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Confession: When crop tops made a comeback a few years ago, I was relieved that high-waisted pants were also still “in.” After all, the mid-to-late 1990s style of Gwen Stefani and Britney Spears baring their entire torso proved daunting for me as I never felt comfortable showing my stomach. Even after buying an ab roller and trying every diet under the sun, my tummy still wasn’t flat. The reality is that I am just not built that way, and what little preteen me did not yet know was that it would not matter what my stomach looked like when it came to harnessing power in my asana practice.

So when midriff-baring shirts came back into style in 2013, I took the brave leap and purchased one. My courage was quickly tested even more when the first thing someone said to me when they saw me in it was, “Why aren’t you more toned? Don’t you do yoga every day?”

The 13-year-old in me wanted to run and hide, but the 30-year-old took a deep breath. And that is when I offered some core wisdom to this person by sharing what I wish I had known as that little girl, desperately doing crunches and chugging celery water.

Crunches don’t matter

Many of us envision washboard abs and crunches when we hear the phrase “strong core.” In reality, those coveted “six-pack” abdominals are actually the least important muscles when it comes to strength and stability. In fact, crunches can be overdone, leading to weakened back muscles and a rounded spine, which over time may compromise breath and digestion.

The rectus abdominis muscles, as they are called, are the most superficial layer of stomach muscles. And I don’t just mean that metaphorically. This means they are the muscles closest to the skin. Yet it is really the deeper core muscles, those nearest to the spine, that are most essential to core stability. We can target with them with smaller, focused, more functional movements.

The deepest muscle of the abdomen is the transverse abdominis. The TVA, as it’s sometimes called, acts like a girdle, holding the spine steady when the limbs move. It is also activated after the completion of an exhale. Another important muscle group are the obliques, which side-bend and twist the torso. On the posterior (back) side of the body, are the spinal extensors, the multifidus muscles. These work in conjunction with the pelvic floor muscles and transverse abdominis to stabilize the spine.

Notice that not one of these critical muscles is visible in a crop top or bathing suit.

Redefining a strong core

I propose a radical shift to our idea of what it means to have a strong core. After all, the core is more than just our stomach. It is our entire trunk, from shoulders to hips. And core strength has no relation to flat abs. It means being able to take a step without torquing (twisting) our pelvis or reaching to grab something without twisting our back. It means not falling over on the bus when it comes to an abrupt stop. It means being able to pick our children up and hug our partners. We even need core strength to simply sit and breathe.

On a subtle body level, our mid-section is the site of our third chakra. This is the source of our self-esteem and is often considered our power center. From this perspective, a strong core means the ability to know your worth, connect to your deeper wisdom, and stand in who you are, like I was able to when I was body-shamed by that person.

I don’t know about you, but all of those benefits are worth way more to me than looking toned in a crop top!

How to go deep into your center

So how do we access these deeper layers? A great pose to work on these is Tabletop. Of course, holding this shape by itself can get a bit boring, or even painful for those with wrist issues. These creative variations will teach us to keep our middle stable, while moving the limbs. In other words, learning how to maintain our center, when everything feels out of sorts. Now, that is core strength.

A sequence to increase your core strength

Note: If you have wrist issues, you can do many of these moves on your forearms.

Photo: Emilie Bers

Tabletop, variation (Toes curled and knees lifted)

Set up in a Tabletop position, with your wrists under shoulders, knees below your hips, and your toes tucked under. On an exhale, hover your knees and shins off the floor an inch. Less is more here! Keep your knees deeply bent as you reach back through your heels. Press into both hands evenly, lifting your waist up toward your spine. Reach forward through your crown, while releasing your trapezius muscles away from your ears. Gaze is steady between your thumbs. Hold for 10 breaths. Lower your knees back to the floor. Repeat once more.

Why this move works:

SmartFLOW creator Annie Carpenter teaches this variation in almost every class. She finds it helpful in bringing awareness to the distribution of weight between the right and left sides of our body, as well as the top and lower halves. When the knees and shins are lifted, we can more easily sense if we are favoring one hand or one foot and come back to balance. It “awakens” the transverse abdominis, psoas, and many of the deep low-back muscles. Carpenter also believes that it enables us to breathe more fully into our back ribs.

Photo: Emilie Bers

Tabletop, variation (On forearms with toes curled)

Lower to your elbows, aligning them under your shoulders. Stack your forearms, so that you are on the outer edges of them, like a karate chop. Separate your hands shoulder width apart. Align your knees below hips and curl your toes under. Take an inhale. On an exhale, hover your knees and shins off the floor an inch. Lift your front ribs away from the ground. Reach your collarbones forward as you slide your shoulder blades down your back. Look between your hands, keeping your neck long. Hold for 10 breaths. Lower on an exhale.

