There are many interesting patterns that we can uncover as we start to move our body in a yoga practice. Some are fairly obvious. We probably notice right away if we have tight hamstrings, for example. Other patterns can seem more puzzling. We might notice that we feel restricted in a particular movement, like forward bending, backbending, or twisting. But, sometimes it’s not so obvious where those restrictions come from. In this article we’ll take a look at one of those not-so-obvious patterns that can play out in different ways in our yoga practice. That pattern is over-doing the abdominals in yoga.
What do we mean by abdominals?
Before we get too far into what the pattern of over-doing the abdominals in yoga might look like, let’s be clear about what we mean by abdominals. There are layers of abdominal muscles, not just one muscle. The rectus abdominis is the muscle that people are often thinking of when they say “abs”. Rectus abdominis is the most superficial layer of the abdominals. Then we have the external and internal oblique muscles. As you might expect from their name, their fibers run at a diagonal. The external oblique fibers run in the same direction as your fingers would be pointing if you were to place your hands in jacket pockets. The internal oblique fibers run in the opposite diagonal direction from the external obliques. Finally, the deepest layer of abdominal muscles is the transverse abdominis. Its fibers run horizontally.
What actions do the abdominals do?
The layers of abdominal muscles all contribute to some actions together. They stabilize the torso and compress the abdominal contents. The layers of abdominal muscles also do some different actions. All fiber directions are present between the layers of abdominals. Those different fiber directions influence the actions that the different layers of abdominals do.
The fibers in rectus abdominis run vertically. The muscle attaches to the bottom of the ribcage in the front and it attaches to the top front of the pubic bone at the base. Because of its fiber direction, it can flex the spine. Both the external and internal oblique muscles can also contribute to flexing the spine. The external and internal oblique muscles can also contribute to lateral flexion of the spine, and to rotation.
What do we mean by over-doing the abdominals in yoga?
Over-doing the abdominals in yoga is a pattern that I see when a student is tightening the abdominals in a way, or at a time in their practice, where it is actually getting in the way of doing the poses that they’re trying to do. It’s often an unconscious pattern that they’re unaware of. It might be a pattern that they’ve acquired from doing particular sports or other activities. It might also be a pattern that has become a habit as a result of having to compensate for another pattern or restriction in their body.
Reasons why over-doing the abdominals in yoga happens
Sometimes over-doing the abdominals in yoga is a pattern that our body uses to compensate for tension somewhere else. If our hamstrings are tight, they can pull our pelvis under into what we’d call a posterior tilt. If you feel like just sitting upright on the floor takes strength from the abdominal area, then this might be you. When the hamstrings are so tight that they’re not allowing the pelvis to sit in neutral, the abdominal muscles kick on to stabilize the torso and keep you from falling over when you’re sitting upright.
Tight abdominal muscles from previous sports or other activities
As I explained earlier in this post, one of the primary functions of the abdominals is stabilization of the torso. There are many sports and activities that could result in someone acquiring a pattern of squeezing the abs to stabilize the torso while they prepare for another movement. Think of activities like bracing yourself before throwing a shotput, or before pitching a baseball. If we repeat these actions over and over again, they can become part of our unconscious pattern in the body. They often show up then in different actions that we do because the body goes to its default pattern to accomplish the action we’re looking to achieve.
Confusing squeezing the abdominals with “bandhas”
Bandhas are a subtle concept. Even now, my understanding of what bandhas are continues to evolve along with the rest of my practice. Ultimately, I understand bandhas as an energetic concept. But, changing the tension on our muscles in a way that affects our breathing, and in that way controls our energy, is part of the process of understanding and exploring bandha. And one part of relating to uddiyana bandha is experimenting with drawing the lower belly in to change the tension on our abdominal container.
When we’re first engaging in this exploration, it’s easy to over-do it and just squeeze everything in the abdominal area as hard as we can. Hopefully over time we learn to do two things. One is to engage only as much as is necessary to create that felt sense of core stability rather than over-squeezing. More is not better in this case. The second thing we hopefully find our way to is engaging from the intrinsic, deep layers of musculature, rather than the most superficial abdominal muscle, rectus abdominis.
But, if we aren’t quite there yet in our exploration with bandhas, we could have good intentions to use bandha, which are actually getting in the way of our movement. That happens when we are over-doing the abdominals in yoga, particularly rectus abdominis.
When does over-doing the abdominals get in the way?
The place where I most often see over-doing the abdominals get in the way of yoga postures is in forward bending. This can be a little counter-intuitive, because I did just say earlier that the abdominals act to flex the spine. And there is some spinal flexion in forward bending. But remember that I also said one of the primary actions of the abdominals is stabilization of the torso. So think of this excess tension in the abdominals more as “hardening” the muscles, rather than engaging them to do an action. If we “stiffen” the abdominal muscles, they stabilize the torso, but they also make it harder to bend.
The flexing of the spine can even feel like it’s deepening our forward bend. What often happens here is that the felt sense of contracting gets in the way of finding the other muscle that is truly required to move the pelvis forward in a forward bend. Again, this is typically unconscious. But if you are able to relax the abdomen, you may find our friend the iliopsoas who can truly help you flex the hip joint and not just the spine.
Tension in the abdominals can also impact twisting and, of course, backbending. In both twisting and backbending we are lengthening at least some of the abdominal muscles. We need that length on one side in twisting. In backbending, we’re aiming to lengthen the abdominals on both sides, along the whole front of the torso. Unnecessary tension in the abdominals can restrict our movement in both twisting and backbending.
How do we work with the pattern of over-doing the abdominals?
First determine why it’s happening. If it’s due to tight hamstrings pulling the pelvis under in a posterior tilt, then you’ll need to explore options that allow your pelvis to sit closer to neutral. Try sitting up on a block, a rolled up mat, or a towel. Sit up high enough that the hamstrings can lengthen and the abdominals don’t have to kick on to hold you upright.
If over-doing the abdominals in yoga comes from a previous pattern from sports, you may need to take some time to simply retrain that pattern. That may be especially true in forward bending. Practice softening the belly, allowing it to fall toward the spine in forward bending. Then be patient with yourself, as it can take some time to retrain previous patterns.
If you’ve been confusing squeezing the abdominals with the idea of bandhas, then it’s time to unpack the idea of bandha a bit more. For a while, try simply holding your attention on the area of your low belly, rather than squeezing the abs. Then see if you can draw the belly in from the deeper layers of musculature and leave some softness in the superficial rectus abdominis. To learn more about the concept of bandhas, check out my article: Are Bandhas A Myth?