I know how it is. I used to dread doing abdominals, too. They always felt like a weak point for me, and so I avoided abdominal exercises at all costs.
But then to my own joy I discovered that abdominal exercises are built right into the Universal Principles of Alignment, which is to say, if you're doing the principles, you're engaging and strengthening and stretching your abs in every pose.
This is the cool thing. Abdominal exercises need not be something that you only do in isolation, in the same way that a practice of yoga need not be something that you do only on a yoga mat. Instead of isolating the abs, or our yoga practice, from our everyday experience, how can we see that they are embedded in everything we do?
- Open to Grace: Begin with a passive release with gravity from the pelvis into the earth
- Muscle Energy: When you engage muscle energy, everything tones, and that includes the abdominal core.
- Thigh Loop and Inner Spiral: These principles sets the thigh bones back into the hip sockets, and keep the hip flexors soft when you engage your abs. The hip flexors tend to be strong, and they'll easily overwork. It's interesting how your body will try anything to avoid actually working those abs.
- Pelvic Loop and Outer Spiral: Both of these principles help create more tone in the abdominal muscles. I find that Outer Spiral, which initiates with the waistline flowing back and the tailbone tucking under, creates more of a lift in the lower belly, while the Pelvic Loop, which also draws the waistline back but goes only down to the bottom of the sacrum and forward, engages more the lowest part of the abdominal core. Both principles together will give you an even tone through the abs. Note that the engagement of the abs initiates from the action of the back body (waistline back, tailbone and bottom of the sacrum down and in) rather than a contraction of the front. Of course, the front body does contract, but it's more the fluid result of the engagement through the back body.
- Organic Energy: Especially when the pelvis is the focal point, the stretch of Organic Energy through the bones of the body will give you tone and length in the abdominals.
- Tadasana: Believe it or not, even tadasana is an opportunity to work your abs. In fact, if you're truly standing upright, your abs will be engaged to support your stance. Try the tried-and-tested exercise of tadasana with a block between your inner thighs to feel the difference between Outer Spiral and Pelvic Loop. Engage the legs, activate Inner Spiral, turning the inseams of the legs back and wide. The block will move back as the tops of your thighs line up over your knees over your ankles. Notice how the belly might tend to distend with the action of Inner Spiral. Now add Outer Spiral, drawing the waistline back and scooping under through the tailbone. (To feel the lengthening of the tailbone, bring one finger to the tailbone and press the tailbone down into your finger.) Notice how the belly lifts with this action. Now do tadasana again, setting up in the same way, but instead of Outer Spiral, add the Pelvic Loop, which initiates by the waistline flowing back and then draws the bottom of the sacrum down and in. (To feel the action of the sacrum, bring one finger to the bottom of the sacrum/AKA top of the butt crack and draw that part down and forward into the body.) This will also tone the abs, but notice how it feels different from the action of Outer Spiral. To me, the tone is much lower from Pelvic Loop, and much more deeply integrated. Now root through the pelvis and legs and stretch your arms overhead, and you'll get a stretch to those abs while they're toned. Yes, this is how tadasana will always be performed in alignment. Everyday abs.
- High lunge: When you come into the pose, notice the relationship between your back thigh and your belly. If you lift the back thigh to line it up in the hip socket, does the belly collapse forward? And if you try to lift your belly, does the back thigh pop forward? A healthy engagement will have both the back thigh rooting back (into the hip socket) without the belly distending, so keep the power in your back leg and then sweep the waistline back and draw down through the bottom of your sacrum to get the low belly to lift. If the front hip is resting on the front thigh, this signifies a lack of tone through the Outer Spiral or Pelvic Loop.
- Parsvakonasana: Similarly, the low belly should be toned and lifting in this pose. Work through the principles in order. Getting Inner Spiral established is key to getting the tone in the lower belly without it pulling on your hip flexors or low back. Then once you have the thighs anchored back, draw back through the waistline and scoop under through the bottom of the tailbone/sacrum, especially on the front leg side, until the lower belly lifts up.
- Thigh stretch (in pigeon pose or anjaneyasana): It's always nice to do a thigh stretch (or more) before doing targeted abdominals, because that allows the hip flexors to soften and release rather than trying to pull you up. So do either of these thigh stretches. Watch in these poses how the belly and pelvis will tend to tip forward as you bring the back leg in. So keep good action in the legs (and especially the top of the back thigh BACK), and then add the Outer Spiral or Pelvic Loop to draw the waistline back and get the length in the lower back with a lift in the lower belly. The front hip should be lifting off the front thigh.
