Yoga is never just about flexibility. Flexibility is useless without a strong foundation to support it and to keep you moving safely.
People who live with hypermobility will tell you that being super-bendy is no fun. It leads to twisted, even dislocated, joints. Torn and strained ligaments are an unwelcome part and parcel too, as well as damaged cartilage and the promise of arthritis.
So fall out of love with flexibiity ~ don't take its calls, return its texts, like its Instagram ~ until you're able to love its fraternal twin, Strength, too.
And now that I've planted that really weird threesome metaphor in your head, I'll pretend it never happened and get on with showing you my five favourite core exercises for all-round strength.
1. CAT POSE (MARJARYASANA)
As a committed mad cat lady, it would be remiss of me to leave this off my Favourite Core Poses list. It's a great all-rounder ~ strengthening and stretching the spine, shoulders, back, pelvic floor, abdominals and wrists ~ so don't be deceived by its simplicity!
From all-fours, knees under hips, hands under shoulders
On an exhalation, engage mula bandha, curling the tailbone down and the pubic bone up
Draw the navel towards the spine
Pushing your hands into the mat, lift the space between your shoulderblades to the ceiling and hug the ribs in
Gently allow the head to drop, lifting gaze to navel.
If you suffer with tender wrists, pleat your mat a few times or fold a blanket beneath the heel of your hands for cushioning. Same goes with knees, knobbly or otherwise.
Try drawing the right knee to your nose and holding the pose for 3 deep breaths. Repeat on left.
Avoid dropping the head if you suffer from neck issues.
2. FOREARM PLANK
Forget sit-ups, they're yesterday's back injury. Sit-ups focus on your superficial abdominals and, when overdone in pursuit of the accursed six-pack, can create an imbalance between your front and back bodies. Then it's only a matter of time before a sudden move forward causes a disc or two to go boom.
Planks are a good alternative as they encourage strength throughout the body ~ legs, abdominals, back, shoulders, arms ~ so no one body area is subjected to overloading. Do it right and you've got one of the best all-round strengtheners there is.
From all-fours, with knees under hips at hip-width
Lower down on to the elbows so they're directly under the shoulders
Either keep the forearms parallel, palms flat, or clasp your hands firmly together
Pressing firmly into your forearms, feel the upper back muscles engage
Straighten the right leg back, placing the ball of your foot down on the floor, pressing out through the heel
Repeat with the left leg
Lift kneecaps, firm up the thighs and engage mula bandha, feeling the pubic bone curling towards navel and the tailbone lengthening towards your heels
Hug the ribs into your body
Check you're still pressing the mat away from you through the forearms to keep the upper back muscles strong
Slightly lift the gaze so the neck feels comfortable
Hold for 10 seconds, breathing smoothly, building to 1 minute.
A good preliminary version is starting with your knees on the floor and gradually moving them back slowly building up the weight you're lifting.
a) Try drawing your elbows towards your feet and your feet towards your elbows without actually moving them. You'll feel a very strong engagement of your deep abdominals. Breathe!
b) Lift one foot about 30cms off the floor. Hold for 3 slow breaths before switching sides.
c) If you have happy wrists, try the pose on your hands in traditional plank (Kumbhakasana).
3. SIDE PLANK (VASISTHASANA)
Love 'em or hate 'em, side planks are awesome beasts for developing core strength, demanding much from the muscles of the spine and the side body to stabilize the pose. Essentially, you're performing Tadasana asymmetrically against gravity ~ a big ask.
From Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) tip onto the outside edge of your left foot, stacking the right on top of it
Turn your torso to the right, lifting the right hand and placing it on your right hip
Check that your left hand is slightly in front of your shoulder, hugging the shoulder blade into your back
Raise the right arm perpendicular to the floor, palm forward
Press out through your heels, engaging knee and thigh muscles,
Draw the tailbone down
Look straight ahead, lengthening through the crown of your head
Alternatively, you can turn the head to look up at the top hand
Hold for 10 seconds, breathing smoothly
Repeat on right arm.
