Summertime will be upon us sooner than we think (at least I hope so – These past couple of weeks have brought nothing but blistering snow, wind, and cold here in my small Ontario town) – That means that there’s no better time than now to start working toward that beach body! There are of course a wide variety of ways you can achieve this – You can sign up for a gym membership that you’ll probably only use a couple of times, you could take up running (but it’s kind of boring, isn’t it?), or you could even save time by putting together your own HIIT routine. Each one of those things carry their own merit, but for me, they just seemed to be lacking… something.
Then I discovered yoga. Don’t get me wrong, I still do random workouts here and there when I have the time, and I walk my dog for as long as he’ll tolerate when the weather’s nice. But yoga does something for you that’s hard to find anywhere else – It aligns your mind, body, and spirit in a way that you can’t really explain. It’s one of those things that you really do have to experience before you can believe it (trust me, if you had asked me even five years ago if I’d be doing yoga, I’d have probably laughed at you). The only thing that was ever semi-comparable for me was Tae Kwon Do, but I guess when you think about it, that makes sense.
Anyway, what’s the one thing being bikini ready requires? A beautifully toned core, of course! And what better way to kick start that metabolism of yours and get your core looking its best than with some yoga poses? All of these poses can be done in a relatively small space (although I strongly suggest that once the weather gets nicer and you’ve got the hang of things, you move your practice to the outdoors – There’s nothing like morning beach yoga, but just being on grass is an upgrade), none of them require you to go out and purchase any sort of special equipment, and best of all, they can be done any time of day (although you really should get around to setting some time aside for your daily practise, I promise that after some time has gone by, you won’t even notice that you’re getting up an hour or two earlier – You’ll just feel great!).
Your core is your body’s powerhouse, so it’s super important to make sure that it’s in tip-top shape. Strengthening your core can help improve your posture, keep your inner organs and central nervous system protected (since that’s where a lot of it’s located), and can even help banish back pain! I’m a walking testament to that last one – I have scoliosis and sciatica, back pain was a part of life. I can honestly say that yoga has helped me tremendously. My posture is also better, but I think that might be a combination of yoga and extreme mindfulness. Anyway, regardless of whether you’ve just decided to try yoga for the first time or you’re a seasoned pro, you should be able to find something on this list that will help you take your core strength to the next level.
I do suggest taking at least a few classes with a professional before deciding to practice at home, it’s well worth the investment to learn to do the poses correctly. That said, I know that option isn’t exactly practical for a variety of reasons, so I’m going to try and explain each of these poses as best I can.
Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
This is a great first pose to master; it’s an important pose to learn because it tends to be the starting point of a lot of standing poses. It can help improve your posture, firm your core (and butt!), help relieve sciatica, and help reduce the extremity of flat feet (another problem I used to have!).
To do the pose, start with the bases of your big toes touching and your heels slightly apart (this should make your second toes parallel to each other. Spread your toes and the balls of your feel out on the floor or ground gently and rock back and forth gently as well as side to side. Gradually reduce the swaying to a standstill – By now your weight should be distributed evenly on each foot.
Firm your thigh muscles and lift your knee caps without actually hardening your lower belly (it takes a little bit of practice at first, but it CAN be done!). Lift your inner ankles to strengthen your arches, and imagine a line of energy running vertically from the floor through the crown of your head, holding you up strait. Turn your upper thighs slightly inward, lengthen your tail bone toward the floor and lift your pelvic bone toward your belly button.
Press your shoulder blades into your back, then widen them out and let them release down your back (but don’t relax them!). Lift your sternum towards the ceiling without pushing your lower ribs forward and widen your collarbones. Hang your arms beside your body.
Ensure that the crown of your head is directly over the center of your pelvis and that the underside of your chin is parallel to the floor. Keep your throat soft and your tongue wide and flat on the floor of your mouth. Soften your eyes. Hold the pose for 30 seconds to a minute, breathing easily (It would also benefit you to learn some breathing techniques, but that’s a post for another day altogether – There are certainly a ton of them available online!).
