THINK about the core of an apple, or the very centre of the Earth. You can't see them from the outside, and you don't know how strong or healthy they are. They are the very centre of their physical self.
Within the human body the core is made up of five groups of muscles which, simply put, support the movement of the spine. These muscle groups can be found as high up as the sternum, or chest bone, and as low down as the thigh bone.
They allow the body to move: to twist, to bend forward, bend backward, to the side and even walk.
When I used to think about core work I would visualise a tanned bare six-pack encased in a designer crop-top doing 200 sit-ups a day. A little daunting and some might say scary.
It can sometimes be enough to put people off, thinking they could never achieve that. You know what they say about judging a book by its cover. But a good strong core is more than just skin-deep.
You can work away at your sit-ups or ab crunches to your heart's content and create a beautifully sculpted six-pack, abs of steel or washboard stomach. To give them their proper title, we might even call them the rectus abdominis. Call it what you like. You might look great at the beach or in your bodycon, but bend down to pick up your toddler or suitcase and you might feel otherwise. These lovely big strong muscles are not actually connected to your spine.
Not to drag on talking about the individual muscles of the core, but there is a set of muscles called the hip flexors that play a very vital role in strengthening the core area of the body.
They connect the base of the spine to the inside of the thigh bone, and while it's all well and good activating these muscles while walking or running, this is only tightening them.
It's equally important to help lengthen these muscles. Remember all those PE teachers and gym instructors telling us to stretch after exercising? There was a method to their madness.
But how do I relate this to my yoga practice? In many different ways. Almost every pose in yoga requires the use of the core muscles, but with continual practice of these poses you are also strengthening and conditioning the abdominal area which, in turn, allows you to modify or deepen these poses for further strength.
If I practise five rounds of Boat Pose (Navasana), this is great for contracting or tightening those core muscles (think beach holiday, bodycon dress), but to counteract this, or help lengthen them, I might do a few rounds of Camel Pose (Ustrasana). If I'm stuck for time, however, I'll lengthen or stretch one side while at the same time strengthening or contracting the other in a pose called Crescent Lunge.
I might lean back a little, with my hands on my hips, to give a deep stretch to the hip flexor, and I might as well warm-up for back bends at the same time.
I might even raise my arms overhead, bring my palms together, and reach towards the ceiling to work on the shoulders. The benefits are endless.
In yoga, we also work with Bandhas. You can argue that they are the same muscles as referred to above but are given different names in the world of yoga.
There are three, but for the purpose of this article I am only addressing two of them and in simpler terms. They are a yogic name given to areas of the muscles that form the abdominals.
One of them (Mula Bandha or the perineum) is also commonly referred to as the pelvic floor area, and engaging it helps to strengthen the body from the inside out and also helps to give tone to the digestive and other internal organs.
The other refers to the area of the abdomen just below the belly button, the Uddiyana Bandha, which activates the transverse abdominis, the deepest muscle of the stomach area.
To activate this Bandha you pull in the lower abdomen towards the spine and lift it up slightly at the same time. We aim to hold this for the duration of the practice.
In yoga, there are also many different breathing techniques which will call on the activation of the muscles of the core. Apart from the active and physical aspects, these techniques can direct oxygen, heat and energy to various parts of the body with hugely profound effects. A very deep internal practice for toning and bringing good health to that all-important core of our own physical universe.