Many people think that surface muscles – the back and superficial abdominals – will help them protect their spine. However, if you are deliberately tensing the outer shell of muscle is tense, the inner muscles fail to engage. In traditional core work outs and some Pilates movements all that happens, especially when the inner muscles are weak, is that rather than working, the so called “core” muscles they actually become inhibited making the spine less spacious and more vulnerable. For instance, have you ever done any sit ups or leg lifts only to find that the front of your hip aches like a mad thing? That’s because it’s actually your Psoas muscle tightening instead of deeper abdominals and guess what happens when that is tightened – it becomes contracted and shortened and pulls on your low back, causing an anterior tilt of the pelvis which becomes habitual over time, especially when you add a sedentary lifestyle into the mix (all that sitting also shortens the Psoas).
I say “so-called” because there is no such thing as the core, and you will never hear me talk about this in class because it is an anatomical myth. You won’t see that word in any anatomy text books since it’s a popularise phrase that has no meaning in anatomical terms. Before we do something, the spine can enliven and lengthen to prepare for our next move. When you understand this, it can bring more ease and balance to your daily tasks and to the practice of yoga however, if you overly brace yourself, you can risk more, not less injury since you are producing pressure in the abdominal cavity which means something has to pop out somewhere. An example of this is pelvic floor prolapse and you may even need to be trained by your pelvic floor specialist to LET GO completely if you care trying to hold on (either consciously or unconsciously) to your core all day. You will notice in your Somatic Yoga Class, you will also be trained to fully let go between movements and instructed when to put tone into the abdominals before a movement (which isn’t very often). Next time you are sat on the floor with wide legs and are coming into a side bend, try it first with braced abs as see how far you can go. Then try it again with a soft belly and a lovely deep breath into the side ribs and hey presto, you’ll side lean for England!
Though in relation to shoulders, this story from Joan Arnold, a certified Alexander Technique and Yoga Teacher which backs up my thinking:”A woman referred by a yoga colleague came to me for an Alexander Technique lesson, hoping to relieve her agonizing neck and shoulder pain. I began by explaining Alexander’s central concept: release your neck to free the spine and relieve the shoulders. Then I stepped back to consider her overall stance. Though she had what might be considered “good” posture, I noticed a strange contraction in the front of her torso.
“What are you doing with your abdominals?” I asked.
“Holding them,” she replied.
“Well,” I said, “let them go.”
She did. Her torso did not collapse without that alleged “support.” After her first and, as it turned out, only lesson, her acute shoulder pain disappeared. What does this show? 1) A symptom may be far from its cause and 2) a flawed concept of abdominal support can be damaging.
Most people think that it’s a good idea to strengthen their core without really understanding what this means. Whilst some early theories within Pilates have advocated a constant contraction of the superficial abdominal muscles, this is an illogical approach. You wouldn’t strengthen your biceps by holding them in contraction all the time, so why do that with your abs? No muscle group should be held. The more modern research in Yoga demonstrates that misusing abdominal muscles can actually compress the spine and increase back pain, send you off balance, restrict your breath and compress your posture and when it comes to opening the hips, this approach will fail you. When you let your abdominals release and you envision ease and length in your spine, your abs work as they should since muscles work reciprocally, and abdominal muscles work in relation to the head, neck, back. This will facilitate side, forward and back bending as well as rotation in the spine and hips.
So for the healthy hips of our dreams (and a safe spine and pelvic floor) which are attempting to achieve during this week’s Gentle Somatic Yoga Class, give up the bracing of the superficial abdominals right now!
I hope you have enjoyed discovering more about your anatomy this week. Any and all feedback is welcome in the comments below.