Don’t Lock Your Core … Move From Your Core

Be firm but calm. Move from your ‘core’. Breathe from your ‘core’. Open your ‘heart’ from your ‘core’.

In this blog we discuss how to move towards advanced postures safely and effectively. More importantly, we discuss how, if you learn to move in the way described here, you don’t need to do advanced postures to get the main benefits of yoga on a physical and energetic level.

Natural joint movements are coupled together and are initiated from the ‘core’, i.e. when you move one joint it affects other joints, and each movement should start from your ‘core’. Hence, when you are doing complex postures such as the ‘legs behind the head’ variations shown in this blog, it is important to acknowledge this, and make your movements with the understanding that they should be coupled together and are initiated from the ‘core’. This is a complex concept to explain and for most people it is even more complex to it do in a safe and effective way.

The postures I am demonstrating here (Figures 1 and 2) are lots of fun, but I have seen many people injure themselves especially in their sterno-clavicular joints (between your breast bone and collar bones), the sterno-costal joint (between the breast bone and the ribs) and the lower back.

Figure 1: Simon Borg-Olivier in the 'Sleeping tortoise posture' (Supta Kurmasana)

Figure 1: Simon Borg-Olivier in the ‘Sleeping tortoise posture’ (Supta Kurmasana) (photo courtesy Alejandro Rolandi)


Firstly it is important to appreciate the coupled movements between your spine, chest, shoulders and neck. For example, when performing the ‘Sleeping tortoise posture’ (Supta kurmasana) (Figure 1), turning your shoulders inwards to get your arms bound behind your back causes the shoulder blades to go forward (protract), which causes first your upper back and chest  to go forward, then your lower back to bend forward (spinal flexion). Pressing your hands into the floor to lift the body into the air and trying to raise your head into the ‘Raised tortoise posture (Urdhva kurmasana)(Figure 2), causes the spine to try to bend backwards, your chest to open, your shoulders to move backwards (retract) and the your shoulders to want to try to turn out (externally rotate).

Similarly, when pressing your hands into the floor and lifting your body off the ground into the air in the ‘Raised tortoise posture (Urdhva kurmasana) (Figure 2), this will cause the chest to lift and expand, the shoulder blades to move backward (retract) and the your shoulders to want to try to turn out (externally rotate). Additionally, lifting the head in this position will make the chest lift and make the spine want to try to bend backwards (spinal extension).

Where is the core?

Secondly, to practice these postures safely, all movements and attempted movements should be initiated from the ‘core’. You can think of the ‘core’ as the centre point between the navel, the pelvic floor, the L5, the top of the hips and the diaphragm. In many cases moving from the ‘core’ engages abdominal muscles that make the core firm (see our previous blog). However, it is possible to move from the ‘core’ and remain quite relaxed in the abdomen. It is also possible to engage the ‘core’ in a way that ‘locks’ both the ‘core’ and the spine and inhibits or completely prevents its moment using the muscles of forced abdominal exhalation (co-activation of the internal and external abdominal oblique muscles). If the ‘core’ is locked and spinal movement is inhibited in postures such as those shown here in Figures 1-3, this will inhibit the diaphragm, induce a f’light or flight response’, reduce blood flow and increase the work of the heart, reduce strength, and put a lot of stress on the other joints in the body that have to move.

Therefore, when you coming into the ‘Sleeping tortoise posture’ (Supta kurmasana), the ‘core’ (think ‘navel’) should move forwards and downwards (away from your spine and towards the pubic bone), and lead the spine into flexion (forward bending), which should then lead the shoulder blades to move forwards (protraction) then turn the shoulders inwards (internal rotation). By initiating the movement with active spinal flexion, it will engage the rectus abdominis (the ‘six-pack’ muscle in the midline of the abdomen), which can protect the lower back while still allowing calm abdominal breathing.

Figure 2: Simon Borg-Olivier in the 'Raised tortoise posture' (Urdhva Kurmasana)

Figure 2: Simon Borg-Olivier in the ‘Raised tortoise posture’ (Urdhva Kurmasana) (photo courtesy Alejandro Rolandi)

To more safely and effectively lift into the ‘Raised tortoise posture (Urdhva kurmasana), it is more natural to initiate all the movement from your ‘core’. Firstly, breathe into your abdomen to move your navel (and your ‘core’) forwards and upwards (away from your spine and away from your pubic bone), then lift the chest as if trying to physically lengthen the front of the trunk (spinal extension). Smoothly follow that with moving the shoulders backwards and outwards (retraction and external rotation) at the same time as lifting the throat forwards and the chin upwards (neck extension). It is important that each movement and each breath has to start from the core.

In an advanced posture like ‘Raised tortoise posture (Urdhva kurmasana), this is very difficult to do. If you don’t or can’t do what I have described here yet, you still have to pull your legs behind the head with your hands (or someone else has to help yo) then you risk forcing the body into a position it does not have the strength and stability to be in and there will be risk of physical damage. If you feel in any way overstretched or compromised as you do the posture, it is common to subconsciously want to try to stabilise the core using your muscles of forced abdominal exhalation (abdominal oblique muscles). This muscles are the muscles of breathing out of the abdomen, and will therefore prevent you from using your diaphragm to breathe into the abdomen, making you feel stressed and thus inhibiting the digestive system, reproductive system and immune system, as well as prevent the natural movement of the spine.

Essentially, the bound legs behind the head postures are potentially dangerous postures unless you have the proper pre-requisites as discussed above.  It is our opinion that most people should not be attempting these poses unless their practice is very advanced and most of the movements can be done without any force whatsoever.

