Teacher Speak: Activate the Core

This column originally appeared in Om Yoga & Lifestyle Magazine in April 2015 

Activate the Core Defined

As postural yoga teachers and students we employ a variety of words and phrases that wouldn’t make much sense in polite society. We overload their meaning and use so heavily that we create a hugely subjective muddle. Let’s reclaim an understanding of these words, use them consciously, and deepen their effect.

Anatomically Speaking

‘Activate the Core’ is a colloquial instruction used to describe abdominal contraction, hip flexor engagement, pelvic placement, lower back support mechanisms, inner thigh squeeze, and many, many more options dependent on the teacher and the yoga immersion weekend from which they’ve just returned. It is mistranslated frequently into never-ending abdominal contractions in preparation for bikini season. Because of this wide range of precise and confused possibilities it is unclear what if anything teachers actually mean. Simply, the core is present in the forces that provide support and integration from the diaphragm down to the pelvis’s juncture with the legs. The core supports vulnerable regions including the lower back and sacroiliac joint. It contracts and expands for breath through the lower abdomen. The core lifts lower limbs to upper or upper limbs to lower especially in inversions, arm balances, and jumping transitions. Core activation ensures a posture works as one unit by providing an energetic focal point that powers, connects, and structures what would otherwise be a mass of flailing limbs. Often forgotten, it can also be deactivated, rested, and released.

Spiritually Speaking

Deeply connected to vanity in modern society, many students and teachers can have numerous emotional entanglements with the core that require sensitivity and skill to overcome. As the physically strengthening and integrative component of asana, core should be used as an anatomical metaphor for activating one’s deeper strength and wisdom. As contrast to an emotionally expressive ‘heart opening’ practice, ‘core activation’ practice is much more than repeated planks and boat poses. Core focused practice develops the physical skill to support expressive postures and the concurrent mental and emotional clarity to see their revelations with grounded clarity. Beyond ego, beyond transient emotion, and rooted within our physical centre of gravity – the core is by its very description that without which we could not function. ‘Activate the Core’ is an essential instruction for strong and integrated asana practice.

However, as individual practitioners will need varying muscular cocktails to support their individual bodies weakness and vulnerabilities, it may be best out of a therapeutic environment to embrace a broad, functional, and spiritually infused definition.