to turn first. The wave of the exhale moves upwards, beyond and over the ground and the wave of the inhalation creates expansion. In that way, the spine becomes more alive and its intrinsic energy moves upwards.
*During your twists, consciously take your organs with you. The lungs hug the heart. So, rotate your lungs around your heart with care. This will make for a more spatial, three-dimensional perception of the body, far from the two-dimensional imagery of the yoga trend.
*Create a twists practice that “listens” more than it “talks”. In other words, pay more attention to listening than to intervening; to allowing a twist to happen, than to performing it. Notice what has changed. For a moment, prevent yourself from pushing with your hands and allow the periphery to express whatever it perceives as twisting from the central axis. From the inside towards the outside, from the center towards the periphery.
We need to go down in order to be able to go up, let alone twist, which means that we need to find the base from which, with strong foundation, we will be able to lift and shift our outlook, beyond everything that we knew up to now. Take a look over your shoulder. Observe the feeling with which you come back to your starting position after a twist. Coming back from a twist, we often feel calmer, having obtained a more expanded view of where we are. Besides, what our body often asks is “where am I?” We are more used to answering to “what is this?”, referring more to a snapshot of the visible world, than to the sensation of the three-dimensional world with which we interact through all of our senses.
By Effie Psiachoulia,
οf the Neda Yoga Shala Team