- Supine abdominal exercises: Doing abdominal exercises in a supine position gives the thighs something to press against (i.e. the floor), and this feedback helps us know when the hip flexors are overriding the abs. I recommend using a block between the inner thighs or knees for all of these, because it helps to de-activate the hip flexors. Between each set do a bride pose (setubandha) to lengthen the front body.
- Use a block between your knees, and then bend them in so the thighs are vertical (knees right about your hips). Let the thigh bones release down into the hip sockets. Squeeze the block and then turn the inner thighs in and down until you feel the lower back arch lightly. Then lengthen the bottom of your sacrum long and in to the body. From this action, you'll feel the lower belly tone. Now bring your hands behind your head and begin doing little crunches. Yes, little crunches. In fact, you can do them in your head, and it will probably have a strong effect. The key is to keep the thighs released (curve in lower back) and the action of the bottom of the sacrum drawing into the body. The best part (to me) is on the way back down from the crunch. If you keep the tone, as you lengthen down (with Organic Energy, rather than dropping back to the floor), you get engagement and length in the abs simultaneously, and this is what I find really supports posture. Once you've done a few crunches up and down, try twisties (aiming toward one knee and then the other).
- Take the block between your inner thighs, and bring the legs straight on the floor. Now the floor gives the feedback as to whether the tops of the thighs are indeed anchored down (with Inner Spiral/Thigh Loop). You should have a nice, lordotic curve in the lower back. Then add the Pelvic Loop, lengthening the bottom of the sacrum and drawing it into the body, without flattening the spine. Hands behind your head, and lift up! You can do little crunches, and also twisties (turning from side to side, bringing one elbow to the floor at a time), as long as the thighs stay anchored, the low back keeps its curve, and the bottom of the sacrum draws in. The twists will help you strengthen the obliques, while the straight-ahead crunches will help work out the rectus abdominus. All of them help tone the transverse abdominal muscle.
- Jathara Parivartanasana: Take the block between your knees again, and bend the knees in to 90 degrees. Stretch both arms out to the sides, palms up. Work through the principles so you have a curve and length in the lower back, then begin twisting by bringing the knees to one side and then the other. Keep both shoulders on the ground (you'll notice that, on the side that you're twisting away from, the arm bone will want to lift off the floor) so that you really are working your abs to do this. To intensify the exercise, try first straightening one leg as you take the knees to the opposite side, and then straightening both legs on both sides.
- Last one! With the block between your inner thighs and the legs straight up to the sky, bring both palms flat under your butt. Hug in to the block and turn the inner thighs in and down, so you have a curve in your lower back, and then let the pressure of your hands on your buttocks help to lengthen the spine. Then slowly bring the legs down to hover above the floor. Keep the inner thighs released, and the length in your lower back. You can do presses like this, or just release all the way down (one of these is often enough to fire up that rectus abdominus).
- Parsvakonasana, Trikonasana, Ardha Chandrasana, Parivrtta Parsvakonasana: Go through some standing poses with this heightened awareness of the tone in the lower belly. REMEMBER that the low belly lifts as a result of the action in the back body, so focus your attention on the tailbone/sacrum action of Outer Spiral and Pelvic Loop.
- Virabhadrasana 3, Standing Splits: These two poses require a strong lift in the lower belly to keep the front hip from binding -- and this lift must come from the back body
- Handstand: Hopefully handstand will feel a little more easeful after all the work you've been doing. Note that the actions of Outer Spiral/Pelvic Loop are super important for finding balance here. Practice at the wall (set up as close as you can), getting the thighs back and then adding that length through the lower back. See if this new tone helps you to balance.
- Anjaneyasana/Thigh Stretch: Especially in anjaneyasana and the thigh stretch variation, I find that the pelvis and belly like to hang out on the front thigh. So this is a good place to build a remembrance of engagement through Outer Spiral and Pelvic Loop.
- Ustrasana: I love all of the backbends for finding tone and length in the abs, but ustrasana is particularly good to feel the length in the belly. Try doing it with a block between your inner thighs, to remind the thighs to stay back while you add Outer Spiral/Pelvic Loop. You'll feel the abs tone even before you curl back into the pose. Use Organic Energy to keep the pelvis rooted while you lift up and out of the lower back/lower belly into the backbend, and you'll get a deep stretch in the abs while they're toned.
- Cool down anyway you like.