Abs are a hot topic. Always. Core strengthening videos and equipment are the number one biggest-selling item in the fitness category year after year. They run the gamut, from core-based exercise genres like Pilates to midnight infomercial Ab-based brands.
The insatiable market for our “navel gazing” has spurred new science and research about the muscles of the core/spine, and much of the new findings steer us away from the six-pack and towards a more holistic view of the core. Core-conscious pioneers like Dr. Stuart McGill and his “abdominal bracing” methods have helped to evolve core conscientiousness to the next level. His powerful studies suggest we need to involve more trunk muscles to strengthen the core and protect our spines.
Yet still, there seems to be a missing link in all this core commotion. One of the deepest under-armor muscles of the core is often left out of the conversation: the diaphragm. Yogic practices revere this muscle because of its governance over our breath. Let’s take a look at what else it can do, starting with a controversy that my abdominal diaphragm created over at Yoga Journal:
More than a decade ago, I was featured in a Yoga Journal Magazine article entitled “Forget 6-Pack Abs.” The article introduced the concept that abdominals need to be flexible in order to be strong and that the breathing muscles, especially the abdominal diaphragm, were a major part of core stability and mobility. Author Fernando Pages Ruiz mentioned the seldom-pictured yogic abdominal arts of Uddihyana Bandha (diaphragm stretch) and Nauli Kriya (lateral abdominal churning). Happily for me, my diaphragm and abdomen absolutely loved practicing these internal abdominal moves and I landed my first modeling gig!
The images were so startling and bizarre that one reader wrote a letter to the editor the following month claiming that the magazine must have digitally altered my core, as the images seemed “strikingly unrealistic.” The magazine made a statement that the images were not digitally enhanced, and my gracious teacher at the time, Ana Forrest (who dazzles with her internal abdominal abilities), also wrote in to “defend” the authenticity of my abdominals.
When viewing Nauli or Uddihyana Bandha for the first time, the mind is totally confused by the seeming “disappearance” of the “normal appearance” of the core. Typically we see the shape of the outside of the body, and these under armor practices illuminate the feelings, motions and activations of the inside. They require the ability to control the abdominal diaphragm not only as a breathing muscle, but also as a structural muscle of the body. No easy feat!
Mobilizing and awakening the abdominal diaphragm is vital because it is so central to the whole body. The majority of the dome-shaped muscle attaches to the lower six ribs like a giant internal parachute. Its bottom strands attach to the front of the low-back spine and the psoas and quadratus lumborum muscles (spinal stabilizers). The top of the diaphragm is literally a seat for the sack of connective tissue around the heart.
Breathing affects the shape and tone of the core because the diaphragm is directly adhered to many abdominal muscles and its organs. When breathing in deeply, the diaphragm contracts and the abdominal muscles and visceral contents balloon out. When breathing out, the diaphragm relaxes and stretches back up toward the lungs, and the gut balloon deflates. Typically we are unaware of this process, as breath is an automatic function in the body. But we also have the ability to consciously control the breath and to create breathing patterns that impact the nervous system and the structural health of the under-armor — this innermost abdominal layer.
Carefully crafted diaphragm work is not nearly as well known as other core-centric models. But when skillfully applied to work along with the abdominal and spinal muscles that Dr. McGill and others champion, the core is phenomenally integrated. These yogic practices help us to find the internal connections between the diaphragm and all of the muscles of the core, an important consideration when trying to rehabilitate the spine. Develop the stretch, strength and continuities of the diaphragm to its full potential and your core will be more powerful than ever!
Go on an archaeological dig beyond the 6-pack to find and locate your own under-armor and innermost abdominal diaphragm. Feel for yourself how much more interconnected you become to your own core.
Discover how to strengthen your core.
Read how to breath away stress.
Read more about your diaphragm.
Learn about Yoga Tune Up at home.
[Reprinted with permission from GaiamLife]
Indeed it is surprising! Thank you!
My Body wants to do this so bad! After practicing bridge lifts with uddihyana I have a sense of what I have been missing. My core feels stronger and my thoracic spine feels more mobile. I can’t wait to try this!
I never realized you had such a controversial moment over uddhiyana! The muscle isolation in that picture is impressive. I have never really incorporate uddihyana into my teachings but I will start now! I was not aware of the effect it had on the diaphram!
When I learned Uddihyana I had no idea what it all really meant. However, now that I have that awareness, I regularly palpate myself to find out what nooks and crannies of my gut have adhesions, gently seeing if I can open up my diaphragm even more. I absoloutely love this practice, and I definitely notice when I have put my practice of coregeous ball rolling or uddihyana to the wayside, and getting back into it is sticky and sometimes painful! It’s my daily vitamin C and respiraory care practice!
I love Stuart McGill’s work and also agree with Jill that the diaphragm should be counted among the muscles of a strong and stable core.