Tips & Alterations
If you want to check your alignment, do this pose against a wall – The back of your heels, your tailbone, and your shoulder blades should be touching it. Your head should not. If you happen to have someone with you, you can have them check your alignment by ensuring that your ear hole, the center of your shoulder joint, the center of your outer hip, and your outer ankle bone are all in one line and perpendicular to the floor.
To deepen the pose, close your eyes and learn to balance without any reference to the environment around you (especially fun to do if you’re practicing outside!). You can also alter the position of your arms in a variety of ways; each one will affect your balance in a different way, experiment with each one and see what works best for you.
Utkatasana (Chair Pose)
Utkata translates to powerful/fierce, and that’s exactly how you’ll feel after you’ve mastered this pose! It strengthens your ankles, thighs, calves, and spine; stretches your shoulders and chest, helps reduce flat feet; and stimulates your heart, diaphragm, and of course, your abdominal muscles and organs.
To do the pose, start in Tadasana (shown above). Inhale deeply and raise your arms until they’re perpendicular with the floor. You can choose to either keep your arms parallel with your arms facing inward, or you can opt to join your palms, which is slightly easier to do.
Exhale and bend your knees like you’re sitting in an imaginary chair. The goal here is to make your thighs as parallel to the ground as possible. Your knees should project out over your feet and your torso should be leaned slightly forward (aim to have your body form a right angle with your thighs). Keep your inner thighs parallel to each other by pressing your thighs down toward your ankles.
Firm your shoulder blades against your back and push your tailbone down toward the floor and in toward your pubis. Think of that string again, you want a straight line. Hold the pose for thirty seconds to a minute.
To come out of the pose, inhale to strengthen your knees and lift strongly through your arms. Exhale and release your arms back into Tadasana.
Tips & Alterations
If your thighs just don’t seem to be up to the challenge, you can increase their strength by squeezing a block or thick book in between them. If you need help staying in the pose, try doing it against a wall – Stand a couple of inches away from the wall and when you bend into the pose, your tailbone should be the only thing touching the wall, this should offer you enough support to get through it. If you happen to have someone around to help you out, have them use their hands or feel to hold your feet to the ground.
Looking for something a little different? As you bend your knees, lift up onto the balls of your feet and sit down onto your heels. Extend your arms so that they’re parallel to each other as well as the ground, and face your palms inward.
The secret to this pose being comfortable is mastering the art of releasing your thigh bones towards your heels. If you’ve got that mastered and you’d like to deepen the pose a little, try bringing your hands to the top of your thighs while you’re in the pose; put your hand where your thighs meet your groin and push your thighs towards your heels while at the same time lifting into your pelvis.
Marjaryasana (Cat Pose)/Bitilasana (Cow Pose)
I don’t really see the point of doing one without the other, and these are really two of the simplest vinyasa yoga sequences to learn. The cat pose stretches your back, torso, and neck; and it provides you with a gentle massage for your spine and belly organs. The cow pose provides that same massage, and it helps stretch out the front of your torso as well as your neck. It’s also exceptionally relaxing.
To do the poses, you’re going to want to start on your hands and knees with your weight distributed evenly across the four points. Your knees should be set directly below your hips and your wrists, elbows, and shoulders should be in a straight line and perpendicular to the floor. Your head should also be a neutral position – eyes looking at the floor.
As you inhale, lift your tailbone and chest up toward the ceiling and let your belly sink toward the floor. Lift your head so that you’re looking forward. And that’s Bitilasana!
As you exhale, round your spine toward the ceiling, but keep your shoulders and knees in tabletop position. Your head should go back as well so that you’re looking at the floor again. And that’s Marjaryasana! Repeat this sequence 20-30 times.
Tips & Alterations
If you have difficulty rounding your upper back for the cat pose (scoliosis sufferers will probably have the most difficulty with this, I know I did!), have someone lay their hand just above and between your shoulder blades – It’ll help your brain focus more on activating the area.
When you’re doing the cow pose, protect your neck by broadening across your shoulder blades and drawing your shoulders down, away from your ears.
Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog)
This is probably the most well-known yoga pose there is, and for good reason – It’s easy to learn to do and has a ton of great benefits – It calms your brain while energizing your body, gives you a great stretch, helps relieve menstrual cramps, helps improve digestion, can help relieve headache, fatigue, and insomnia, and can even help combat back pain!
Start on the floor on your hands and knees – Set your knees directly below your hips and set your hands slightly in front of your shoulders. Spread your palms with your index fingers parallel or slightly turned out and turn your toes under you so that you’ll be able to lift up onto them.
Exhale and lift your knees away from the floor, keeping your knees slightly bent and your heels off of the floor at first. Inhale and lengthen your tailbone away from your back of your pelvis and press it lightly toward your pubis. Against the resistance, lift your sitting bones toward the ceiling and draw your inner legs up toward your groin with your inner ankles.
Exhale and push your top thighs back and stretch your heels toward or onto the floor. Straiten your knees, but don’t lock them. Firm your outer thighs and roll your inner thighs inward slightly. Narrow the front of your pelvis.
Inhale and firm your outer arms. Press your index fingers into the floor – From the two points, lift along your inner arms from the wrist to the tops of your shoulders. Firm your shoulder blades against your back, then widen and draw them towards your tailbone. Keep your head between your upper arms, and be aware of It – Don’t just let it hang. Stay in the pose for 1-3 minutes, focusing on your form and breathing.
Tips & Alterations
If you’re someone that has difficulty releasing and opening up your shoulders, raise your hands of the floor and instead use a pair of blocks or the seat of a folding chair. That little bit of height will make all of the difference in the world!
If you want to deepen the pose and increase the stretch to the back of your legs (not recommended for beginners), lift up slightly onto the balls of your feet (pull your heels up about a half inch or so off the floor) and draw your inner groins deep into your pelvis (lifting actively from your inner heels). From the height of the groin, lengthen your heels back onto the floor, moving your outer heels back faster than your inner heels.
If you’re looking for a challenge, try inhaling and raising a leg until it’s parallel with the line of your torso and hold for 30 seconds, making sure that your hips stay level and that you’re continuing to press through your heel. Release the pose with an exhalation and remember to do it with both legs.
If you want to rev it up even more, try a plank pose – Start in downward dog, then inhale and draw your torso forward until your arms are perpendicular to the floor and your shoulders are sitting directly over your wrists. Firm your shoulder blades against your back, then spread them apart on your spine. Spread your collarbones away from your sternum. Press your front thighs up toward the ceiling but keep your tailbone toward the floor as you lengthen it toward your heels. Look straight down at the floor; keep your throat and eyes soft. Hold for 30 seconds to one minute.
For More Advanced Practitioners
Maybe you’ve been working with the poses above for a while now and are on a search for something a little more advanced, or maybe you just find the poses posted above a little easy and boring. In any event, here are a few more difficult poses that are perfect for the more advanced yogi!
Paripurna Navasana (Boat Pose)
This is one pose that you’re certainly going to be able to feel, especially if you haven’t really been keeping up with your core strength. In addition to working out your abdomen, this pose will help strengthen your spine and hip flexors, helps relieve stress, and improves digestion.
To do the pose, sit on the floor with your legs stretched out in front of you. Place your hands on the floor – a little behind your hips – with your fingers pointing toward your feet and strengthen your arms. Inhale and lift through the top of your sternum until you’re leaning back slightly (make sure that your back doesn’t round!). Lengthen the front of your torso between the pubis and top sternum and sit on the ‘tripod’ of your sitting bones and tailbone.
Exhale and bend your knees, then lift your feet off of the floor so that your thighs are angled about 45-50 degrees from the floor. Lengthen your tailbone into the floor and lift your pubis toward your navel. Slowly straighten your knees if you can (this could take you a little while to work up to) and raise the tips of your toes just above your eyes. If you’re unable to straighten your legs out, keep your knees bent, or try lifting just your shins parallel to the floor.
Stretch your arms alongside your legs so that they’re parallel to each other as well as the floor. Spread your shoulder blades across your back and reach out strongly through your fingers. If you’re unable to do this, hold onto your hips or just keep your hands on the floor for balance.
