New Years Yoga Challenge, Week One: Core Strength

sthira-sukham asanam
“Posture should be both steady and comfortable.” The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, II.46

I’ve decided to kick off week one with asana that focuses on core strength because it’s literally central to our ability to practice with sthira and sukha, steadiness and ease. A lot of the time, when I think about “core” I think sit-ups, boat-pose, and abs. Those things are certainly part of core strength, but true strength in the center of the body comes from a balance of front-body and back-body strength. Just like a tree trunk connects to the roots that anchor it to the earth, the trunk of the human body is the place from which movement (including breath) originates.

This week, do the following practice daily or go to a class of your choice. If you go to class, try to identify the poses where more awareness in the center of the body would be helpful. If you are curious about yoga energetics or the chakras, this practice is focused mostly on the manipura (navel) and svadhisthana (sacral) chakras.

I’ve included lots of links so that if my instruction is unclear, or it’s easier for you to have a visual representation of the pose, you can look at an image of it. Next week I may do a video. Maybe. 😉

Seated breath awareness:

Before beginning the asana sequence, sit or recline comfortably (cross-legged, on your heels, or on your back). Sit up tall, then try to maintain a long spine while relaxing your legs, hips, shoulders, jaw, and face. Breathe through your nose if possible. Bring your awareness to your breath’s movement in and out of your lungs. Notice if your breath feels “stuck” in one area of the lungs, choppy, or short. Consciously deepen and expand your inhalations so that they fill the entire lungs–belly, ribcage, and upper chest all expand. Feel the three-dimensional quality of a deep, full breath. Purposely exhale more slowly than usual, pulling your navel in toward the front of your spine and gently pressing all the breath out of your lungs. Over the next few minutes, try to equalize the length of your inhalations and exhalations. Find a steady, rhythmic breath pace. Be curious and precise with your breath. Maintain this steady rhythm throughout the asana practice. (If you know ujjayi breath, you could practice that instead.)

Asana sequence:

Child’s pose, 10 breaths.

Inhale to tabletop position, exhale fully. Check the position of your hands and knees. Place your hands underneath your shoulders, fingers spread wide with weight evenly distributed across the hands. Knees are apart, right underneath the hips.

Sunbird Flow: Inhale and extend your right arm and left leg. As you exhale, round your back and bring your right elbow and left knee together. Continue for five full cycles of smooth, steady breath. To maintain your balance and support good alignment, press your right shin and left hand down into the floor, pull your navel in toward the front of your spine, and imagine broadness across your mid- and low back (as though your kidneys could lift toward the ceiling). Switch sides.

Downward-Facing Dog: stay for five cycles of breath.

Inhale forward to plank pose and exhale back to downward-facing dog three times. Be careful not to rush any parts of the movement. Take your full inhalation to come to plank pose and your full exhalation to return to down dog. Bring your awareness to the center of your body–the navel, ribcage, and middle/lower back. Draw the hip points up toward the ribs. This action will naturally lengthen your low back and help you reach your tailbone toward your heels. Keep this muscular engagement.

From downward-facing dog, bend your knees and walk your feet forward to the top of your mat. Bring your big toes to touch or bring your feet parallel to each other, about underneath the hips in a standing forward bend. Stay here for three cycles of breath. With a full inhalation, slowly roll up to stand in mountain pose.

Practice one or two rounds of this modified sun salutation or any other variation of the sun salutation sequence that you like. (If you have questions about this, please send me an email, and I can explain in more detail.)

From mountain pose, inhale and step your right foot back to crescent lunge, Reach your arms up alongside your ears. Apply the same muscular actions as when flowing from dog pose to plank pose. Reach the left shin forward and the right heel back, lift the inner right thigh and the back of the left knee. Find your balance and stay here for three cycles of breath. Revolved crescent lunge: on an exhalation, bring your palms together in front of your heart. Maintain a strong foundation through the legs and front foot. Inhale. Exhale and twist to your left. Bring your right elbow across the left thigh. Press your palms together and align the thumbs with the sternum, or move in that direction. Note that the twisting action comes from the core–the belly, ribcage, and middle back. Stay here for three cycles of breath.

Unwind and return to crescent lunge. Step your feet back together in mountain pose, then repeat crescent lunge and revolved crescent lunge to the second side (step the left foot back to start). Finish in mountain pose as on the first side. Pause for three cycles of breath with your eyes closed.

Sphinx pose: Lie on your belly. Bring your elbows underneath your shoulders, and extend the forearms and hands forward from your elbows, creating an “L” shape with the arms. Be precise about this. Press the elbows, forearms, and hands down into the floor. Sphinx pose can be practiced in a more yin (passive) way, but for the purpose of core-strengthening, make it more active. Pull your lower belly away from the floor. Bring the bottom tips of your shoulder blades toward each other. Lift your heart forward and up. Broaden your chest. Stay here for three cycles of breath.

Sphinx Roll-ups are my favorite way to work on core strengthening: “Begin in Sphinx Pose, rooting into your forearms, palms, and tops of the feet. Radiate muscular engagement throughout your legs, creating equal awareness of the big-toe and little-toe sides of the feet. Tuck your tailbone, and notice how your low belly engages. Bow your head toward your heart as you start to peel the belly, pubic bone, and thighs off the floor. Lifting through your low belly, round the upper back and push firmly into your index fingers, thumbs, and the tops of your feet. Stay for 3 to 5 breaths; roll back down and repeat.” (Instructions here are from teacher Coral Brown.)

Roll over onto your back. Bend your knees and place your ankles under your knees, feet hip distance apart. Bring your arms alongside your body, palms facing down and actively pressing down. As you inhale, slowly lift your hips off the floor and arrive in bridge pose. Press your feet down into the floor, weight distributed equally across your feet. Exhale, and lower back down. Lift and lower with your inhalations and exhalations for five breath cycles.

Reclined bound angle pose: Bring the soles of your feet together and your knees away from each other. Relax here for three to five cycles of breath.

Hug your knees in to your chest. With your right hand on your right knee and left hand on your left knee, makes some small circles on the ceiling with your knees a few times in each direction. Then make some larger circles in each direction. Come into happy baby pose. Move around or be still here as you like.

Savasana: rest on your back or with your legs up a wall for several minutes. Get as comfortable as possible (use any available props you have), and give yourself explicit permission to take the time to be still, quiet, and relaxed.

Meditation: Sit comfortably and set a timer for two minutes so you are not thinking about the time. Bring your awareness to the tip of your nose, and follow your breath’s journey in and out of your lungs. Make your wondrous breath your sole concern for two minutes.

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