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A sure way to develop inner strength is to tone the abdominal region. Right under the skin, a sturdy wall of four pairs of abdominal muscles stretches over our internal organs. They are called external abdominal oblique, internal abdominal oblique, rectus abdominis and transverse abdominis. Three of these form layers that encircle the abdomen and the fourth is a pair of longitudinal bands. These muscles assist breathing, align the pelvis, flex and rotate the trunk, keep the torso erect, support the lumbar spine and hold in the organs of digestion.
Abdominal Muscles Explained
The External Abdominal Oblique Layer runs diagonally from above to downward in the same direction as the external intercostals muscles. If you place your hands in the pockets of a short jacket with your fingers extended, the fingers will point in the direction of the external abdominal oblique muscle fibers. The external oblique muscles allow the trunk to twist, but to the opposite side of whichever external oblique is contracting.
For example, the right external oblique contracts to turn the body to the left.
The Internal Abdominal Oblique Layer, is in the middle. Its fibers also run diagonally but in the opposite direction from laterally and below to up and medially in the same direction as the internal intercostals muscles. For example, twisting the trunk to the left requires the left side internal oblique and the right side external oblique to contract together.
The Transversus Abdominis Muscles, the innermost third layer runs horizontally around the abdominal wall from back to front. You flex this muscle to pull in your belly. These three layers together act as a unit, helping to support the upper body and contributing to bending, twisting and turning in a logical fashion. The transversus abdominis also plays an important role in maintaining a toned abdominal wall. You engage this muscle when coughing, sneezing, laughing or exhaling forcefully. Pranayama practices involving forceful exhalations, like Kapalabhati and Bhastrika provide an excellent workout for the deep transversus.
To feel this muscle contract, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, bend your knees slightly and place your fingers on your sides, just below the rib cage. Now cough and feel the muscles under your fingers contracting forcefully. To contract this muscle even further, try Uddiyana Bandha (Upward Abdominal Lock), Agni Sara Dhauti (Cleansing through Fire) and Nauli (Abdominal Churning), which are used to massage the abdominal organs.
The Rectus Abdominis Muscles (rectus means straight) run vertically on either side of the middle between the pubic bone and the sternum. The main function of the rectus abdominis is to move the body between the ribcage and the pelvis. It provides stability to the torso. The rectus abdominis muscle is the one that, when well defined, gives your stomach a six pack look. To feel this muscle, you can do Navasana, Paschimottanasana, Setu bandha Asana or Urdhva Dhanurasna.
OUR SACRED CENTER
The source of our vitality, the abdomen, is a sacred space in our bodies. It is an important center of energy and consciousness. Our thoughts and emotions are influenced by the gut. We have more nerve cells in the gut than we do in the combined remainder of the peripheral nervous system. In Kundalini Yoga the digestive organs, glands and the solar plexus of nerves are symbolized by Manipur Chakra. Its element is fire and its symbol is the blazing orb of the Sun. just as the external Sun is the source of life, energy and heat in our solar system, so our physical body and its metabolic processes are maintained by a healthy digestive fire, a blazing inner Sun. If this fire becomes weak, we suffer from sluggishness or malfunctions of the digestive system. We can have weakness in the body, indigestion, stomach, intestinal and colon problems.
We live in a time where there is little encouragement for paying attention to our body’s natural energy levels and giving it what it needs. So often when we are really tired, we ignore our longing for rest and manipulate our bodies with caffeine, sugar and other stimulants to create a false sense of energy. We go on eating in the morning, noon, evening and night whenever we feel like. There is no rule applying to consumption of food. The rule for eating is that one should not eat second time till food taken once is digested but this discipline is not observed and hence we get constipation, gas, acidity and ulcer as a result of food remaining undigested. The result is food gets putrefied in the intestines, which results in chronic colitis.
THE FOUR FIRE YOGIC EXERCISES
Abdominal skin differs from much of the skin covering the rest of the body. It has a subcutaneous tissue that loves to hoard fat. Too much belly fat is unhealthy. The four fire exercises described below strengthen the abdominal region and protect the back. They relax and rejuvenate the nervous system and energize the body. Hence even if one finds these exercises little difficult, these must be done as these are of great use.
Spread a blanket or a mat on the floor. Sit with legs straight. Make L shape of the hands (fingers together, thumbs apart) and keep them just behind the hips; palms down. Lean back & support yourself on the forearms. You can first take support from right hand, thereafter on the left hand. In this position shoulder and head will remain lifted up. Lift the whole body, which is situated under the navel.
Bend both the legs from knees, raise them up off the floor and start cycling with natural breathing. Do 7 times clockwise and 7 times anti clockwise.
Second exercise (Churning of the Abdomen)
Inhale, raise both the legs off the floor to 90 degrees and rotate the body from the navel to the toes clockwise 7 times and anti clock wise 7 times with the breath. When the legs are up inhale and when the legs are down exhale. Pay more attention towards exhalation.
Inhale, bend the knees and bring them near the chest, then inhale again, raise the legs to 90 degrees and straighten them completely, exhale and lower the straightened leg in a forward movement, parallel to the floor. This is one round. Repeat it 7 times. Then do reverse movements 7 times.
Keeping the feet together extend the toes, feet and knees, inhale, raise both the legs to 90 degree while exhaling bring them back, not quite to the floor if your strength permits. Repeat 7 times or as many times as you can without strain. Concentrate on exhalation more, inhaling as required and always breathing evenly.
To support the posture efficiently with intra- abdominal pressure, the diaphragm must be continuously active. If you watch your breathing carefully you will notice that the posture feels more powerful when you exhale. If you take a deep inhalation, you will immediately sense a loss of abdominal and diaphragmatic strength.
These exercises increase blood oxygen and decrease blood carbon dioxide.They strengthen the digestive system, massage the abdominal muscles and help in reducing the size of belly. These are excellent for persons suffering from indigestion, constipation, acidity, excess wind or gas, lack of appetite and diabetes.Also useful for disorders of male or female reproductive system such as uterus problem, irregular or painful periods, menopause, hormones imbalances, leucorrhoea, itching, fungal infection, dryness, less sperm etc. Good for the preparation of pregnancy. One can start these exercises 6 months before conceiving (function of uterus become alright). Along with it do Omkar, Godohan Mudra and Utkatasana.
These practices should not be performed by people suffering from severe backache, back conditions such as sciatica, slipped disc, shoulder pain, high blood pressure, heart disease, ulcers, hiatal hernia, inguinal hernia, menstruation, pregnancy or soon after abdominal surgery. If there is any doubt please consult a competent Yoga therapist.
Courtesy: Dr. Rita Khanna