Believe it or not, the health and fitness industry is beginning to recognize yoga as much more than just an esoteric set of stretches. In fact, yoga is now considered one of the best ways to get strong while also increasing flexibility. A solid yoga practice will address every muscle group, but two of the benefits of yoga are the improvement of core strength and stability.
Living a pain-free, active lifestyle starts from our center. The core is not just the abdominals — the “six pack” — instead, it is a complex weave of muscles that connect the upper and lower body.
When people think about getting a strong midsection, often times they imagine lying on their back and doing crunches, bicycles, leg lifts, etc. Those help strengthen the core, but the cool thing about standing core-strength poses is they not only strengthen the core, they also strengthen the lower body. In doing so, they create a synergy between the core and lower body that is much more functional than exercises that isolate just one area of the body (like crunches).
Here are five standing yoga poses that will help build core strength:
1) Half Forward Fold
Although this pose is often overlooked as a strength builder in yoga, it is one of the most important. While folded over reaching for your toes, you’re not just hanging there like a rag doll — you are attempting to take the hunch out of your back using your abdominals. Place your fingertips on the floor directly underneath your shoulders or press your hands into your shins and try to imagine the entire length of your spine extending out as you flatten your back. Don’t forget to breathe deeply while you stretch!
For this pose, many yoga teachers will say things like “flatten your back” or “come to your fingertips and glance forward,” but those are simply tools to help guide you to the main purpose of the pose — to lengthen your spine.
This classic yoga pose is a great way to strengthen your sides. The obliques are an important muscle group that wrap along the sides of your waist and help provide torso stability. Be sure to use your legs to support most of the body weight in this pose. The bottom arm should be light on your front leg or on the ground so the obliques and quadratus lumborum (another important postural muscle group located on both sides of the spine) can grow stronger.
The ultimate back strengthening pose. I love chair pose because it awakens the muscles supporting the spinal column and helps to get that backside strong! A six-pack by itself isn’t healthy unless the buttocks muscles are just as strong. This pose is also a great way to strengthen the legs. Just make sure not to strain your neck as you reach up and lengthen the spine.
4) Warrior 3
This pose takes more than just good balance. Balancing on one leg demands core engagement. While in this pose, it is of utmost importance to lengthen the spine and core muscles are critical to this. It’s good to remember that in this pose, you shouldn’t completely lock the standing leg and you should keep your lower abdomen drawn and up to support the lower back.
5) Twisting Half Moon
This pose has many of the same setup as Warrior 3 but adds a twist that engages the deeper abdominal muscles. This spinal twist fires up all the muscles in the core.
That said, this is an intermediate-level pose and it is helpful for many people to put a block on the ground next to your front foot. With your hand on the block, take a deep breath and elongate the spine, then slowly twist, reaching your top hand toward the ceiling.
If you are new to yoga, check out Beachbody’s yoga program, 3 Week Yoga Retreat, where I, along with three other yoga experts, will guide you through the foundations of yoga.