When we think about yoga poses, we often imagine pretzel-limbed yogis bending their bodies into seemingly impossible shapes. But the physical practice of yoga is as much about finding strength and stability as it is about deepening flexibility. Undergirding much of this strength is the belly. Engaging throughout the abdominal core helps stabilize us in balancing poses, and helps us deepen our folds and back bends by releasing the muscles in the lumbar spine. Engaged abs can also help distribute weight in inverted poses like downward facing dog or handstand; this then allows us to place less strain on the wrists and shoulders. Neglecting the abdominal core, on the other hand, can lead to unnecessary pain in many poses over time. Take a forward fold, for example. If we don’t engage through the core, and if we happen to have tight hamstrings, our low back muscles may strain to compensate in the fold. If instead we stabilize the core, release the low back, and take a gentle knee bend, we can enjoy a nice hamstring stretch without the low back strain.
Much of our core engagement in yoga depends on the activation of uddiyana bandha, or the abdominal lock. This “lock” in the low abdomen brings stability to many poses and thus should be engaged throughout one’s practice.
It has taken me a while to feel uddiyana bandha. I think I thought I was engaging this region of my body until I took a Mysore-style Ashtanga class and the teacher kept telling me to engage my belly. He was right to do so; my belly was doing absolutely nothing to help my practice. Nearly two years after that class, I still struggle to remember and feel my belly bandha.
Lately I’ve been trying to be more intentional about engaging uddiyana bandha throughout my practice. I find that igniting my core early in my practice helps me bring an awareness to my abs that’s easier to sustain throughout my asana.
Here is one exercise in particular that has helped me connect with uddiyana bandha and the muscles needed to engage it:
Start on all fours, with your shoulders stacked over your wrists and your hips over your knees. Engage your shoulder girdle by pressing your palms firmly into the mat and slightly rounding your shoulders. Slightly tuck your tailbone so that your pubic bone angles toward your navel. Tone your belly by bringing your navel toward your spine, like you’re zipping up a pair of really tight jeans. Now, hover your knees a couple of inches above the floor. Further engage the core by pressing your hands into the mat and, without moving them, energetically dragging them toward your knees. This should kick on some muscles and awareness throughout your abdominal core. Hold here for a few breaths, then bring your knees to the floor. Repeat a few more times, resting between poses.
As you work to awaken your core, remember uddiyana bandha in particular. Doing so may help bring an awareness and stability that you didn’t even know was missing in your practice.