Simple images of the diaphram relaxing as it moves up and contracting as it desends helps to understand the interconnection of the diaphram to the spine, the GL, and the psoas. As the diaphram contracts as we exhale, this action can be facilitated by the hips flexing, with the shortening of psoas, as the muscles are indeed adhered to each other. The YTU pose of Bridge LIfts – Minivini helps facilitate this. The relationship of the diaphram to the spine helps explain the profound neurological effects of breathing.
I was shocked in training at how much the diaphragm was intertwined into other muscles such as the QL and the Psoas and the transversus abdominus. I love the idea of thinking of it like a jellyfish. So cool. Another aspect that the rest of the fitness industry has not clued into.
The concept pf dynamic diaphragm is such a wonderful thing – I am looking forward to exploring the concept of the diaphragm as the deepest inner most abdominals in practice and in life.
@ Gari (and anyone else wondering)
As a YT who is overweight I can attest to the fact that yes, absolutely the overweight and the obese can do this exercise if they’re healthy and it would be very beneficial! I love to do it. Be sure your stomach is empty.
Some contraindications though. I would consult with a doctor or a physical therapist about Nauli Kriya if you have cystocele (or any other type of prolapse) because you dont want to inadvertently worsen your condition. Ditto for men if you have a hernia. Also, if you are pregnant and/or post partum, I’d say that this one is a definite no-no.
Amazing article! I’ve just started to study both anatomy and Classical Hatha yoga. Each day my teacher begins with uddihyana bandha, or as he calls it, yoga for the internal organs. Its an amazing exercise to build dynamic strength, massage and simultaneously tone the internal organs, and to deepen the breath by engaging the diaphragm to make it stronger, and in a sense more elastic to deepen and sustain the breath.
I agree with what Jill and everyone brings up about the myth of 6-pack abs. The “definition” you see on someeone’s stomach is actually a thinning of the superficial fascia overtop the muscles themselves, something done more in the kitchen than on the yoga mat, and therefore not a direct relationship to strength. I love yoga for this reason — it encourages exercises like these to develop the body’s USABLE strength; that perfect balance of stability and mobility you can only get by being both strong and flexbile. This article is definitely inspiration for me to keep going! I hope to make my own belly move like that one day.
Ah, yes, I remember that Yoga Journal article! And I liked the moving away from the six-pack. If you get your core strength from crunches – which place the body in flexion – you’re already moving in the wrong direction.
I greatly appreciate this insight into understanding core strength, so look forward to exploring this area more deeply in my personal practice.
Day 1 of Anatomy with Owen at Yoga Garden Teacher Training – AWESOME! As this was one of our opening topics, I really appreciated more background on the pranayama. Can’t wait for more insight and practice.
This article just reaffirms so much of what we spoke about today in class. The learning point I received out of todays lesson was the relationship between the diaphragm and the psoas group, of course it makes perfect sense. I assume in the core immersion we will learn more about Udiyana bandha and how to incorporate it into daily practice? Thanks Jill!
I remember learning about the attachment of the diaphragm at the lumbar vertebrae (obviously that’s only one of it’s points of attachment), and that it attaches, I believe, to one more vertebra on the left side than on the right, which is interesting. I love how you can make space in the low back simply with conscious, diaphragmatic breathing. I am in awe of Nauli! I’ve never explored that with much intention. 🙂
I never realized how important the diaphragm was in terms of trunk strength until I started practicing yoga. I was oblivious to what strengthening the “Trunk” actually meant until I started studying the human body! It is fascinating how connected the diaphragm is in regards to the muscles and organs that surround it… The one that blew me away was the relationship it has with the psoas!! I used to neglect my diaphragm when training the strength of my trunk, but now my thought process has flipped completely!
The diaphragm is such an interesting muscle to me. I look forward to diving deeper into Uddihyana Bandha and really getting in tune with my core muscles. Having strong and flexible core muscles I feel will transfer into better health for the rest of my entire body. My breathing will be more efficient by having a stronger awareness of the core, as well as the muscular strength stabilizing my spine and everything else in my body.
I learned today that the diaphragm is ruled by both the somatic and autonomic nervous system. Thank god we breathe without having to think about it. I like to visualize this muscle as a plunger. When you inhale the diaphragm contracts in a pushing down motion. When you exhale the diaphragm retracts back to into place behind your ribs.
in pilates we often attempt to change the diaphragm’s shape during inhalation by contracting transverse, obliques and rectus together to stabilize the front ribs, holding the anterior portion of the diaphragm in place and preventing the anterior ribs from spreading out. this type of bracing of the abdominal muscles during inhale in theory allows for more of a posterior expansion of the ribs.
uddhiyada bandha is a technique that i’ve used to show my students the power of the diaphragm and the importance of their breath during practice!
to gari, i would say that all people, including the overweight and elderly, would absolutely benefit from any breathing exercises!
How can Udiyanna Bandha help you activate Moola bandha?
