I tend to cringe at the gym when I watch people furiously doing repetitions of classic abdominal exercises. They look so tense and intense as they contract and scrunch up their bellies, shoulders, necks and faces. I cannot help but wince when I notice abdominals exercises that are not being executed with proper care and technique observing how much unnecessary strain is put on the poor back
Strong abdominals are important in supporting the body and for your overall health. New studies have even shown a possible connection between abdominal strength and longevity. I, for one, will be the first to admit that I find six-pack abs attractive, but not at the expense of over all structural health and chronic abdominal contraction. A nicely toned stomach is only visually pleasing when accompanied by good posture. Overly contracted abdominal exercises can lead to a flattening of the lumbar curve and weakened spinal structure as well as hunchback conditions.
Chronically holding in the belly also encourages shallow breathing. This decreases the amount of prana (breath or life force energy) that we bring into our bodies. Deep breathing rejuvenates cells while energizing and relaxing us at the same time.
Many people don't believe that yoga strengthens abdominals because they don't see yogis sporting six-packs. Granted yoga will not enable you achieve this classic look but many yoga poses strengthen abdominals while at the same time protecting and strengthening the back. Yoga not only works on surface muscles but also underlying muscles to develop strength as well as flexibility, which supports the body and also promotes deep abdominal breathing.
Yoga develops core strength, which is located below the naval. Yoga poses safely tone the abdominals without tensing them. Overtime we achieve an awareness and mastery of our core strength, which enables us to utilize it in balancing, sustaining, and at times soaring through poses with power, agility, lightness and grace.
Yoga Poses Which Strengthen Abdominals:
Hands and Knees Balance
Side Plank Pose-Vasisthasana
Extended Hand to Big Toe Pose-Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana
Crow Pose (Bakasana)
Half Moon Pose-Ardha Chandrasana
Warrior III- Virabhadrasana III
Shoulder Stand-Salamba Sarvangasana
Arm Balance Poses
Forearm Stand-Pincha Mayurasana
For Strenghthening the Back: Shalabhasana
For Obliques: Rotational poses like Jathara Parivartanasana (Revolved Abdomen Pose) and Pavirtta Tikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose)
Counter Poses for keeping the stomach muscles flexible: Setu Banddha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose), Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose), Ustrasana (Camel Pose) and Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog Pose)
Yoga Pose of the Week
Sit on the floor with your legs straight in front of you. Bring your hands behind you on the floor behind your hips. Tent your fingers and make sure they are facing your feet. Lengthen your spine lifting your heart center to the sky. Bend your knees and then lift your feet off the floor so your thighs are at a 45degree angle to the floor. If possible straighten your knees, raising your toes slightly above your eyes. If this is not possible keep your knees bent. Extend your arms alongside the legs, parallel to each other and the floor. If this is not possible keep your hands on the floor beside your hips. Hold for 3 to 5 breaths. Be sure to bend the knees or keep your hands on the floor if you feel any strain on your back.
References: Yoga Journal