By Jessica Smith for Shape.com
There's not just one formula for a flat belly. And since few people truly enjoy traditional abs exercises, the best way to sculpt a sexy midsection is to incorporate more core work into the workouts you already know and love.
Yoga not only helps improve flexibility and relieve stress (which studies show helps reduce belly fat), but your practice can also target your abdominal muscles in a much more functional and efficient way than any amount of crunches. Read on to discover the 11 best poses for sculpting your abs while you find inner peace.
This pose will have your abdominals working overtime to help you stay grounded on one leg. Shift your weight onto your left leg. Draw your right knee into your chest, grab your ankle and press the bottom of your right foot onto your left thigh. If you feel wobbly keep your hand on your ankle while it's pressed into your thigh. If you're finding your balance really easily, press your palms together in front of your chest. Brace your abdominals in tight to your spine, making sure you can still breathe easily. Find a focal point and focus your gaze while you hold the pose for 10 long, deep breaths. Repeat on the other leg.
Warrior Lunge Twist
Not only will your abdominals help you to stabilize in this posture, but the twisting motion fully engages those hard-to-tone obliques too. Bring your hands into prayer pose. Lunge forward with your left leg and bend your knee about 90 degrees, keeping your back leg straight. Brace your abs in tight to your spine and rotate your upper body to the left. Keep your spine long as you lean over your left leg and press your right elbow into the outside of your left leg. Turn your head to look up toward the ceiling over your left shoulder. Hold for 10 long, deep breaths and then untwist and return to standing. Repeat on the other side. If you have trouble maintaining your balance, focus your eyes straight ahead instead of looking up to the ceiling.
Rock 'N' Roll Lotus
This fun and functional move strengthens your core by using it to help you "stop" your body (much like it does in everyday life). Sit with your legs crossed at the ankles. Hold onto the outside of each ankle with your opposite hand, and lift your legs off the floor, balancing on your sitting bones. Pull your abs into your spine and take a deep breath in. As you exhale, begin to round onto your back. Continue rolling until your shoulder blades touch the floor, lifting your hips, still holding onto your ankles. Keeping your abs in tight, rock back up to sitting, finding your balance again on your sitting bones. That's one rep. Repeat 10 times. Imagine you are using your abs as brakes to help you stop at the top and bottom of the rocking motion.
Downward Dog Variation
This version of downward dog keeps your abs firing both during the hold and during the transition. Begin in downward facing dog. Extend your left leg up to the ceiling, pointing your toes. Shift your weight forward and begin to lower your hips into a plank pose but instead of putting your left toes down, bend your left knee into your chest, lifting your abs into your spine during the entire movement. Press your hips back up and extend your left leg behind you as you return to downward facing dog. Repeat 10 times with the left leg, 10 with the right. If this is too challenging, practice the transition from downward dog to plank pose until you feel ready to add the leg movement.
This posture is another major balance challenge that keeps your core engaged the entire time. Shift your weight into your right foot. Hug your left shin into your chest, then extend it straight back behind you so it's parallel to the ground. Flex your left foot and point the toes down. Bring your fingertips to the ground to stabilize yourself if you need to. Reach your arms out in front of you so your body is in a straight line from your fingertips all the way down your back and out through your left heel. Stay here for 3 long, deep breaths then slowly return to standing. Repeat on the other side. Bend your bottom knee if you need to in order to maintain your balance, and work up to fully extending your supporting leg.
This active pose engages your abs, thighs and back. Kneel on the floor with your knees hip-width apart, toes tucked under. Extend your arms out straight in front of your chest, palms facing down. Lift your chest and press your pelvis forward as you hinge backwards, arching slightly through your lower back. Pause and focus on opening up your chest while also keeping your ribcage down and your belly button drawn into your spine. Slowly return to the starting position. That's one rep. Repeat up to 10 times.
Bridge With Leg Sweep
This amped-up bridge pose sculpts your butt and hamstrings while also using your abdominals as stabilizers to help control the motion of your leg. Lie on your back with knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Extend your arms by your sides, palms facing down. Brace your abs in tight and press through your heels to bridge your hips off the floor. Keeping your hips lifted and square, extend your left leg up to the ceiling, foot flexed. Sweep your left leg to the right, passing the midline of your body and then sweep back out to the left, slightly past your left hip. That's one rep. Repeat 10 times (back and forth) with the left leg, and then switch legs and repeat 10 more times before lowering out of bridge. Try not to let your hips drop as you move your leg back and forth, using your abs and your glutes to keep your pelvis lifted and square. Small, controlled movement is better than big movements with poor form.
Extended Boat Pose
Build core strength and endurance with this challenging, but very effective, pose. Sit on your hips with both legs extended in front of you. Place your hands behind your hips and keep your back long as you lean back slightly and lift your legs off the floor, holding your belly in and up the entire time. Reach both arms out to the sides of your thighs. Lower your legs about 45 degrees, until your body resembles a wide 'V'. Hold this position for 10 long, deep breaths (or up to 60 seconds). Too tough? Make it easier by bending your knees 90 degrees so your shins are parallel to the ground.
This active pose uses your abdominals to shift your body back and forth and to lift and lower your torso, providing a dynamic stretch and contraction for both your abs and back. Sit with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart. Place your hands behind your hips, fingertips facing slightly into your body. Press down with your arms and lift your hips into tabletop position as shown. Next, brace your abs in tight and extend your legs as you push your hips back until your pelvis is slightly behind your hips (without touching the floor), feet flexed. Hold for 1 count, scooping your abs in tight to your spine as you hold the position. Return to tabletop. That's one rep. Repeat up to 10 times. If this is too challenging, try lowering your hips to the floor instead of sliding them behind you to start.
Lotus Hip Lift
Don't be fooled by this seemingly simple pose. The static contraction means your core never gets a break! Sit with your legs crossed (or in full lotus if you can), palms pressed into the floor outside your hips, fingertips facing forward. Brace your abs in and press down with your arms and shoulders, lifting your hips a few inches off the floor. Hold for 3 counts and then lower. If you can't lift your hips off the floor at first, simply press down with your arms and shoulders and lift as high as you can until you're stronger.
Stacked Side Plank
Use your abdominals to stabilize your entire body as you balance on one arm and leg. Lie on your right side with your knees straight. Place your right hand under your right shoulder. Lift your hips off the floor until your body forms a straight line from your ankles to your shoulders. Flex your feet and extend your left arm up to the ceiling. Breath deeply for the duration of the exercise. Hold this position for up to 60 seconds. Lower and repeat on the other side. If this is too challenging, bend one (the bottom) or both knees to the floor to reduce the amount of weight that you have to lift.
For more on yoga, click here.