Getting to the Core of Things

Now activate your core is a phrase you're likely to hear in any fitness class, yoga included. But I wonder, what does that mean? And does the instructor even know what that means? 

It's been my experience teaching both students and teachers from all over the country that most people assume they're using the core, assume they know where the core is and assume the cues they are using are helping more than hurting.

To be able to cue the core, one needs to understand why it’s so important. 

Everything is an extension of the core, and every muscle above and below eventually feeds into the core (or more specifically the pelvic floor). Muscles in the body are not separate, but connected, one turning into the next.

Our body consists of layers, and our core is no different. These layers help us better understand the concept of the core being the Motherboard for all movement. And if one does not know where the Motherboard of any device is, then how will you ever be able to tweak it to operate better? 

Every person needs to begin at what I know as the Local Layer. This is the permission layer, the layer of the core in which we stabilize before we mobilize. Sadly, even in core-focused classes, this is often ignored because it's difficult to locate, awaken and continually keep awake. It can take many sessions before someone feels confident they are using the proper muscles. 

It's important to remember that the body is an amazing piece of machinery unlike any other; if one body part can’t do what you are asking it, and then another body part will step up and try to do it for us. The problem with this is that it gives us a false idea that we are properly performing the movement.

So this local layer consists of the transversus abdominus (which is a hoop-like muscle), multifidus, diaphragm and the pelvic floor, consisting of the perineum, anal sphincter, and area surrounding the urethura (to simplify things). This is our permission layer, our layer of stability, and I’d like to focus here. 

Please note, I am not discounting the importance of the glutes, obliques, or other muscles, but my goal is for you to understand that these muscles are not the permission layer.

What if we started to look at the core in terms of back health, what if we began to look at the core in terms of support, quality of life, energetic support and personal enjoyment? 

I don’t know about you, but when I’m 80, I want to be able to laugh, scoot around, lift things off the floor, and have a heightened quality of life, not to mention continue to have a healthy personal relationship with my husband. 

Over 80% of the United States population currently has or has had back troubles or pain, and it has been my observation that rehab is solely focusing on the “back” muscles, and on those rare occasions when I hear that core work is involved, it’s usually the exercises sees in magazines with no explanation of where the movement should originate. 

Now I'm not discounting a physical therapist's years of expensive schooling, but what I am saying is we only know what we know, and sometimes what we know needs to be updated.

So now the question is: how do I know I am using this local layer of my core, the foundation of the body (besides the feet), from which all movement begins? 

Let’s start by finding where theses muscles are and turning them on. The pelvic floor region of the body is literally the bottom of the torso, and, much like a woven basket--who cares how strong the handles are, if the bottom is weak, slack and ready to collapse? The handles may never even get their full use.

The pelvis floor mainly consists of the perineum, anal sphincter and surrounding area of the urethra, these muscles are the bottom of the woven basket. It’s the area you need to keep yourself from tinkling your panties when you laugh, run or jump, it’s the area of your body that helps to control bowel movements and support you energetically, it’s the area that should be supporting you in poses like Warrior II, Chair and any core related pose (which is everything). It’s the area that gives you more pleasure in your sex life (and I don’t know anyone who is opposed to that).

I often ask students to lie down and begin pelvic tilting; then, on the posterior tilt (the tilt that drops your sacrum into the floor) they exhale and firstly activate the anal sphincter, like they are dragging their tail bone to the pubis bone, forward and inward. Without using the glutes try to stay focused on this area solely.

Secondly moving forward slightly the area of the perineum, for women the vaginal passage way and for men the soft tissue behind the scrotum. As you continue to posteriorly tilt and with the exhale activate area one and now area two feeling an inward draw. For men this area actually domes while women don’t feel the dome because for you it is an opening.

And finally move forward towards the pubis bone and retract the muscles that help hold you from urinating. This is the area of the urethra. Now as you continue to pelvic tilt, activate all three areas of contraction to build what is the pelvic floor. Try this in an upright position, Warrior II, Chair, Squat or running or walking and see how this changes what you do.

From the pelvic floor, let’s look at the remaining muscles that make up this stability layer. Many confuse muscles like the psoas (which studies have shown that the psoas sole purpose is to be a hip flexor, a mover, not a stabilizer), or they even swap the pelvic floor and transversus for glutes, possibly even the pectorals, confusing them for the local layer.

Very simply, to get this point across:
  • Lay on your back find neutral (this means your back is not jammed into the floor)
  • Lift your legs to a table top position
  • Cross your arms to opposite thighs and resist your hand into your leg, here you should feel your local core brace or resist
  • Now do this with the awareness of using your pelvic floor too. Try both sides and notice if one side is stronger.
  • This is called bracing, it does not require you to suck your navel into your spine, jam your back into the floor or shrink your waist line, but merely stiffen your core as is for the most support possible.
You can also try this upright seated, and place a mini ball behind your sacrum:
  • Gently kissing your sacrum into the ball and activate the pelvic floor
  • Inhale, recline your spine back to 45°
  • Slowly lift the arms up higher and higher until your feel a quiver in your core, you are accessing your transversus, your local layer.
  • Exhale to return upright
Now understand that these are just two quick ways to get you understanding this area, and this is only the beginning. 

This is just the beginning of the core, the basement so to speak, and for me I continually see the importance of building a basement first. My husband is a carpenter and when a homeowner decides after the fact to put a basement in after the house was built, it not only costs more money, but it's also messy, confusing and puts the existing house at risk in order to perform this task.

If you want to get rid of hemorrhoids, improve your sex life (who wouldn’t?) and find more support in asana and exercise with less pain, then it's vital to work at discovering your local layer, because our core is used in everything we do. 

It's the beginning of all asanas, the core of all movements, and the support system for our spine. So to me my body is a temple, is your body to you.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock


To learn more about yoga, check out our video course The Complete Guide To Yoga With Tara Stiles.
About the Author
Hope is a Yoga Teacher, Trainer, and Functional Fitness Expert. Creator of Core Functional Fitness, Hope specializes in yoga, core work and functional movements; she helps Yoga students, Yoga teachers, and a variety of fitness professionals experience a true mind-body connection through Yoga & Core Functional movement and Principles. Connect with Hope via Twitter  Pinterest or Facebook or visit her website and blog where she posts articles and videos regularly, at hopezvara.com.
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