I have two questions:
Can and overweight person with a large stomach train his/her abdominal diaphragm?
And also, is it advisable for the elderly to practice breathing exercises?
I take Garth’s Vinyasa Flow, and he always encourages the students to do inversion poses. Ocassionaly, he introduces Uddiyana Bandha prior to the inversion poses, and explains that these bandas are vital to the core strength.
It is amazing to see how effective udiyhana bhanda is! I think I felt the full effect of it in class the other day when I felt an internal massage. My breathing actually increasing became deeper and my whole practice that day was deeper.
For decades I’ve wondered if western yoga is just tip-toeing around the diaphragm, afraid of what is locked inside. I began practise yoga after reading Thos Bernards Hatha Yoga where he describes being expected to do 300 to 600 repetitions of Uddhiyana and Nauli a day for six months before his teacher would give him any asana in the sense we think of them. Wilhelm Reich, and later Bioenergetics both point out that the western ‘pelvic’ floor is often up around the diaphragm and rarely at the base of the pelvic bowl. There is a lot of release of locked emotion and painful memory available with Uddhiyana bandha and its follow on poses. I find it exciting that Yoga Tune Up has a clear focus on releasing the diaphragm and the core. Without going through these motions we won’t unlock and release the fears and traumas that keep us repeating the same patterns of behaviour.
i too practice uddiyana (and agni sara) daily, but i found myself reading and rereading the section where you say:
“Mobilizing and awakening the abdominal diaphragm is vital because it is so central to the whole body. The majority of the dome-shaped muscle attaches to the lower six ribs like a giant internal parachute. Its bottom strands attach to the front of the low-back spine and the psoas and quadratus lumborum muscles (spinal stabilizers). The top of the diaphragm is literally a seat for the sack of connective tissue around the heart.”
the connections that you noted make alot of the various entries and the churning make so much more sense. by that i mean, experientially, the rounding (flexion) and flattening (axial extension) of the spine allow for a deepening of the experience. the side to side movement in nauli, on the other hand, once the centre line is established, if i’m not mistaken, is a movement made possible by the connection on the backside to the QL and the psoas, no?
After having taken Dr. Stu McGill’s Course Building the Ultimate Back: From Rehabiliation to Performance, I understand the concepts of bracing, stiffenning and butressing the core – but, yes at the end of the day, too much of one thing will cause an imbalance in others. Uddihyana Bandha has been a go-to for me over the years to help with balancing out undue tension in my core region, in particular to relax a perhaps nervouse diaphram. Although new students may find it weird and awkward, the after affects are wonderful.
It’s funny how you forget about some of the deeper muscles within, like the under-armore, that have uses for strengthening, increasing range and mobility in our bodies. This tip was quite useful for me and will definitely be impleting in my classes. I tend to skip out on abdominal crunching exercises, and focus on core stabilizing ones, however this one will be a useful one to add to my repertoire of poses.
Thanks for sharing and enlightening!
It’s so interesting how so many people are only concerned with the “six pack” part of their core. It’s like only caring about what kind of bread is on your sandwich and forgetting about all the good stuff inside! I enjoy stretching out my diaphram by practicing udihana bhanda, and will enjoy it even more now that I know it’s helping to shape my core.
I like doing core work in my classes and I always giggle when someone approaches me after class to ask “will this give me a six-pack”? I explain the benefits of gaining (or maintaining) great posture, or preventing low back injuries and they seem to be OK with this answer but still want to know if the work we do in class will at least help with the quest for the pack! Now I can begin to add in more work on the diaphragm too! Besides, “Develop the stretch, strength and continuities of the diaphragm to its full potential and your core will be more powerful than ever!” sounds much more interesting than “develop cool looking abs”.
It is amazing to me how the diaphragm is conspicuously missing in the Fitness world in “Core” training. It is the muscle that drives all the others!
I teach YTU in group fitness and usually do a “core” theme around the holidays, like Thanksgiving, when people tend to over eat. For anyone who has emotional eating issues I think the udiyhana bhanda would be a very useful tool in helping us move away from how are body looks to how we feel, and all that our body does for us. So many of us have “issues” with your midsection and I can see, at least for me, how this is a powerful tool to create a deeper relationship to our body and breath.
I thought I understood breath work and the application of udiyhana bhanda in deepening my yoga practice. Now that I have been introduced to the anatomical connections of the diaphram I feel a shift in my understanding of yoga altogether -in a good way. At least for today, I will surrender my preconceived notion that a firm core is better than a flexable one! Of course it’s always interesting when you rethink your approach to taking care of your body. I can only hope that ‘more will be revealed’. Thank you!
I never really realized how much more udiyhana bhanda had to offer other than looking cool and helping the digestive and reproductive system. Knowing now the important “key” connection of the diaphragm in this practice to the other muscles of the core and spine makes this a practical and neccesary piece in understanding what I was and feeling and doing to the depths of my core and spine.This is working from the inside out.