Updated: Oct 14, 2022
A lot of people think of the "core" as being your abdominal muscles and not much more. In actuality, the core is a group of more than 30 muscles, all working together to stabilize and move the human body. Core strengthening is a must for all fitness routines and especially Yoga. The core works with every step you take, and provides the stable base needed to project full strength into each limb's movement. Just the act of standing on two legs, with proper posture, requires core engagement.
A weak or vulnerable core will affect your ability to perform to your best ability in almost any field. If there are any physical demands or unforeseen strains on the body, then a weak core can lead to aggravated injury easily. Even without injury, a weak core can make any physical effort very strenuous. Poor posture is one of the first signs of a weak core, and poor posture is accompanied by a host of maladies. Mental sluggishness, poor digestion, aches and pains, a lot of these can be a cause of poor posture and can be helped by proper core development.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit.” —Aristotle
The core acts as a base stabilizer for your bones and skeleton, leaving your limbs free to exert force. If you use your core properly, you engage your whole body in the particular action and lessen the strain on your limbs. This gives more power and control to every movement. If you want to feel the core working, one of the best ways is to try a balance pose like the one below, and then try to go as far off your center of gravity as possible without falling. The core activates as soon as you lift one leg off the ground and works harder as you get more off balance. You can feel your whole body trying to stabilize. Mentally engage your core and see the difference in stability.
Warrior III Pose
You can think of the human body (in HIGHLY general terms) as having a head, limbs and core, and that's it. Almost every movement that engages the shoulders or hips, also engages the core. The "main" core muscles are surrounded and assisted by lots of smaller muscles. When you do your asanas, be aware of this and try to feel the muscle action going across your body as you flex. This awareness is one of the most important things you could be doing. The awareness is what makes it Yoga.
There are hundreds of asanas and variations which you could be doing to strengthen your core. Beginners would start with trying to develop major muscle groups, with basic asanas; while advanced practitioners will concentrate on shifting their center of gravity, leading to different variations being used to further strengthen the smaller muscles. Let's look at a few basic ones first.
Dance pose for stability
Half Moon Pose
Now let's look at some of the more difficult ones that you can either work "upto" or work "on", depending on what level of core strengthening you are working on.
8 Angle Pose - The asymmetric balance works the core to the max
To do the harder asanas, you must have a strong core. To attempt them otherwise can cause injury. If you work on the basic asanas first then the harder ones will come easily. For example, The Headstand (See full post here). You cannot get to Step 6, do the leg lift, and have stability to go further safely if you do not have a strong core; but if you train yourself properly, then the full body control you experience will be its own reward.
There are other advantages too. The core contains many of the essential organs in various bodily systems. Doing proper breathing flows in core related asanas will massage these organs leading to a healthier body in general. Also the core area contains 3 out of the 7 main chakras and doing meditative asanas that concentrate on the core has its own benefits (see some here).
A strong core will allow you to maintain proper body alignment in whatever exercise or sport you are doing, as well as in your day-to-day activities. Whether it’s for injury prevention or increasing strength, there are no downsides to core strengthening exercises. Increasing flexibility throughout your body can help keep your muscles at their peak, as well as help prevent injuries.
Everyone and anyone can benefit from increasing core stability and increases in flexibility.