In a yoga class you will probably here expressions like “pull up your pelvic floor” and “engage your core”…but what does that mean? In today’s blog, I’m having a look at core stability muscles and hopefully making it a bit clearer on how to find them!
The core stability muscles
The core muscles are essential for spinal health and help to provide support for the whole body (1). However, sometimes the way we tell you to “engage your core” in a yoga class can be misleading. It makes it sounds like the “core” is a rigid cylinder of muscles, but this isn’t the case. Having good core stability means that the muscles are strong and flexible – capable of supporting movement – definitely not a restrictive, rigid tube!
The major core muscles are the abdominals, pelvic floor muscles, spinal extensors, and the diaphragm (1). The minor core muscles are the lattimus dorsi, gluteus maximus, and trapezius (7). However, when we talk about “core stability” in yoga, we are typically referring to the transversus abdominis, lumbar multifidus, and the pelvic floor muscles.
Figure 1: The core muscles
Transversus abdominis (Figure 1): extends from the abdomen to the back, originating from the thoracolumbar fascia (as well as the iliac crest, inguinal ligament, and lower ribs), and wraps around like a corset (but a flexible one!). It supports the internal organs through compression of the abdomen.
Multifidus (Figure 1): the multifidus is a transverse muscle which originates from the sacrum, lumbar, thoracic and lower four cervical vertebrae (2). Multiple insertion points occur along the spine from the fifth lumbar vertebra upwards (2). This “multi-muscle” helps stabilise movement and extends, laterally flexes, and rotates the vertebrae (2).
Pelvic floor muscles: these muscles include the levator ani (the largest muscle of the pelvic floor), pubococcygeus, iliococcygeus, puborectalis, and coccygeus (1,3). The pelvic floor muscles support the abdominal and pelvic organs, maintain bladder control when coughing or sneezing, and fix and brace the trunk when doing forceful movements with the upper body, such as weight lifting (3). So you can see that when we activate the pelvic floor we ate focusing on a sling of muscles, not just one. It is possible to work on different areas of the pelvic floor (more on this in a different post).
Strong core stability muscles provide support and stability for the spine and are a source of strength and balance (4). They enable us to protect our spine while we lift heavy objects and perform complex movements.
Activating the pelvic floor and abdominals
- Lie down on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor.
- Place your hands on your pelvic crests (to find these, place your fingers at the level of your belly button and move them out to the sides towards the hip bones – the first boney bits you reach on each side are the pelvic [iliac] crests; basically the top of the hip bones).
- Bring your fingers just inside your pelvic crests.
- On an out-breath, pull up your pelvic floor (as if you are trying to stop yourself going to toilet mid-flow) and hollow in your lower abdomen towards your spine (bringing your lower back in connection with the floor).
- Notice how the deep abdominal muscles contract beneath your fingers –keep breathing and hold for 10 seconds (at this point if you hum, you might feel your muscles contract a little more).
Standing up (in Mountain pose [tadasana])
- Stand on the earth and imagine that the ball of the foot below the big toe and the little toe are two of the prongs on a three pin plug. The third pin is the heel of the foot.
- Visualise plugging the feet into the earth, each prong entering at the same time and to the same depth. Feel the strength as you plug into the earth. Ease on the pelvic floor during an out-breath (like trying to stop going to toilet mid-flow).
- As you gently bend into the knees, imaging the spine directly travelling down into the earth, you will probably notice that the pelvis tilts forwards (upwards).
- If you are finding this difficult, it sometimes helps to imagine the pelvis is like a bowl holding water – you are trying to keep the bowl level to avoid spilling the water (not too far forward or back – in neutral).
- To engage the abdominals more too, as you straighten the legs (without locking the knees), draw in the muscles as if you are trying to do up a tight pair if trousers!
- Lift up through the spine, imagining space between each vertebra and light flowing up the spine.
- Lift the sternum upwards as if the heart is bring drawn forward and upwards in a diagonal line.
- Allow the chin to be parallel to the floor and lift through the crown of the head, relaxing the shoulders down. It’s as if you are being suspended from a golden thread attached at the occiput (base of the skull).
- Enjoy standing in this active manner for as long as you feel comfortable.
I hope you enjoy exploring your strength, flexibility, and stability! Have a fabulous day. Namaste.
1. Striano P, Striano P. Anatomy of a Healthy Back: a Chiropractor’s Guide to a Pain-Free Back. Heatherton, Vic.: Hinkler Books; 2012.
2. Jarmey C. The Concise Book of Muscles. Chichester, England; Berkeley, Calif.: Lotus Pub. ; North Atlantic Book; 2008.
3. Abrahams PH. How the Body Works. London: Amber Books; 2012.
4. Stephens M. Yoga Sequencing: Designing Transformative Yoga Classes. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books; 2012.