Monthly Focus - The Abdomen and Ribcage
- Learn to breathe into the abdomen. Belly swells, chest remains fixed.
- Learn to breathe into the chest. Chest expands, abdomen remains fixed.
- Explore the separation of the abdomen and the ribcage at the costal arch.
- Move frontal hip bones (ASIS) independently of costal arch and collar bones.
- Move costal arch independently of frontal hip bones and collar bones.
- Move collar bones independently of costal arch and frontal hip bones.
Muscles of the Abdomen
Commonly referred to as the “core muscles,” the muscles of the abdomen play an integral role in spinal movement and stabilization. Many of the abdominal muscles also support the internal organs, and aid in urination, defecation, and childbirth. Finally, the abdominal muscles are the muscles of forced exhalation. You can test this by exhaling until empty. Towards the end of the exhale, the abdomen will firm and pull backwards towards the spine. If you continue this exhale, at the bottom of the breath you may feel the pelvic floor contract.
There are many layers to the core muscles, from the rectus abdominis sitting right under the skin, all the way to the quadratus lumborum attaching to the spine and pelvis. The deep core muscles are often both misunderstood and underdeveloped. The superficial core muscles, on the other hand, are often overemphasized, overdeveloped, and in a state of constant tension. It is thought by some that an overly developed and tense core (stiff cookie-cutter abs you’d see on the cover of fitness magazines) has negative effects on the digestive and reproductive organs. In my personal observation and experience, I’ve noticed that overly developed superficial core muscles somehow inhibit control over the deeper muscles, a kind of abdominal “white noise” that blocks feeling and access to the deeper musculature.
Listed below are the abdominal muscles from superficial to deep.
Commonly referred to as the “six pack muscles,” the rectus abdominis are the most superficial (no pun intended) of the abdominal muscles. The rectus stretches all the way from the cartilage of ribs 5 - 7 to the top of the pubic bone. The rectus contributes to spinal flexion, lateral spinal flexion, and spinal rotation.
Lolasana is the quintessential rectus strengthening yoga pose. Most backbends will stretch the rectus abdominis, Setu Bandha Sarvangasana is especially effective.
Internal and External Obliques
The side abdominal muscles, the obliques, span from the cartilage of ribs 5 - 12 to the front hips bones (ASIS) and the inguinal ligament. The obliques contribute to spinal flexion, lateral spinal flexion, and spinal rotation.
Vasisthasana is an excellent example of a yoga posture that strengthens the obliques. Utthita Parsvakonasana gives a mild stretch to the obliques. Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana is a posture that deeply stretches the obliques.
The transverse abdominis sits below the internal obliques, attaching from the cartilage of ribs 6 - 12 to the illiac crest, and the inguinal ligament. The transverse abdominis is sometimes referred to as the “corset muscle” because of its role in creating a flat abdomen.
Nauli kriya, while not technically an asana, is a very effective strengthener of all of the core muscles, especially transverse abdominis. Creating the shape of mula and uddiyana bandha (concave abdomen, convex chest) in any posture is a more accessible way to strengthen the transverse. Downward facing dog, or lying supine is often the easiest place to find this action. The same poses that stretch the obliques will stretch the transverse abdominis.
Technically the iliopsoas is a hip flexor. It is also hip external rotator, spinal extensor and spinal lateral flexor. The iliopsoas attaches to the all of the lumbar vertebrae, the iliac crest, base of the sacrum, and the lesser trochanter of the femur. Because the iliopsoas shares fascial connections with the respiratory diaphragm, it likely plays a strong role in breathing. The iliopsoas is the only muscle that directly connects the upper body to the legs. Some believe the iliopsoas has strong emotional, energetic, and spiritual properties.
Navasana is a great strengthener for the iliopsoas, while a straight leg press into a headstand or handstand demonstrates integration and control of the iliopsoas. Like the other abdominal muscles, most backbending and lunging asanas will stretch the iliopsoas. Backbending with the legs in lotus pose separates the upper and lower psoas in a very intense way, uttana padma mayurasana being the pinnacle pose of this action. My theory is that the lotus feet pin the psoas attachment at the lesser trochanter, which creates a much deeper stretch as the front of the pelvis and abdomen broaden.
The quadratus lumborum (QL) is a sister muscle to the iliopsoas and the deepest muscle of the core. The QL is so deep that to massage or palpate it, you must access it from the back or side of the body. The QL attaches at the 12th rib, the iliac crest, and four of the lumbar vertebrae. The QL creates lateral flexion in the spine. Because of the QL's attachment to the 12th rib, and its relationship to the iliopsoas, and the diaphragm, it likely plays a role in respiration. The QL is often indicated in low back pain and sciatic nerve pain.
Backbending asana will strengthen the QL. Once again, like the obliques, side-bending asanas will stretch the QL. The QL can also be lengthened in postures that create lateral depression of the pelvis; bharadvajasana 2 (virasana side) is an example of this.
Demonstration of Abdominal Control
A few weeks ago, I sent out a video of Australian based yoga teacher, and physiotherapist Simon Borg-Olivier performing advanced asana. It is by far the most controlled and beautiful demonstration I’ve ever seen. If you missed it, it can be found here -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ViH9taNDO4o
Again I am linking a demonstration by Simon. This was a video was filmed on April Fool’s day 2014, which is important to note to understand the ending. This is a demonstration of yoga kriya, or cleansing actions. In the video Simon performs dhauti (stomach cleansing with cloth,) pranayama (breath control,) nauli kriya (lateral abdominal churning,) and tadagi mudra (vertical abdominal churning.) These actions are as difficult to perform as they are to explain. I am an adept practitioner of nauli kriya, but I have never seen anyone even close to Simon’s level. I encourage you to note the control Simon demonstrates over the abdomen, as well as the extremes of both softness and firmness. -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h0E4eZ5Pknk