"The importance of having a healthy lower back can be realised if we watch old people when they sit down, get up and walk, for consciously or unconsciously they support their backs with their hands. This indicates that the back is weak and cannot withstand the strain. As long as it is strong and needs no support, one feels young though advanced in age. [Core strengthening] āsanas bring life and vigour to the back and enable us to grow old gracefully and comfortably." (LoY 114)
It has just occurred to me that I have been teaching a lot of core-focused classes recently. It’s not been on purpose or part of a plan, just coincidence. Our DK classes on Sunday mornings have included a lot of core work in light of introducing Salamba Sarvangasana II (Supported Shoulderstand II) into our sequence. The newer-to-yoga students who attend my basics class have been working on understanding “core strength” as being more than just hard abs, while the more experienced students took on the challenge of Navasana (Boat) and Lolasana (Pendant) variations as preparation for jump-backs in the most recent level-two practice. Similar material was also a main point in this last weekend’s teacher training session where we talked about the correlation between mid-section stability and successful hip-opening.
Anatomically speaking, the core is the section of bones, tissues, and muscles which wrap like a corset all the way around the body (front, back, and sides) just beneath the floating ribs and just above the pubis/pelvic crests/sacrum. More generally yet still grossly speaking, core means the middle or innermost of something. And more figuratively, it is the heart (coeur in French) or essence of one’s being, the point of concentration for all that is most important.
Following the vigorous nature of that recent level two class, we were wrapping up with a few front-body openers to counter-stretch all the deep abdominal contraction before heading into Savasana. It felt good to stretch and then soften that part of the body which had worked so hard throughout practice. I commented something along the lines of now that you’ve established and felt the strong supportiveness of your core, you will know how to find it more easily in the future, but, for now, rest contentedly in the release of its grip knowing it’s there when you need it. I meant both the strength of the actual core muscles which physically support our uprightness as well as the erectness of our inner posture, one which is more attitudinal than physical.
There are so many times like that, in fact, when we have just a brief encounter within the scope of a yoga practice with some component of character development. We experience it through the embodiment of external postures, of āsana, and then internalize it and draw on it at a later time. To me, that seems analogous to the difference between knowledge and understanding. To be knowledgeable is something a little more superficial; it is the state of being acquainted with information. Information is obviously important, but by itself isn’t necessarily significant. Understanding, on the other hand, is a thorough comprehension of the information in a way that makes it useful and meaningful.
The roots of the word understand can actually be traced back to Sanskrit wherein the word antarasthā means “situated inside of”. The word antar, which means either “external to” or “inside of” depending on the accent mark, morphed through Latin, then Greek, then German, and finally into English where it became the prefix inter- (among, between, within). The word sthā means “to stand”. In this sense, to stand doesn’t just mean on one’s literal feet, although that is part of it. Here, to stand also means to hold one’s own figurative ground; to abide, to be substantive, to exist. Thus, to understand means to be among that which exists, not just to know information. It means to perceive, to comprehend, through the vantage point of your establishment, the significance of what is real and true. And to be surrounded by truth and to feel the firm supportiveness of that truth is what it means to bring yoga to the core of your being.
The whole standing pose syllabus, for example, with its various positions of bending, folding, twisting, reaching, gazing, and shifting, reminds us that we can confidently stand on our own two feet, even in the midst of frequently changing circumstances. From poses such as Vrksasana (Tree) and Sirsasana (Headstand) we know ourselves to be capable of staying focused while trying to remain balanced, even when we feel a little uncertain. Inversions teach us the value of altering our perspective in order to see our world from a different angle. Forward bends and back bends can each be instances of embracing vulnerability, either through the quietly private introspection of the former or the bold openness of the latter. And twists train us to occasionally look over our shoulder, not with discontent or paranoia, but rather in an act of eye-opening awareness. Through our time on the mat, we also come to understand things like patience, compassion, sensitivity, courage, insightfulness, and self-preservation, first by physically acquainting ourselves with their contributions to our postural practice, and then by carrying them with us in service to our attitudinal essence.
In these brief snippets of time, an hour here, an hour there, mere momentary blinks in the span of a life, in which we are conditioning outward well-being, we are also stockpiling a catalog of intrinsic capacities which can be called upon off-the-mat. Through our practice, we come to hold at the core of ourselves experiential understanding of those things which are essential to our inner well-being. We have served as witness to our very own moments of extraordinariness, and that cannot be taken away. In fact, it only begets more of the same.
The following is a sequence whose opening poses should provide suitable preparation for the Shoulderstand Cycle, and the sequence as a whole should set you up for decent seated forward bends nearer the end. Of course, exclude or modify anything as is necessary to fit your needs, even add additional poses if you like. Each of these poses is in Light on Yoga, so if something is unfamiliar to you, look it up.
AMS (Down-dog) to Plank x3
Salabhasana with hands clasped behind the back x2
Surya Namaskar A x2
Surya Namaskar B variations which include Parsvottanasana with clasped hands and Prasarita Padottanasana with clasped hands after each Warrior I
Supta Padangusthasana I & II (II = forehead to shin stage); then practice 3-5 rounds of U.P.P. and Urdhva Mukha Paschimottanasana before repeating each of these poses a second time
Salamba Sarvangasana I
Salamba Sarvangasana II
Matsyasana with straight legs
Garuda’s twist (Eagle-legs twist)
hug both your knees