Keep your lower belly as flat as you can – It should be firm, but not hard and thick. Press the heads of your thighbones toward the floor to help anchor the pose and lift the top sternum. Keeping your breathing easy, tip your chin slightly toward your sternum so that the base of your skull lifts lightly away from the back of your neck.
When you first start this pose, try to hold it for 10-20 seconds. As you become more comfortable with it, you can aim to hold it for a minute. Release your legs with an exhalation and sit back upright on an inhalation.
Tips & Alterations
If you’d like a little help keeping your legs straightened out and raised while you’re doing this pose, you might want to invest in a resistance band – I had one leftover from when I was doing physiotherapy for my knee and I can honestly say that it made all of the difference in the world! To use, simply loop the strap or band around the soles of your feet and grip it firmly in your hands. Inhale while you lean your torso back and exhale while you lift and straighten your legs, pushing your feet against the strap and adjusting the strap/band as you need to in order to keep it taut.
You can practice for this pose while you’re at work without having to ever leave your chair! Just sit at the front edge of your seat with your knees at right angles. Grab onto the very edge of your seat with your hands and lean forward slightly; firm your arms and lift your buttocks slightly off the seat, then raise your heels slightly off the floor (but not so much that you’re on the just the balls of your feet). Let your thighbones sink into the pull of gravity and push the top of your sternum forward and up.
If you’re having issues bringing your shoulder blades into your back and lifting your sternum, have someone place their hands on your back and/or upper chest to help give you something to lift from.
Bakasana (Crane/Crow Pose)
Not only does this pose strengthen your abdominal muscles and tone your abdominal organs, it also stretches out your groin, stretches out your upper back, and strengthens your arms and wrists. It’s one of those poses that looks a lot easier to master than it really is (if you want to do it properly) – You’ve been warned. That said, it’s a ton of fun to practice!
Start in Tadasana (picture one) and squat down with your inner feet just a few inches apart (If you’re unable to keep your heels on the floor, fold up a towel or blanket and wedge it in the open space). Separate your knees wider than your hips and lean your torso forward between your inner thighs. Stretch your arms forward then bend your elbows; place your hands on the floor the back of your upper arms against your shins.
Press your inner thighs against the sides of your torso and your shins into your armpits, then slide your upper arms down as low onto your shins as you possibly can.
Lift up onto the balls of your feet and lean forward even more; take the weight of your torso onto the back of your upper arms. Try to contract your front torso and round your back completely (it’ll take a little bit of practice, for sure) – To do this, keep your heels as close to your tailbone as you possibly can.
Exhale and lean forward even more toward the backs of your upper arms to the point where the balls of your feet leave the floor. Your torso and legs should be completely balanced on the backs of your upper arms at this point. Hold for 20 seconds to one minute, breathing easily and evenly.
Tips & Alterations
If you want to take the pose one step further, follow the instructions above and then squeeze your legs against your arms and press your inner hands firmly into the floor. Inhale and straighten your elbows. Keep your head in a neutral position with your eyes looking at the floor or lift your head slightly – without compressing your neck – and look forward instead.
If you’re unable to lift into the position from the floor, try preparing for it by squatting on a block or other platform. Having your feet a few inches off the floor when you start can make all of the difference in the world!
If you’re experiencing pain in your wrists (I don’t personally, but I have a few friends that have complained about it), try curling your fingers slightly instead of having them spread out flat against the floor to help relieve some of the pressure on them.
Use a partner to help hold your balance if you’re afraid of smashing your face into the floor until you’re more comfortable with it if you happen to have one available.
Yoga is so much more than core strength, but it’s definitely a great place to start! And there are so many other poses that work your core, but this post has become long enough as it is – Do these poses daily and you’ll be on your way to that flat, beach-ready tummy in no time at all! Do you practise yoga at home? What are some of your favorite core strengthening poses? Let us know in the comments section!
Make sure that you follow us on Google+ and Pinterest so that you can make sure that you’re always up to date with our diet, beauty, organic eating, natural living, and fitness news! Also, don’t forget to pin this article so that you can quickly find it whenever you have a few spare minutes to work on your midsection (and be on the lookout for other targeted yoga posts – They’re coming soon!).