Carol Krucoff, a yoga therapist with Duke Integrative Medicine, told Daily Health News, “Toning the tummy is a top concern for many of my clients—and often they are surprised to learn that the yogic approach to shaping up the abdominals has nothing to do with crunches or sit-ups.” What editor could resist pursuing a story on that intriguing topic? Here’s what Krucoff shared…

Crunches and sit-ups focus on the most visible abdominal muscle, the rectus abdominis (aka the “six-pack” muscle), which runs vertically from the breastbone to the pubic bone and serves to flex the spine, folding us forward. But in fact, we have four abdominal muscle groups that work synergistically—and as a holistic practice, yoga incorporates postures that activate all four. These muscle groups include the rectus abdominis… the internal obliques and external obliques on the sides of the torso… and the deepest layer, the transversus abdominis (TA), which runs horizontally underneath these other muscles.

Nicknamed “the corset muscle,” the TA helps flatten the belly, support the lower back and enhance posture—all of which make us look and feel better. Yet because many people are not aware of the importance (or even existence) of the TA, they do not adequately focus on it when they exercise, Krucoff said.

To find your TA: Sit tall in a chair. Place one hand on your lower belly (above the pubic bone and below the navel). Cough gently and you will feel this deep muscle contract under your hand. The common instruction you hear in yoga class to “draw your belly in toward your spine” is a cue to activate the TA.

The following poses help strengthen the hard-to-target TA as well as the rectus and obliques. Do each pose three to six times. Daily practice will offer the best results, Krucoff noted. Be sure that you’re breathing in each posture—don’t hold your breath—and move slowly and mindfully throughout your practice. If you are brand new to yoga, start with the easier versions… if you are an experienced yogini, try the harder variations. (As with any new exercise routine, check with your doctor before beginning.) Tummy-trimming poses to try…

Lion’s pose. Sit tall on floor (either cross-legged or with buttocks on heels), hands resting on knees. Inhale, filling lungs completely. Then exhale with a long haaaaa sound, drawing in belly for an isometric TA contraction… at the same time, open eyes wide, spread fingers and stick tongue out as far as possible (this stretches out the hands, face, jaw and tongue, which often hold a great deal of tension, Krucoff explained). At end of exhalation, relax face and fingers for a moment… then repeat. Easier: Sit in a chair. Harder: Exhale with a long, loud roaring sound, which requires more energy. (It also encourages assertiveness, which can be difficult for some people—so it is liberating as well as stress-reducing, Krucoff said.) Illustration:

Boat pose. Sit on floor with knees bent, feet flat on floor and hands holding the backs of thighs. Keeping knees bent, lengthen spine (don’t round forward) and lean back slightly… at the same time, lift feet an inch or two off floor. Balance and hold for three to five slow, deep breaths, then return to starting position. Repeat. Easier: Lift just one foot off floor at a time, alternating feet. Harder: Let go of thighs and extend arms forward as you balance. Hardest: In the balance position, straighten legs. Illustration:

Spinal balance. Get down on hands and knees on floor, wrists directly under shoulders, knees under hips, head and neck aligned with spine. Inhaling, extend right arm forward and extend left leg back behind you… then exhale as you return to starting position. Repeat on opposite side, extending left arm and right leg. Easier: Extend one arm or one leg at a time, not both simultaneously. Harder: Maintain the pose through several breath cycles. Illustration:

Leg-lowering pose. Lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat on floor. Place hands next to or under buttocks, palms down. Take a full breath in, then exhale and focus on drawing in your TA as you bring thighs in toward torso. Keeping TA engaged, raise and straighten legs so they are perpendicular to floor, soles of feet facing skyward… then slowly lower legs to floor (be sure to keep breath flowing). Repeat. Easier: Keep knees somewhat bent as you lower the leg… or raise and lower just one leg at a time, keeping other foot flat on floor. Harder: Begin with legs straight and extended on floor, lifting from that position and keeping legs straight throughout. Illustration:

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