Let me ask you a question: if a bowl of ice cream tastes good, would a bucket be even better? Whenever one of my yoga clients encounters a yoga pose that challenges her, yet feels rewarding to conquer, she says: “That was great – lets do it every time!” I think you know where I am going with this – if something feels good and/or appears to be useful we tend to crank it up in hopes that the more we do it, the more benefit we will get. This applies to the abdominal engagement as well. We might read about the benefits of the core engagement, then find it useful in our yoga practice and the next thing we know we keep pulling our stomachs in everywhere we go in hopes of maximizing the benefit. Just like with the ice cream example, it doesn’t work that way. Here is why.
If your abdomen is a container, then it needs to have a top and a bottom to contain and protect its contents. In your body the bottom of the container is formed by the pelvic floor muscles and the lid is the diaphragm. Your abdominal cavity is packed pretty tight with organs, especially the digestive system, and even though each organ has its designated location, they can also slide around when the content of your abdominal cavity gets squeezed.
You know how when you cough or laugh hard you might feel like you peed a little? (And if you are pregnant, you probably did 🙂 ) This is because during coughing your abdominal muscles contract increasing intra abdominal pressure, which means that your internal organs get squished a bit more and push up against your diaphragm and down against your pelvic floor (and the organs located there, such as bladder). Similar increase in intra abdominal pressure happens every time you contract your abdomen at will.
So if you decide to keep your abdomen engaged all the time, you will be continuously pressing your organs against the diaphragm (which will limit its range of movement) and the pelvic floor (which might weaken it). You know how you can eat so much at a Thanksgiving dinner that it makes it hard to breathe? This happens because the content of your digestive system expands and limits the downward movement of the diaphragm on the inhale; as a result you might get shortness of breath. If you do it often enough, it will get harder and harder to take deep breaths because the diaphragm (being a muscle) will not move down as willingly. Studies show that increases in intra abdominal pressure can affect both your breathing and your cardiovascular health. Now, I am not saying that practicing abdominal corset all the time will cause heart problems – that is going way to far. But keeping the intra abdominal pressure high all the time will affect your breathing for sure.
Continuous pressure on the pelvic floor is not advisable either. The pelvic floor acts like a hammock that supports your abdominal contents and if it gets “droopy” it can lead to organ prolapse, urinary and bowel leakage, issues with sexual function and so on. Some of the reasons that lead to “droopy hammock” are pregnancy and childbirth, obesity, heavy lifting, high impact exercise and chronic coughing – as you can see all of those activities involve the increase in intra abdominal pressure. That is why, for example, it is usually recommended that you engage your pelvic floor muscles when you cough. That is also why many yoga teachers suggest that you engage your pelvic floor muscles simultaneously with progressive abdominal contraction during your yoga practice. This is generally a good idea, except we can run into couple of issues here:
- Most people need to be taught how to engage the pelvic floor muscles properly; otherwise they might tense their buttocks, anus or legs, which doesn’t help with support.
- Both contracting AND release are important, since we want to build the muscle tone without creating tension. It works best if you contract those muscles during exhalation, then maintain the contraction for few seconds as you hold the breath out and then gradually release the contraction as you inhale. This is best done in a seated position or in other simpler poses with complete focus on what you are doing, otherwise it will drown in the sea of other anatomical cues.
So when should we engage the abdomen in our daily lives? It is most useful when we do physical activities that load our spines, whether it’s exercising, lifting, throwing, rowing and so on. Research shows that intra abdominal pressure “has a substantial spinal unloading effect for all directions of generated external moments” (including bending forward, back, sideways and twisting). The paper concludes: “These findings support the idea that intra-abdominal pressurization is beneficial because it unloads the spine.”
So to sum it up – most things are good in moderation. The abdominal contraction (“corset”) that leads to an increase in intra abdominal pressure works well to support the spine during challenging physical activity, but it shouldn’t be prolonged, as it can affect the depth of breathing and the tone of the pelvic floor muscles.
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