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How to Build Core Strength (Without Crunches)

Mind + Body, Stress, Yoga

First, let’s get physical:

Most people don’t have favorite muscles, but as a former private yoga teacher, I do: the transversus abdominis (or “TVA”). It’s the deep belly muscle that wraps around your torso like a corset, and it’s nestled under the more popular “6-pack muscles (rectus abdominis) and your obliques. The TVA adds definition to your waist, helps keep your internal organs in place, and stabilizes your body when you move.

In other words, the TVA is your body’s physical “inner core.” And, it physically represents your emotional center.

I stumbled across the “emotional inner core” concept years ago accidentally, when I was suffering from a debilitating injury. I couldn’t do a physical yoga (asana) practice, but I sat on my mat each day and learned that the non-physical benefits of yoga are even more mind-blowing.

It was a dark time, and strengthening my emotional core was a lot harder than getting six-pack abs.

But as I did, something incredible happened…

Happiness, contentment… even seemingly unattainable “inner peace” flooded my world.

So how did I amp up my emotional core strength?

There’s no magic, one-size-fits-all formula. But, there are a few specific things I did — and you can, too — to build up my emotional reserves.

* Step 1: Be mindful.

Mindfulness is a huge buzz word (and book and blog topic) these days. What it means: recognize your honest thoughts and feelings. Being honest with yourself about your experience helps you live a life based on authenticity, truth, and more happiness.

* Step 2: Begin where you are.

This is a primary yogic concept. Once you’re aware of your place in space, accept it. Avoid blaming others or criticizing yourself for not being as far along as you’d like. Reflect on reasons why you might be a bit behind in your plan, and then try to let it go. Hear the harsh words you tell yourself, and then politely tell that voice to shut it — you’re busy working on a strength program here. Burn that negative energy like fuel.

* Step 3: Invite in the _______, and sit with it.

One of the best ways to build up your core is to surrender to pain without trying to make it go away. Instead, invite in the fear, irritation, anxiety, whatever. Then, as the brilliant Pema Chodron advises, welcome it to the table “for tea.” Pay attention to what comes up. Breathe. Cry, cower, get angry. And keep sitting until something softens. Something always does.

* Step 4: Create emergency exits.

At some point, though, “sitting with it” it just going to suck too much to stick. So, have a few back-up self-care plans ready. Maybe you take a nearby yoga class or hike a favorite trail (physical exercise is a great compliment to emotional work). Write in a journal. Create a one-page “cheat sheet” with favorite quotes, inspirational reminders, and soothing statements.

* Step 5: Let the answers reveal themselves.

Stop trying so hard. Start trusting yourself. Know that you already know stuff. We are our own best teachers, but it takes time and consciousness to understand the lessons. Create a safe space within yourself, so that knowledge can rise to the surface.

And if you forget those steps, just remember this:

Your emotional core is like a tree trunk. If a tree trunk is small and feeble, then whenever the weather turns, the tree will sway and, possibly, fall. It’s shaken by every wind that blows a bit. But if the tree trunk is solid, it stands regardless of hazardous weather.

Similarly, stressors can knock you right over if your emotional core is weak. But when you have a steady center, outside conditions won’t break you down easily. Stress may sway your branches or take off a few leaves, but that’s about it.

Just like the hundred-year old redwoods and oaks and others that extend high into the skies, you’ll stand tall, too.

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