One of the popular workouts these days for athletes of all disciplines is the "Core" workout. This type of work goes far beyond the 6 pack ab craze that came before it. There is a great benefit to be had in all endurance activities by strengthening the core. But once we've done the work and strengthened our core, our next question should become, "How can we access that strength and put it to work for us?"
To be honest, that question, the one about gaining "access" is a far deeper rabbit hole than a single post about a single pose can cover. That's because it is one thing to "tighten your core " or "keep it tight" (something that is commonly said when referring to the gross muscles comprising the mid section during activity), but accessing strength through the core to produce a desired muscular response while running, cycling, or swimming is something else. Understanding this, my goal is to simply get you started thinking about this concept of "gaining access" to the core and integrating it into the other movements that comprise your sport of choice.
To start us on our way to gaining access to the core, we need more access to our feet. And our feet need to gain a sense of being firmly engaged into the ground. Said another way we want to have a sensation of what it is like to have our feet "planted" (as in deeply rooted) into the ground. And for that we are going to explore a pose called Malasana or Garland Pose.
Essentially Garland pose is a deep squat. If you've travelled, especially in countries like India and throughout Asia, you will notice people sitting low to the ground, squatting deeply. This has several benefits, one of which is an opening of the hips. Another benefit of the pose is the opening of the ankles which can allow for a better connection to the ground by engaging through the feet for balance.
- Malasana Variation where the feet are separated and point out 45 degrees
To come into the variation of Malasana that is most accessible, we start with our feet a bit wider than hip distance apart (the toes should be pointing forward but can be rotated out to about 45 degrees to facilitate lowering into the pose if needed). Then with the arms extended out straight in front of you for balance, lower your body bending at the knees. The torso should remain upright as the hips drop below the knees. If you hadn't started with the toes rotated out at 45 degrees initially it may become necessary to rotate them out as your hips move closer to the floor. You may need to widen your stance as well once you get your hips closer to being level with your ankles. You want to hold this position for about 8 even breaths if you can. If you can't don't sweat it, hold it as long as is comfortable. You should be able to stay in the pose for longer and longer periods of time if you work the pose consistently.
Now for some housekeeping. These are some things you want to keep in mind. Throughout this movement the spine should be kept long even though the torso can have a tendency to tilt forward. You can get and keep more length in the spine once in the squat by bringing your hands together in prayer position and using the connection of the elbows to the shins for a bit of leverage to articulate the pelvis by bringing the navel in to the spine. It is possible that as you lower down even after rotating your toes out to 45 degrees and widening your stance, you cannot come into the full squat without your heels leaving the ground. If this is happening you can still work in the pose by placing a rolled up blanket or towel under the heels and then lowering down onto that. While this will change the sensation of grounding somewhat, it does not diminish the effectiveness of the pose.
- A rolled up towel or blanket can be used as a wedge if the heels don't reach the ground.
If you still find it difficult to maintain your balance in Malasana, another option is to practice it inside a doorway. I use this when I want to experience the squat with my feet and shins together holding on to the door frame as I lower my hips to my heels. This allows me to get a sense of the opening in my ankles and hips necessary to access this movement now while I wait for my body to allow me to do it without assistance. To come out of the pose simply ground into the feet and straighten the legs or bring your palms to the floor and come to all fours. Lastly use good judgement when doing this pose. Save the pose for strength days at the gym or lower intensity training days. Because of the deep squat, if you have knee or ankle issues Malasana is not recommended.