It was in the mid-1980s in Bushwick, then a dilapidated section of Brooklyn, on my first day of a new job. I looked down a street of this ethnic neighborhood and saw crossing guards on each corner—beautiful immigrant men in traditional, flowing costume, with exquisitely erect, regal posture. They radiated a peaceful power and confidence as they helped groups of school children cross the street. They took my breath away. I couldn’t think of one American person I knew that looked or felt like that. I have no idea of the cultural milieu that cultivated such composure. I can only hope to experience that feeling by imitating their posture.
Power and confidence are themes associated with our digestive center, home to the manipura chakra, a pranic hub where major energy pathways in the body intersect. The power and energy of this center relate to our inner fire, a source of radical transformation, knowledge, and connection to our essential nature. Access to this fire has been cultivated by yogis for thousands of years.
On the physical level, the digestive organs meet the body’s needs for nourishment, purification, immunity, and the homeostasis of our blood composition. When these needs are met, we experience a basic level of health and fulfillment. The digestive area is innervated by the vagus nerve, which is part of our parasympathetic nervous system and has many functions relating to mood, immune response, digestion, and heart rate. It also sends information from our digestive system to the brain, and vice versa, through a two-way communication system called the gut-brain (or brain-gut) axis.
The digestive center directly affects our breathing. When the digestive organs are healthy and mobile, they are easily compressed by the diaphragm, making deep breathing effortless and comfortable. Deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic functions of the vagus nerve, which help us stay calm.
So you can see that having a well-functioning digestive center physically and energetically connects us to our source of power and confidence, helps our body get what it needs to be healthy and content, and imparts a sense of calm. But it can’t do that unless it has space to function well. Let’s look at the structures that provide that space.
The digestive center is contained by muscles and related fascia that form a cylinder: the horizontal walls consist of the spine and the spinal, lower back, and abdominal muscles; the pelvic floor forms the base; the diaphragm is on top.
The two psoas muscles, attaching to the sides of the lower spine, act like central stabilizers, guiding and supporting the lower back vertebrae while linking the pelvic floor and the diaphragm through fascial attachments. All of these muscles, when toned, provide a strong container for our digestive organs while aligning the lower spine. In turn, a strong container becomes the foundation for the alignment in our neck and upper back.
Toning the Core
But what happens when these muscles are not toned? Experience this for yourself by slumping. Feel the chest crushing the digestive organs, the crick in your neck, and the reduction in breath volume. How powerful do you feel now? It’s clear that we need space in this region in order to reap its benefits.
The muscle I think about most in developing this space is the transversus abdominis.
Look at the bright-red portion in the picture. You can see that the muscle fibers run horizontally. When they flex, these muscle fibers contract and take up more space in the vertical plane, supporting and lengthening the lower back and creating more space in the abdominal area. To activate the transversus abdominis muscles, stand, placing one hand on your chest. Inhale into your side ribs, then exhale completely, pushing your belly and the sides of your waist inward. You might notice that your lower spine lengthens, lifting your chest away from the abdomen.
But to maintain this length and alignment does not require going around with our gut sucked in! Instead, we want to develop muscle tone in the abdomen. Tone is the degree of muscle activity present when the muscle is at rest, like a motor purring on low. When we activate the muscle, it is like revving up the motor. Muscle tone is a residue of muscle use. Thus strong muscles have more tone than weak ones. Alignment in the lower back and space in the abdomen depend on a balance of tone in the container of our lower torso.
Asanas that tone this region are plank, leg lifts, and upward- and downward-facing boat poses, as well as vigorous pranayama practices. But we also need to know how core-supported alignment feels when we stand.
Standing Tadaka Mudra
We’ll use the asana known as tadaka mudra, but in a standing rather than reclining position, to feel how tone in our core is the foundation of good posture.
Stand in tadasana (mountain pose) with your hands interlaced directly overhead, arms stretched. Inhale into your belly and side ribs, making sure they expand outward. Then exhale until the air is out completely, compressing the belly from all sides. Include your pelvic floor muscles by lifting them up as you exhale. Release the exhale, allowing the inhale to come in effortlessly. On your next exhale, be aware of your inner thighs lifting to support the lift of the pelvic floor. Release and inhale. Exhale again while stretching the arms up more, resisting the desire to collapse forward to accommodate the movement of the belly.
Take five breaths in this way, feeling how the strong exhale fires all the abdominal and lower back muscles. Pay attention to the length happening in the lower back and the lift in the chest. Notice the work in the upper back muscles. Sense how the lift through the inner thighs brings energy to the leg muscles as well as the psoas.
Now stay in the posture and breathe normally. Keeping the vertical space you have developed in the belly and the upper back, open your arms to the sides and bring them down, sliding the shoulder blades down the back. Are you more aligned? Do you feel stronger, more engaged, and confident? Now return to your usual posture. How does that feel in comparison?
If you like what you’ve just felt, then set an intention to use your core to support your alignment as you go about your day. Add abdominal strengtheners to your asana mix, and find regular times in your day to pause and do a few breaths in standing tadaka mudra. Familiarity with this feeling of posture will set you up for success in aligning the upper back, which we will explore next.