Why this move works:

Working from your forearms shortens the distance between the torso and the floor. This increases the load required on the spine, as the body feels heavier, upping the ante a bit from the previous variation. This version is also helpful for strengthening the shoulders, which make up the top half of our entire core. And it is an excellent alternative to the first pose for those with wrist pain.

Photo: Emilie Bers

Tabletop, variation (Knees hovering and shoulder taps) 

Set up Tabletop again. Curl your toes under and hover your knees and shins an inch off the floor. Inhale. On your exhale, tap your left shoulder with your right hand. Inhale back in the hovering table and exhale, tap your left hand to right shoulder. Take 5 full rounds (one round is tapping both left and right). Lower to your knees and rest.

Why this move works: 

This move is a practice that helps keep the rest of your body stable while moving your arms. This is an essential component to everyday movements, such as reaching for something or in yoga, like lifting your arms in chair pose. Try to keep the rest of your body stable as you tap the opposite shoulder, which will also help to strengthen your outer hips.

Photo: Emilie Bers

Tabletop, variation (Knees hovering and lifting one leg at a time)

From Tabletop, curl your toes under and hover your knees and shins one inch off the floor. Straighten your arms and press through your palms. On an inhale, lift your right leg back, with your foot flexed. Roll your lifted leg hip down to keep your pelvis even. Lift the sides of your waist. Take 5 breaths. Exhale and return to the start position. Repeat on your left side.

Why this move works:

Just as we practiced moving the arms without disturbing the rest of the body, now we will work on moving the legs, while keeping everything else stable. This is helpful in asana when we do things like coming into a lunge from Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Or every day, when we simply take a step. Because the pelvis tends to lift when we extend our leg back, this pose helps strengthen the obliques, which fire to reduce that torquing movement.

Photo: Emilie Bers

Supine Tabletop, variation (Alternating leg and arm movements)

This variation is sometimes called ‘dead bug,’ but that doesn’t always sound ahimsa-like, so I prefer to think of it as alternating legs and arms on your back.

Lie on your back. Lift your feet, parallel your shins to the ceiling, and align your knees above your hips. Reach your arms to the ceiling directly above your chest. Pause in this reclined Tabletop.

On an inhale, take your right arm back in line with your ear and your left leg forward. Reach your left arm toward your extended leg. Exhale back to the start position. On the next inhale switch sides, reaching your right leg forward and left arm back. This is one round. Repeat on your breath for a total of 5 full rounds.

Why this move works:

Supine options are not only helpful for people with wrist issues, but all bodies as the floor acts as a truth-teller, giving feedback on where we may be compensating in the spine, when moving the arms and the legs.

Photo: Emilie Bers

Supine Tabletop, variation (Toe taps)

Lie on your back, bend your knees, and lift your feet off the floor. Adjust your shins so that they are parallel to the ceiling. Stack your knees over your hips. Place your arms next to your sides with your palms facing down for support. On an inhale tap your right toes to the floor. As you exhale, draw your knee back up to the starting position. Repeat on the other side, tapping your left toe on an inhale and pulling the thigh back up on an exhale. Take 8 full rounds on your breath.

Why this move works:

One of the great benefits to this supine transverse abdominis exercise is its accessibility. Most bodies can comfortably and safely do this. If you have any lower back pain in this, make your movements even smaller. This is also a great pose for strengthening the hip flexors, the lower portion of our core.

Photo: Emilie Bers

Supine Tabletop, variation (forearm Tabletop with block and alternating legs and arms)

As everyone’s torso lengths are different, the block may not be wide enough to reach with your elbows, in which case get creative and try a rolled blanket instead.

Lie on your back, bend your knees, and lift your feet off the floor. Adjust your shins so that they are parallel to the ceiling. Stack your knees over your hips. Place a medium-setting block across your top thighs and bend your elbows, sandwiching the block between your elbows and knees. Take a full cycle of breath.

On an inhale, reach your left leg forward, straightening it and hovering it off the floor a few inches. Continue to press both of your elbows into the block, which will now be balancing on one thigh. Breathe. Exhale, bend your left knee back into the block. On your next inhale, straighten your right leg, hovering it off the floor. Exhale come back to the starting position of both knees bent and your elbows holding the block. This is one round. Take two more full rounds.

Why this move works:

This final variation puts together all the pieces of the work we have done so far. Holding and balancing the block evenly adds in a level of satya, or truthfulness.

See also: 

Inversion Challenge With DJ Townsel: How to Nail Transitions

Use Core Strength for Smooth Transitions in Sun Salutations

More yoga sequences by Sarah Ezrin

Sarah Ezrin is a yoga teacher trainer, mama, motivator, and writer. Based out of San Francisco, where she lives with her husband, son, and their dog, Sarah is changing the world, teaching self-love one person at a time. Learn more at sarahezrinyoga.com

Photographed by Emilie Bers at All Together Collective 


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