Modifications: a) Yep, if you've just given this a go, you've realized that it's a bit of a 'mare. Cut yourself some slack and keep the bottom knee on the mat and focus on lengthening from the sole of the top foot to the crown of your head.
b) Try doing this pose with your feet pressing against the skirting board. It will help stabilize things.
c) Or you could place your top foot on the floor in front of the bottom foot.
d) If your wrists hurt, do the pose on your forearm instead.
e) If the top arm is bobbing about like an injured crane fly, leave the hand on the hip,
Progression: You nutter. Holding on to the big toe, lift the top leg to perpendicular, laughing in a carefree way.
If you've got shoulder, elbow or wrist injuries, congratulations! You receive an official pass!
4. HALF BOAT POSE TO LOW BOAT POSE (ARDHA NAVASANA)
Two for the price of one, this is a fun and dynamic little sequence that will bring tears of joy to your eyes.
Sit upright in Staff Pose (Dandasana), buttocks drawn back
Place your hands on the floor behind you, leaning back slightly
Bend your knees, lifting the feet and bringing the shins parallel to the floor as you balance on your sit bones
Keep the chest lifted and open, continuing to lengthen through the spine
Reach your hands forwards so the arms are level with your shins
Exhaling, straighten the legs, rounding the back and lowering down through the spine onto the sacrum
Inhale, return to Half Boat Pose
Repeat, working up to 10 reps.
a) Keep the feet on the floor, so that you're performing a curl-down. Just go down as far as is comfortable before returning to your starting point.
b) A cup of tea and cake.
Animal. But if you must, try Boat Pose (Paripurna Navasana) to Low Boat Pose and back again.
Just say no if you've had recent abdominal surgery, have uncontrolled blood pressure or heart issues. Avoid for the first few days of your period or if you're pregnant.
4. LOCUST POSE (SALABHASANA)
Time for a lie down. This is a great pose for building strength in the deep supporting muscles of the spine, muscles that many exercises neglect in preference for building aesthetics rather than functionality. Locust Pose, like Cat Pose, is deceptively more complex than first glance would suggest.
Lie on your front, forehead resting on the mat, arms down by your sides, palms down, feet at hip-width
Press evenly through the tops of your feet, strengthening the legs and buttocks
Inhale, lifting head to look forward
Exhaling, engage mula bandha, press pubic bone into your mat and lift legs, chest and head off the mat
Find yourself resting on your lower ribs, belly and pelvis
Reach back through your fingertips and the balls of your feet
Focus on keeping the collarbones wide and the heart open, with your shoulder blades hugging into your back ribs
Feel that your inner thighs are lifting the legs, rather than locking your buttock solid(!)
Take 3 deep breaths
Lower down to the mat, rest your head on your hands and turn your feet outwards into Crocodile Pose (Makarasana)
Repeat 2 more times.
a) It can be tricky as a beginner to lift the torso. Luckily we all have a couple of handy props ~ handy, han-dee, hands. Badum-ksh! Place your hands behind your shoulders towards the waist, keep the arms hugging into your ribs (think Cobra Pose). Inhale and press gently into your hands lifting the torso, then continue with the rest of the pose.
Alternatively, you could support your sternum on a bolster, cushion or rolled up blanket.
b) Salabhasana can be uncomfortable on the hip bones so fold a blanket to create a little bit of cushioning.
c) If you have neck issues, put the head in neutral and look down at the floor.
You can increase the challenge by bringing the arms forward (think Superman, minus the cape. Or with the cape. Your call).
While this pose is excellent for lower back conditions such as mild sciatica, if you have serious back injury you should avoid this pose. Similarly, leave the cape at home if you have shoulder problems.
Avoid with uncontrolled high blood pressure, pregnancy and stomach ulcers.
Phew! Practise these regularly to keep your core in tip-top condition. And remember, always approach with a sense of fun!