Disclaimer: This is Teh Int0rnetz, not an actual yoga class or a consultation with your health care provider. Please use your own best judgment in deciding whether these asanas are appropriate for you. If in doubt, it’s best to check with a professional (which I am not) before trying.
It’s not perfect, but there’s a pretty strong societal correlation between body parts we sexualize and body parts where “tight” is largely considered a good thing. There’s also a solid, though more understated, correlation between body parts we consider more utilitarian and body parts where being too “tight” is viewed negatively. The tendency — again, not a one-to-one match — is for body parts where tightness is idealized to be about someone else experiencing our bodies (visually, as in looking at abs or butt, or more actively, as in penetrating a vagina or an anus).
And yes, I suppose if I was only concerned about making my abs appear “sexy” for other people, I’d only focus on contracting the muscles, making them increasingly tighter. But I’m a fan of using my abs to move my body according to my will, and continually contracting my abdominal muscles would shorten the muscle fibers, eventually decreasing rather than increasing my range of motion with them. I’m not saying that any abdominal tightness is a bad thing. But I do think that focusing on tightness to the exclusion of all other qualities and functions has the potential to sacrifice utility for aesthetics. Contracting and strengthening the abdominal muscles has its place, certainly — and we’ll get to that place — but an often overlooked complement to that is stretching and lengthening the muscle fibers.
The abdominal stretches I’m including in this post are ones that I’d use at the beginning of my practice or that I’d use on days when my abs felt sore (maybe from a lot of muscle contraction the previous day). They are asanas I’d consider to be more on the gentle or restorative end of the spectrum for me (we’ll get to deeper stretches later), and I think that’s likely to be true for a sizable chunk of other people. That said, it may not be the case for you, especially if you’re not used to moving your torso a lot, so it’s never a bad thing to move into postures slowly and mindfully.
Additionally, since the core (and, really, a lot of the body) is about complementary structures, when we’re lengthening the muscles along the front of the wall, we’re contracting the muscles of the back. This means that a lot of abdominal stretches are also backbends. Because of this — and because the neck and low back are particularly vulnerable structures in the body — it’s worth giving Disclaimer #2:
Disclaimer #2: When entering a backbend, a lot of times the temptation is to “dump into” or hyperextend the neck and low back in order to create a shape that appears more bendy. However, doing so risks compressing the vertebrae in those areas, resulting in an unhappy spine. Rather than focusing on the bend — yes, even though the category of asanas is called backbends — think about backbends as creating spinal length. Visualize the tailbone lengthening down (not tucking under or splaying out) to support the position and the heart center lifting (not jutting forward) to initiate the movement. Move slowly, and stop when you reach your edge.
The first gentle stretch is called urdhva hastasana, or upward salute; it is sort of a fancy way of talking about reaching your arms over your head. But done in a position of axial extension — with the crown of the head and the heart center lifting while the tailbone lengthens down — it does create subtle length along the front of the body for a gentle stretch in the abdominal wall:
If it works better for you, this pose can also be done from a seated position on the floor, on a stool, or away from the back of a chair. In either position, I like to do between 3 and 6 repetitions in a vinyasa to feel like I’m loosening up my body. You may find that holding the asana for longer/shorter periods or doing more/fewer repetitions is what works for you.
Another gentle stretch for the front of the abdominal wall is sphinx pose. I talked a little bit about it in the series on backbends here. Essentially, there’s the same axial extension — crown and heart lifting, tailbone lengthening toward the heels — in sphinx as there is in urdhva hastasana; it’s just that the entire body position is changed to be prone instead of standing. This can be useful for people who have trouble standing or for people who just like any excuse to lie down — like me!
In defense of my laziness — and in my case, it is most often laziness — sphinx is a pose that’s easier for me to incorporate while doing something else, like talking to a friend, reading a book, or watching TV. Which is actually not a bad way to go about it: many of us spend a lot of time in postures that shorten the fronts of our abdominal walls, even if they’re not simultaneously strengthening either the rectus abdominus or transverse abs. Poses like sphinx counter that, creating abdominal length and aiding healthy spinal mobility. So even beyond muscle strength — which we will get to next time, I swear! — abdominal stretches have their own useful benefits.