Yoga is for everyone!
I like to say this quote: "Things fall apart that the center does not hold." That, in a nutshell, is the essence of my approach to core strength and awareness. Now, it is all and good to focus on the obvious - the transverse abdominis, but here I would like to share some of the things that I have been exploring relating to the side body and the obliques.
Side body is often neglected as we focus our attention to opening and strengthening the front and the back body. However, the side body plays a very important role in connecting the front body with the back, and our obliques need to be not only strong and flexible, but well integrated into the entire core of the body.
Twists offer great opportunities for investigation, and today we will look at the Half Moon (Ardha Chandrasana). Not only is this pose a twist, it also challenges your balance, which is strengthened by working from the core.
Since the pose is asymmetrical and presents certain challenges for the SI joint, warm up properly with plenty of symmetrical poses and strengthen deep structures in your pelvis. In a previous blog on Basic Rules of Sequencing I gave a lengthy list of warm-up and compensation movements. Any and all would do, but make sure you include:
Vimanasana is a great strengthener for the SI. Inhale and lift the legs separating them; exhale, zip up your belly, bring the legs together and lower them. Also, since Half Moon is a twist, don't forget to prep with some easy twists such as the ones below.
Windshield Wipers for flexibility: Inhale with knees bent feet apart on the floor. Exhale and with progressive zip-up of the belly twist the lower body in one direction, head in the opposite. Inhale back to center. Maintain neutral low back throughout.
Jathara Parivartanasana is great for strengthening the obliques. Keeping the movement mid-range would help you stay in control and keep the shoulders pinned to the floor, thus isolating the movement of the pelvic girdle. Inhale into the twist, exhale with come to center with the "zip up".
To become more aware of this relationship between the shoulder girdle and the pelvic girdle, which the obliques govern, try movements below. First, some terminology that I use to describe the two hip positions - open and closed.
Closed position means that when you are on all fours in neutral pelvis, your hip points are facing the floor and are equal distance from the floor. If you lift and straighten one leg behind you, try and maintain the hip point of the lifted leg exactly as it was - do not allow it to flare out to the side or to sink down lower.
Open hip position means that you begin to rotate the hip out, so that the hip point of the lifted leg now flares out. Here it is important to stay balanced and to counteract the opening with an outer rotation of the supporting hip. That is usually when students have trouble and lose their balance in Ardha Chandrasana.
To create awareness in the way obliques are engaged here, open and close the hip a few times on each side while paying close attention to sensations in your side body. If you feel tightness in the hips and sensations in the hips overshadow the more subtle ones in the obliques, you can spend a few minutes on hip openers before starting this practice.
Keep an eye on your supporting thigh - it should always remain vertical to the floor. You need to open your hip out only as much as you are able to keep your supporting thigh straight.
In Ardha Chandrasana, this movement is what gets you into the pose. Start in a high lunge and step your back foot forward until you feel the weight of the body on the front, supporting leg.
First, practice simply lifting and lowering the back leg, keeping the knee of the supporting leg bent enough for you to stay in neutral pelvis.
The knee of your standing leg should face directly forward. If it is angling inward and you are pigeon toed, you need to engage your glutes and square the pelvis to the floor, like in the exercise above. If you try to come into the pose with your standing leg rotated inward, it will not work.
Once your support structure is established, attend to safety of your low back by tilting the pelvis forward into neutral. This will engage the transverse abdominis in the lower belly. The back leg should then lift with ease if you do. Have your hands lightly touch the floor under your shoulders.
Once you feel the balance on the standing leg, begin to straighten it bit by bit, until it is as straight as you can get it without losing neutral pelvis. Check to make sure your low back hasn't rounded. This will give you that amazing length in the spine and general expansive feeling that is so wonderful in Ardha Chandrasana. It feels like you are flying! Once your spine has lengthened completely and you feel steady, begin to open the hip of the lifted leg while at the same time keeping the standing leg vertical. Keep looking at your knee so that it faces directly forward and does not begin to angle inward. If you allow your standing leg to rotate inward, you will not be able to get anywhere.
You do not need to open the hip out to the side a whole lot. Some of us are more open in the hips than others, and those of us with open hips should exercise caution and not go overboard. Only open as much as you can without sacrificing alignment of your standing leg and neutral pelvis.
If you do it right, you should feel a sense of broadness in the low back and sacrum. Your lower belly should experience a nice toning from still being in neutral pelvis. The side of the body facing the floor should feel the same length as the other side, and breath should feel even in both the right and the left sides of the body, and the knee of your supporting leg should still track right over the middle toe of the foot - a sign that proper outer rotation of the standing leg has happened.
Once you have found a good "open" hip position and your balance is steady, the rest of the rotation should come from the upper body - the lower ribs rotating toward the ceiling, taking the shoulder with it. Again, obliques will need to act smoothly in an integrated manner.
The final touch here would be to free the gaze and to look upwards at the thumb of your upper hand as it extends to the ceiling. With your mind, go into your belly. Concentrate on the breath moving the lower ribs, especially in your back body. Once you do, your gaze should "unlock" and become somewhat diffused, focused inward rather than outward. Then it should be possible to turn your head toward the ceiling without losing balance.
To come out, reverse the entire process and rest in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Down Dog) or Balasana (Child's Pose). Repeat on the other side and compare the two sides - which one is easier to balance, where do you feel your core better integrated into the whole body - right or left side? You may wish to repeat one more time on the more challenged side.
When you are finished, do a few of the counter-poses from my extensive list, but make sure you don't forget my favorite "stressed SI rehab" - the floating butterfly. Hover the pelvis an inch off the floor and on the inhale separate the knees and on the exhale bring them together while doing a "zip up". You'd be surprised how wobbly you may feel! Steady yourself by slowing down both breath and movement.