Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Core Debate

An interesting article in the New York Times about current research that questions the value of popular "core strengthening" exercises that call for the navel to pull towards the spine and the low back to flatten to the floor. These actions emphasize engagement of the deepest layer of abdominal muscle, called the Transverse Abdominus (TA). It suggests that strengthening the TA may be overemphasized, possibly to the detriment of the lumbar spine which is stressed by pressing the low back to the floor.

Not surprisingly, there are many conflicting views on this subject. The comments on the New York Times website are full of personal trainers, chiropractors, and exercise instructors either congratulating themselves for agreeing or disputing the claim with personal anecdote. One comment I especially agreed with:
It just goes to show you that we really don’t any clue what is really going on here. I’ve always been very suspicious of any simplistic medical explanation for back pain, especially those that make a person’s spine out to be some fragile spun-glass armature that is always about to break into a thousand pieces should one encounter a puff of wind. I had severe back pain for years — then I read that Dr. Sarno book, and poof, it was gone, and has never come back, no matter what exercises I do.

Now, my strong back is the backbone of my being. The only thing that “core” training seems to strengthen is the delusional idea of a fragile back. As far as deep weakness go, that concept has it to the core.
The book to which the commenter probably refers is Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection, which asserts that most back pain is actually psychological, and our medical obsession with rupture discs and pinched nerves is misguided. His main evidence is cases where x-rays reveal a disc rupture that should theoretically be causing great pain, yet the patient feels totally fine. It's a compelling book, though it verges on diatribe at times.

Now in my yoga classes, I do teach engagement of the deeper core muscles by drawing the area below the navel towards the spine. I emphasize that this movement is not infinite - just a small movement is sufficient. David Swenson suggests it is less of a contraction than a sense of stillness, and he says the main purpose is to help direct the movement of the breath.

This subtle action is called uddiyana bandha, and while I find it does give physical support to the spine, its original purpose is more energetic than muscular. Bandha means seal or lock, and what's being sealed in is prana. In the Hatha tradition, spiritual awakening is pursued through directing energy into and up the spine. The bandhas assist in that endeavor.

Many yogic lineages also value the development of physical strength in the abdomen, but not for the sake of healing back pain. The abdomen is the seat of fire in the body, and building radiance in the belly helps to"digest" experiences that otherwise get stuck and start to "rot". See my earlier column about Ana Forrest's ab work for more on this.

I would also observe that in the vast universe of yoga postures, there are definitely some that involve rounding the low back and flattening the lumbar curve. I'm thinking of Ardha Navasana, the standing head to knee pose in the Bikram series, and Plow, among others. So I'm skeptical of alarmist statements that flattening the lumbar curve is inherently dangerous. Countless yogis have proven that the spine can safely move into many extreme positions.

What I think is dangerous is any exercise done on autopilot in an aggressive, insensitive way. I see it all the time at the gym. People blasting through a 100 sit-ups, teeth gritting, breath held. The article ends with a quote from Dr. Stuart Mill: “I see too many people who have six-pack abs and a ruined back.” He seems to conclude the problem is with the exercises being done, but I think the obsessive ego that demands a six-pack is just as responsible.

I am interested in learning more about how the Hatha Yoga bandha practices have blended with the Western abdominal exercise traditions. If any readers have insight into this, please add your thoughts in the comments.

1 comment:

  1. I've been thinking lately about some exercise classes I took at a gym in Wheeling years ago. The instructor did an hour long class: 30 minute step aerobics, then 20 minutes of strengthening (with swiss ball, resistance bands and free weights), then 10 minutes of stretching. Now that I am more familiar with yoga I realize that the stretching moves we always did at the end of class were actually yoga poses (twists, inversions, etc.) And I remember the instructor always emphasizing leveraging the breath as we did these poses to encourage the body to relax after the workout. So I was probably being exposed to yoga at the time without even knowing it. The class itself was listed as "step, strengthen & stretch" or something like that. No mention of yoga at all. If yoga was listed it might acutally have turned a few people away. But each week the same regulars were there like clock work. The instructor was very popular. Her classes were a great blend of multiple traditions, and targeted towards the full body, not just one particular area. That's probably why people liked it so much, and why they kept coming back.