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Yoga for Your Core: How to Increase Stability and Protect Your Low Back
Physical therapists know this. Pilates teachers know this. Athletes and dancers know this. How come yoga teachers are behind?
Recently one of the commentators on my blog, Michele, asked me: “Why don’t I hear yoga teachers talk more about “zipping up” (progressive abdominal contraction) in yoga classes?” I don’t know why. I do know that it is absolutely essential. Many yoga poses, if done without it, can be very risky to students’ backs and sacrums and just make the pose more unstable.
What is this Elusive “Zip-Up?” Let’s Explore
Today I observed my 2-year-old son discover zip up. He was playing with his belly button and discovered that on the inhalation it is easy to stick the belly out and on the exhalation, it is fun to pull it in. That entertained him for a while. This pattern represents our natural breathing pattern. When we breathe in, the diaphragm flattens and pushes down on the internal organs, causing the belly to stick out, since the organs have no other place to go. With every exhalation, the belly relaxes, since the diaphragm goes back up. In yoga practice we piggyback on this natural pattern and intentionally contract the abdomen on the exhalation, drawing it in. It does not happen naturally. We do it on purpose. Why?
Try this experiment:
Stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) with your hands on your hips, as if you were holding a bucket of water.
As you inhale, tip the pelvis forward, as if spilling the water forward. What are your back muscles doing? Contracting. What are your abdominal muscles doing? Stretching.
As you exhale, tip your pelvis the other way, as if spilling the water back. What are your back muscles doing? Stretching. What are your abdominal muscles doing? Contracting.
This experiment is meant to demonstrate the relationship between your lower back and your abdominal muscles. They have an agonist-antagonist relationship: when one is contracting, another one as passively stretching. Why is that important? Well, most of us have either weak or chronically contracted lower back muscles because of a sedentary lifestyle, overuse, posture issues, patterns of movement—many different reasons. And many people, especially in the yoga community, have excessive lumbar lordosis (exaggerated curvature of the lower back).
Do those issues go away when you step on the mat to do your yoga practice? Nope, you bring them with you. So next time you go into Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I Pose), your pelvis automatically tilts forward, because it’s easier. As a result, your lower back tightens even more, so instead of fixing the problem you exaggerate it.
Avoiding “Anga Banga” in Your Yoga Practice
Take a look at these two images. What is the main difference?
In Image 1, the lumbar curve is exaggerated, because the shoulders are aligned over the hips, the stance is too wide and the abdomen is not contracted. Even though it looks like a nice backbend, the lower back is compromised and vulnerable to potential injury. In the yoga world, this is called anga banga (real Sanskrit word). It’s when you are trying to do something good for yourself but end up hurting it. What’s the solution? Zip up!
In Image 2, the shoulders are positioned slightly in front of the hips, the lower back curve remains neutral and the abdomen is contracted. The result, a supported lower back, stronger core, better alignment, deeper awareness. Yes, the backbend might not be as deep, but we know better than to compromise safety for the sake of contortion, right?
My students catch up on the idea of zipping up quickly. Any time I ask them: What can we do to make this pose (any pose) safer/more stable/stronger, they respond in unison: “Zip up!” Doing zip up in backbends protects your lower back. Doing it in twists ensures that you twist from the center, instead of using arm leverage. Doing it in forward bends takes you deeper into the pose in a safer way, etc. It’s one of those things that you really shouldn’t go without.
What Makes a Strong Core?
By the way, having developed “six pack” abs has nothing to do with having a strong core. Abdominal crunches exercise rectus abdominis muscles, whose job is to flex the trunk. They do not support your lower back. Transverse abdominis muscles that lie underneath serve that purpose, almost like an internal corset that holds things together. By progressively pulling the abdomen in toward the spine you activate those muscles.
The term “zip up” is not really a term but an image that helps you visualize the process. Imagine putting on a tight pair of jeans. When you attempt to zip them up, you gradually pull your stomach in from the bottom toward the top to make it happen. This image usually works better for women than men
When we say “zip up,” we mean “progressive abdominal contraction from the pubic bone toward the navel.” Saying “zip up” is just faster and more visual. Theoretically, we want to engage the zip-up every time we exhale, for the duration of the yoga practice. This is the simplest way to develop core strength and support the lower back. It has other unexpected benefits. It trains your body to respond quickly if your balance is compromised.
Consider my personal story: I was taking my rambunctious lab for a walk one time and turned to lock the door. He saw a squirrel and pulled so strongly that I went flying off the stairs. The thought that flashed through my head was “I am about to do a face plant on the cement walkway.” But my body responded differently. After years of practice, my core muscles contracted automatically, regrouping my entire body and I landed on my feet—no conscious decision on my part!
This happens when you teach your body to behave a certain way through mindful training on the mat. Then the results show up off the mat. That’s why we do yoga anyway, not for its own sake, but to live happier, healthier and more fulfilled lives (with fewer injuries!)
A few words about bandhas: I often hear yoga teachers use the term uddiyana bandha in place of “progressive abdominal contraction. It’s not the same thing. In general, teachings on bandhas vary from one yoga tradition to another. Sri Krishnamacharya was clear in his teachings: bandhas are done in a seated position for the purpose of affecting your body’s subtle energy, not structural support.
How to Zip Up
When Moving In or Out of a Pose:
On the exhalation, progressively contract your abdomen from the pubic bone toward the navel.
On the inhalation, gradually release the contraction from the navel to the pubic bone.
When Holding a Pose:
On the exhalation, progressively contract your abdomen from the pubic bone toward the navel and release it only partially on the Inhalation to maintain support.
On the next exhalation reengage the abdomen, and on the inhalation, again release partially.
Continue for as long as you hold the pose.
Partial release of the contraction on the inhalation allows you to breathe more fully, but maintaining contraction of the lowest part of the abdomen maintains support for the lower back.
Study with Olga Kabel and YogaUOnline - Yoga for Every Body: How to Adapt Yoga Poses for Different Situations, Conditions, and Purposes.
Reprinted with permission from Sequence Wiz.
Educated as a school teacher, Olga Kabel has been teaching yoga for over 14 years. She completed multiple Yoga Teacher Training Programs but discovered the strongest connection to the Krishnamacharya/ T.K.V. Desikachar lineage. She had studied with Gary Kraftsow and American Viniyoga Institute (2004-2006) and received her Viniyoga Teacher diploma in July 2006, becoming an AVI-certified Yoga Therapist in April 2011. Olga is a founder and managing director of Sequence Wiz-a web-based yoga sequence builder that assists yoga teachers and yoga therapists in creating and organizing yoga practices. It also features simple, informational articles on how to sequence yoga practices for maximum effectiveness. Olga strongly believes in the healing power of this ancient discipline on every level: physical, psychological, and spiritual. She strives to make yoga practices accessible to students of any age, physical ability, and medical history specializing in helping her students relieve muscle aches and pains, manage stress and anxiety, and develop mental focus.