Simon Borg-Olivier in Eka Pada Koundinyasana (photo courtesy Alejandro Rolandi)

Figure 3: Simon Borg-Olivier in Eka Pada Koundinyasana (photo courtesy Alejandro Rolandi)

Another posture where you apply this information is Eka pada koundinyasana (Figure 3) with the left leg forward. This challenging arm-balancing posture has essentially the same shape and the same core-control and spinal movements as she classic ‘Triangle posture’ (Utthita trikonasana’) (Figure 4) with the left leg forward. Both postures have the left thigh flexed and externally rotated at the hip, and the right thigh extended and internally rotated at the hip. Also, both postures have the back of the spine lengthened like a forward bend (spinal flexion), the trunk rotated to the right (spinal axial rotation the the right), and the front of the trunk lengthened (spinal extension). Therefore, once you have mastered the ‘Triangle posture’ (Utthita trikonasana’) (Figure 4), and provided you can take your body weight on your arms, then Eka pada koundinyasana (Figure 3) becomes accessible.

Round out the upper back in order to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system by lengthening the sympathetic ganglions in the upper back. Ideally, do this by moving actively from your core and activating the main spinal (trunk) flexors, the rectus abdominis (the ‘six-pack’ muscle) to engage the core in a way that the front of the body becomes active and firm, and makes the back of the body become lengthened and relaxed. You need to ensure you can comfortably breathe into the abdomen and have the diaphragm free to allow this to take place.
To achieve Eka pada koundinyasana (Figure 3),  you need to expand the abdomen to lift the throat forward and the chin up to release the vagus nerve and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. Then rotate the rear thigh inwards to further stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system at the sacro-iliac region. If you move from the core, you will also stimulate the enteric nervous system. By extending and turning in the right thigh at the hip joint with the spine actively bending forward this will traction the sacro-iliac joint, strengthen the knee with janu bandha, tension the femoral nerve and stimulate the stomach meridian.
In the end you will end up balancing in the air like a bird that is firm but calm with gentle energy running through the body.
Figure 4: Simon Borg-Olivier in Utthita Trikonasa ('Triangle posture') (photo courtesy Alejandro Rolandi)

Figure 4: Simon Borg-Olivier in Utthita Trikonasa (‘Triangle posture’) (photo courtesy Alejandro Rolandi)

All the postures shown in the photos in this blog (even Figure 4 to be done properly) are actually very advanced postures. To make them safe and effective both physically and physiologically (i.e. firm but calm – shtira sukham asanam) is to too hard for most people unless they have very natural bodies. I dont think anyone should even attempt these postures unless they can first  lift slowly into the half handstand (lolasana), which, after all, is the third pose that Sri Pattabhi Jois says you are supposed to learn for the ashtanga vinyasa series, and can apply the principles that I described above in more simple postures such as in the Yoga Synergy Spinal movements sequence shown in the video below that is the preliminary practice for the Yoga Fundamentals Online Course that you can join here.


This is a short low resolution segment of the Yoga Synergy Spinal Movements Sequence DVD by Simon Borg-Olivier. More complex as well as simpler versions of this sequence with instructions are also taught on this DVD, which is available at….

You can do the simple version of this sequence almost anytime and anywhere, standing, on the floor or in a chair. All you need to do is to be able to comfortably lift your arms and/or lift your shoulders. It progresses from simple versions to harder levels depending your level of health and fitness.

This sequence is excellent for the relief of back pain and other problems if done carefully. It is also the easiest way to improve your circulation and energy levels. You can watch a simple one minute version of this simple sequence with easy to follow instructions at… (Preview)
This sequence is also the basis of the award winning online yoga course ‘Yoga Fundamentals: Traditional Yoga for the Modern Body’ by Bianca Machliss and Simon Borg-Olivier, which is available at


This 28 minute video of a series of spinal movement sequences has no verbal instructions, which helps you not to over-think, but if you attempt any of these sequences then it is important to only do what feels good and to not over-stretch, over-tense or overt-breathe.

Simple guidelines to attempt part or all of this sequence:
1. make your aim to simply lengthen and relax
2. move your spine starting from the region corresponding to the navel
3. move each vertebrae one at a time
4. always check your fingers and toes can move, your neck can move and you abdomen (diaphragm) can breathe and that you are feeling calm

This practice should ideally make you feel warm yet without the heart racing and it gives you energy rather than taking it from you.

VideoTimes (minutes and seconds) of the various spinal movements sequences in this youtube video:
A. 00m 00s: Pure spinal movements (PURE SPINE: lengthen, lengthen the back (forward bend), lengthen the front (backward bend), lengthen the left side (left side-bend), lengthen the right side (right side-bend), twist to right side, twist to left side)
B. 01m 24s: Pure spinal movements in different LEG POSTURES
C. 10m 54s: combined spinal movements (BEACH BALL: side-bend plus twisting) (like turning a large beach ball)
D. 14m 12s: Combined spinal movements into one arm (PLATE SPIRAL (like holding a plate in your hand to turn it in spirals): Starting with right hand: twist left (move navel to left), lengthen the front (move navel forward and upwards), twist right (rotate navel to right side), lengthen the right side (move navel to right side and upwards), lengthen the back (move navel forwards and downwards then softly backwards and upwards), lengthen the left side (move navel to left side and upwards)
E. 15m 44s: Stepping movements with the hips
G. 19m 38s: FREE FORM SPINAL YOGA DANCE (Optional – only smooth flowing, no jagged movements of arms legs or spine , so safely at your own pace)


If you would like to learn more about physical, physiological (energetic) and philosophical yoga please consider doing our 200 hour training in India from 19 March to 17 April 2016 with Bianca Machliss and I. Please see details at . Also you can study with us on our next online courses on the applied anatomy and physiology of yoga ( ) and the essentials of teaching safe, accessible but very effective yoga to yourself and/or others ( ).

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