Among those who don’t regularly practice yoga, there seems to be a common preconceived notion that yoga is just an easy workout done solely to promote relaxation, but never to break a sweat. And, while some forms of yoga take less physical activity—like facial yoga poses or laughter yoga—others like Vinyasa or Ashtanga-style classes, are more rigorous and engage muscles you never knew existed. In fact, one of the benefits of yoga is that as a practice, it is so diverse, and with all the different styles and poses, you can truly find a workout to suit nearly every mood and goal. One way to approach yoga-based workouts is to curate a sequence that targets a certain body region, such as the legs, arms, or core. Though total-body strengthening is important for overall health and fitness, area-focused workouts allow you to reap more specific strengthening benefits and correct muscle imbalances in your weaker areas.
Whether you’re just getting started on your yoga journey or a Vinyasa class devotee, incorporating yoga poses that target and strengthen the abs and core will be beneficial to your yoga practice and general fitness. Having a strong core not only helps improve your posture and spinal health, but will also allow you to be able to move on to more challenging balancing poses like Crow pose, Warrior II, and Tree pose.
Safety and Precautions
Stephens says it’s important to pay attention to the flow of movements and poses when you engage in any core exercises. “The flow should allow you to ease into the sequence, which will help both the spine and abs, as both support the other,” she explains. “Having a combination of 3-4 poses in a sequence can help someone who tends to be bored with one simple pose. In a sense, it keeps things fresh so that you’re more aware of the poses as you carefully move in and out of them.” In other words, pick a couple poses that target the abs and pair them with a couple that target your back, and then work them together in a sequence to keep your body balanced and healthy. Lastly, while the poses here should be safe for everyone, if you are pregnant, have back pain, or are injured, you should get clearance from you doctor before trying any poses.
“One myth is that if your core doesn’t hurt as you’re working it, then you didn’t do [the exercise] correctly. [But] in fact, if something hurts during the flow, you should be mindful of the pain level and either reset or discontinue until your alignment is good enough to support you,” advises Stephens. “You should never be in pain during the sequence. You will feel your abs tighten or contract at some point, but pain should never be your measure of a successful practice.”
Stephens says another misconception is that props and modifications should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. Some people seem to feel they undermine your practice, detract from the necessary challenge, and serve as “cheats.” However, modifications, such as dropping to your knees for planks, or using bolsters and blocks to elevate and support certain parts of the body, are healthy techniques you should incorporate into your practice where helpful to aid in executing a pose or sequence more safely, ergonomically, or comfortably. You are not “weak” or “cheating” if you modify your poses.
Lastly, while we provided a safety and precaution note for pregnant women, Stephens notes that it’s not that poses that utilize the abs have to be avoided at all costs during pregnancy—just some care and medical guidance should be followed. “There is a misconception that of someone is pregnant, they should not go into any pose that requires the use of their abs,” says Stephens. “This is not the case, and can be done safely under supervision and proper instructions.”
Modified Triangle Pose with Lifted Arms
Regular Triangle pose (Trikonasana) may provide relief from back pain and tension in the arms. The simple modification of extending your arms in front of you like you’re grasping a ball targets your abs, as you must engage them to keep your body stable, lifted, and balanced.
Warrior III Pose
Warrior III (Virabhadrasana III), the most challenging pose in the Warrior series, combines balance with strength. This asana helps strengthen the abs, obliques, and back muscles, while helping to clear your mind.
The key to Cobra pose (Bhujangasana) is to lift off the mat using your core, thus strengthening it, while keeping your arms light. This asana also improves the flexibility of your spine and is said to relieve pain caused by menstruation and sciatica.
Plank pose (Phalakasana) is one of the key asanas meant to develop both arm and core strength. “Yoga poses for the abs tend to be very heating, which helps with your metabolism and digestive organs,” notes Stephens. “This is a great way to detox as your body heats up and you sweat.”
Side Plank Pose
A variation on the traditional plank, Side Plank pose (Vasisthasana) further strengthens your core and arms, especially your obliques, hips, and shoulders.
Dolphin pose (Matsyakrida) not only targets your abs, but it may also improve the flexibility of your spine and help strengthen your shoulders—great for those of us looking to build upper body strength.
Cat Pose Crunches
While regular Cat pose (Marjariasana) is used to massage the spine, modifying it with a crunch targets the abs and also works on your balance and concentration.
Upward-Facing Plank Pose
In addition to engaging the abdominal muscles, Upward-Facing Plank pose (Purvottanasana) is a great heart-opening pose that stretches the shoulders and ankles. It also helps strengthen the arms and wrists, which is especially beneficial if you work in front of a computer all day.
A primer for other back-bending poses in yoga, Camel pose (Ustrasana) provides a deep stretch through the front of your body. “[It] helps with flexibility and stability of the curves in your spinal column, which is very important for core strength,” shares Stephens.
An excellent asana for developing your core, Boat Pose (Navasana) is more challenging than it looks. But the rewards of regular practice speak for themselves: strengthening of your spine, neck, legs, and abs, and improving mental strength by focusing on balancing in the pose.