It is said in yoga that a long spine leads to a long life and many of the asanas (or poses) that we practice on a daily basis stretch, bend, twist and strengthen the spine in order to maintain its length, strength and flexibility. But the health of the spine is not only about length and strength--it is also about the maintenance of its natural curves and for this we rely on the stomach. In yoga we say the stomach and spine work like flip sides of a coin. For one to be strong and supple so it must be for the other. Today in our 6-pack obsessed culture the ideal stomach is hard, rippling and totally fat free. But the six-pack is developed by working the most external and visible of the stomach muscles – the rectus abdonimus, and these are not the muscles that support the natural curve of the lumbar spine. To really support the spine you have to work at a deeper level.
To understand this a little anatomy is important. When we say “stomach muscles” we are actually referring to three different groups of muscles. The most external of these is the rectus abdonimus and this is the group of muscles that we exercise by “crunching” at the gym. Beneath that are the obliques, both external and internal, and beneath that again is the abdonimus traverse. All of them are important in allowing the back full range of movement but as the rectus abdonimus is best at the crunch motion overwork of this group of muscles can actually result in a loss of the lumbar curve.
Yoga provides many exercises and awareness practices to help support and maintain the curve of the lower spine through working with the internal stomach muscles. The simplest of these is to breathe out and squeeze the belly button into the spine while sitting up straight. With this action we feel the abdonimus traverse contract. A common reaction here is to flare the ribs out so to counteract this we use the obliques to hold the ribs in. We breathe into the back allowing the floating ribs to expand. This simple exercise can be practiced at a desk or in your car. In our asana practice we try to hold this abdominal sensation for the duration of our practice and it does more for our inner stomach and our lower back then hundreds of crunches ever could.
A more subtle aspect of this practice is the development of the core. It is not for nothing that the belly has been identified by traditions across the world as our center of power and vitality. The belly provides us with our center of balance and our center of movement. It connects with the muscles of the lower back to stabilize our torso, it supports our lower back which in turn allows us to stand upright and think. It creates a wall around our crucial digestive and reproductive organs. So give up the idea of the six pack. What you really should strive for is a strong fluid belly that supports from the inside out. If you’ve got that you and your spine are in great shape.
(Previously published in Women Today)