Jill Miller is a fitness expert with more than 26 years of experience in the moving arts of yoga, modern dance, Pilates, bodywork, and shiatsu. She is the creator of Yoga Tune Up® and a long-term advocate for the power of movement to heal or prevent chronic pain and numerous other health issues. In this interview, Jill discusses her own experiences with the healing power of core work, and keys to balanced core strengthening.
Eva Norlyk Smith: Core strengthening has been a fitness buzzword for years. We all know it’s important, but we don’t actually always know why. Short of having flat abs, why is it crucial to keep the core strong in order to keep the body healthy?
Jill Miller: There are a number of reasons why it’s important to keep the core strong, mainly having to do with both the structure and physiology of the body. The core muscles are really all of the soft tissues that surround your spine, rib cage, and pelvis. These are the muscles that help provide stability, mobility, and possibility within the whole of the trunk. Many of the muscles of the core are also muscles of respiration. If we are lacking in full facility in these tissues, it profoundly affects our breathing mechanics.
Is there a yogic perspective on the importance of the core?
For centuries, yogis have been talking about breathing and the energetic effects of different breathing strategies. When you're able to access all the fibers of the respiratory diaphragm and access its full strength and flexibility, you actually have the ability to experience pranayama in an extremely profound way.
You have written that true core strengthening has very little to do with building a “ripped or shredded six-pack”; instead it's a full-body integration that enables us to access the entirety of the core.
Absolutely. For ages, the media has favored the notion of having ripped abs or shredded abs, or that you want to get cut muscles. The yogic approach is not so much concerned with shaping the appearance of the body, but rather focused in connecting to our deep tissues, and treating them with respect and dignity.
When I think of the core, I never think of just the front. I’m thinking of the total canister of the whole torso, or what I call the “coreso.” The key is to build a well-coordinated community of soft tissues in the coreso that support us in whatever tasks we're engaging in—that has very little to do with looks. In fact, overbuilding just one muscle group can be counterproductive. It may look good, but it really doesn’t help create a stable, well-coordinated center of movement.
Ana Forrest refers to the core as not just the structural center of the body, but also as an emotional and energetic center. Has that been your experience?
I would have to say that there’s no part of the body that’s not an emotional or energetic center. Your nervous system is directly linked to your limbic system. The tissues of the body are always communicating many things that are beyond our consciousness.
That being said, the core, in our culture, is an emotionally loaded subject, especially for women. There are a lot of negative associations with un-toned abs or excess body fat in the core. I personally absorbed a lot of those messages from my family and culture, and I was bulimic for four years. The process of healing and coming out of that deep dislike for my body was a journey that actually took me through my tissues.
So your journey through your tissues was, in a sense, your way out of working with the eating disorder?
By the time I got to college, when I was about 18 or 19, I finally started seeking help for my eating disorders. A yoga teacher whom I was working with at the time made a suggestion that I lay facedown on the ground with a sandbag underneath my abdomen. It was an Iyengar prop that looked like a giant hamburger bun stuffed with sand. She had me lay on it on and do absolutely nothing, just breathe. The pain that I felt was not just physical but also deeply emotional. Getting in touch with my abdomen started awakening a lot of stored memories, and much of the emotional content and the stress that I held in my core were finally able to literally purge themselves. That’s really what I was seeking—a way to access the emotions, the entrapment that I felt, and let it surface.
That's very powerful. You’ve been ad advocate of deep core work in your teaching of yoga and other healing modalities for many years, and it’s a leading theme in Yoga Tune Up®, your unique fitness approach. Tell us about Yoga Tune Up® and what inspired you to create it?
The Yoga Tune Up® approach focuses on what I call the three P’s: pain, posture, and performance. My aim is to help people eradicate pain, improve their posture, and enhance their performance no matter what it is they like to do.
All my work has been greatly inspired by my mentor of more than 20 years, Glenn Black. He's a yogi and a master hands-on therapist in a type of bodywork called Bodytuning®. Glenn really emphasized that it was more important to move well as a human than to be able to perform asana perfectly. So when I started working with him, he would always include hands-on Bodytuning® Therapy in every class to help us understand the structure of the body, not just the architecture of a pose.
This enabled me to become intimately familiar with all of the layers of my body, and to be able to awaken different parts of my body and learn to map myself. I came to realize that most of us walk around with Body Blind Spots, areas of overuse, underuse, misuse or abuse that are no longer communicating well with the body or brain as a whole.
So, I developed Yoga Tune Up® as a way for people to find and heal their own body blind spots. It very much boils down to becoming more aware of the proprioceptors within the different layers of the body. This gives you a better tactile sense of how to locate your own tissues, so that you can make better choices with your body when performing asana, or daily movements. To further help students to identify their own body blind spots, I developed a self-massage system called the Yoga Tune Up® therapy balls—soft, squishy balls that mimic the touch of a skilled massage therapist’s hands. You position yourself on the balls and roll them into different areas to help locate your soft tissue and joints, to awaken them and get rid of knots and adhesions.
Would you talk a little bit about the online course you’re offering on Yoga U Online. What are you cooking up for us?
Well, I’m cooking up an in-depth anatomical discussion. We’ll go over the layers of the abdomen, and I’m also offering some guidelines on how to best position yourself for your current condition, to strengthen and tone your abdominal muscles so that there’s more balance in your spine. We’ll also talk about spinal position and posture, and I’ll present some really fun pointers on nauli kriya, which is lateral abdominal churning.
I’ll also go over the deep abdominal massage that I was mentioning earlier. I want people to come away from our discussion knowing how to access the deepest layers of their core, so they can make better choices about their overall positions within their yoga practice and within their everyday activities. I would like to empower folks to have a new relationship to their core and incite them to explore their core as never before!
Sounds like a wonderful program. Well, Jill, thank you for all the great work you do to bring greater awareness of the unique role the core plays in the structural integrity of the body—and the many ways to awaken and heal this important part of our extended mind-body.
Yes, greater core integration is key to enhancing our yoga asana practice. It is safe and deeply transformational work, which strengthens you from inside out, and reconnects you to your belly in a thoroughly conscious way.
Jill will be offering a course on Yoga U Online, Supercharge Your Yoga Practice–Five Steps to Core Empowerment in mid-October. Enjoy a free interview download with Jill: Reform Your Core – A Healing Path to Self-Empowerment.