Core Concerns: Yoga Moves for a Stronger Center
When Danny Benoit began practicing yoga more than 20 years ago, he wasn’t trying to tone up or touch his toes. “Most people come to yoga, I think, to find some calm, or to get in shape. … I came to it to fix my head,” he says.
After serving in the US Air Force during the Gulf War, Danny received a yoga book from his mother, a yoga novice herself. “She said, ‘I hope this helps you,’” he recalls. “It just brought a calm to me. … The postures, the breathing—all [of] that connected created a balance and a calm that I’d never felt before.”
That was in 1991; Danny didn’t discover his love for teaching yoga until 2008 as a pilot in Nepal. During a time of political upheaval, he found himself in an airport hangar with 300 pilot students, all of whom were grounded due to the turmoil outside. Demonstrating yoga became his way of engaging with them. It was “the one common denominator we had.”
Those crowded lessons in the hangar revealed Danny’s knack for forming and leading a yoga community. He then brought that talent to Chicago and became an instructor at the city’s first CorePower Yoga studio. He still works for CorePower today, though his classes are a bit smaller than his first: 30–40 students instead of 300. Nevertheless, he approaches teaching with the same enthusiasm and has become an advocate for the physical benefits of the practice, specifically its bolstering effect on the core.
“As we get older, the first thing that usually goes on us is our lower back or our knees, and that’s because of lack of core strength,” he explains. “If you gently pull your navel in … it acts like an airbag. It compresses everything together.” This airbag effect can help support the body and guard against injury as you age.
Here, Danny demonstrates six moves that work to strengthen the core and, therefore, stabilize and protect everything around it.
This classic yoga move can be performed at five different levels of difficulty. For the most basic, lean back on your tailbone and bend your knees, grasping right behind them. Make sure to lift your chest—or “heart center”—toward the sky. Danny recommends holding for at least 30 seconds. For some extra oomph, release the hold on your legs and extend them.
2. Single Leg Slicers
“A Danny B. special,” the yogi says of this move. To begin, lay on your back and extend one leg to the sky with your foot flat. Press your palms together, and draw them to the outside of your raised leg, twisting your torso and lifting your shoulders off the mat. When you inhale, drop your leg; when you exhale, lift it back up. “If you want to work harder, hover your [other] heel.”
3. Dolphin Crunches
Start in plank on your forearms, making sure that your tailbone is even with your shoulders and that your hands are palms-down on the mat, shoulder-width apart. On an exhale, press the heart center back to “crunch” upwards, bending the body into a V. Inhale to come back to plank.
4. Flat Crunches aka Sacrum Balance
Before demonstrating this move, Danny expounds on its power: “This one doesn’t look like much, but try it and you’ll puke.” Lay back, but hover your feet and shoulders, balancing on your sacrum (right above the base of your tailbone). Simply hold this pose for 30 seconds to feel a burn in your belly.
5. Double Knee Taps
Sit up and bend your knees, as if you’re going into a navasana level-one lift. Extend one leg and place your hands behind your ears, positioning them like you would for a traditional crunch. Inhale and tap your opposite elbow to the knee of the bent leg, then to the knee of the extended leg, exhaling once with each tap.
6. Cross Lifts
Danny notes that this is a more advanced move better suited for the seasoned yogi. Lie flat on your back and plant one foot firmly on the outside of the other leg. Then, place your hands behind your head and square your shoulders toward the sky. Lift the bottom long leg, and crunch up as you exhale.
Michelle studied English at Penn State. She has run two half-marathons (very slowly) and plans to someday run/walk/crawl the Chicago Marathon.