It’s great to have practices that achieve several goals at once. You may not have time to get to the gym, go for a run and make it to yoga, but you want to be strong, fit and flexible. We might be biased, but we’d say that if you only have time for one, yoga – mindful, purposeful yoga – will get you the closest, and be the most sustainable, because it does work on all three. Cardio fitness perhaps needs a more specific application (you can do it with yoga, but that’s another topic) but strength and flexibility go hand in hand. We know yoga helps with flexibility, so…
Does yoga make you strong?
Well, yes. Of course, it’s going to depend on what your strength goals are. If you’re looking to lift weights, perform handstands or build muscle mass, a slow, deep yoga class is only a part of your exercise regime. (Note though that it is still an important part!)
If you’re just wanting to tone and know that your body is fit and capable, then a slow, deep yoga class can be all you need. Yoga is such a wonderful, versatile practice because it adjusts to suit you. Feeling low and like you need a gentle, relaxing break? Yoga can do that. Feeling pumped and want to move every part of your body? Yoga can do that. Feeling like you’ve maybe slacked off a little lately and want to work your muscles? Yoga does that too. It’s all in how you approach your class. You can do this yourself at home, using the knowledge you’ve gained from classes, or you can bring this to the class you’re attending and make it work for your personal goals in a safe environment.
In the same way that it’s perfectly okay to modify, back off a bit or take a break in child’s pose or makarasana if a class becomes too difficult, it’s also perfectly okay to push yourself to the next level! You don’t have to wait for your teacher to tell you everything. Take your own initiative. Of course it’s easier to join a weights class and have someone shout at you, but you have another opportunity here: you can learn to motivate and empower yourself. Like anything, it takes practise.
Listen to your body
Before we dive into yoga for strength, we’ll say this: the key is to listen to your body. Especially if you’re new or returning to strength work, take things in gradual steps and pay attention. If you’ve been attending Sarah’s classes, you know how to do this. Don’t neglect it just because you’re focussing on something else. Take your time. Strength work is slow and deliberate, and harder for it!
The core of it all
The beginning of all strength is core control. As you start your class, engage your core muscles. Really engage them. Keep them engaged as you move. It will be harder and it will hurt – in a good way. There’s muscles crying because you’ve woken them up for the first time in weeks, and there’s pain because you’re pushing too hard. This is why we must pay attention and listen to our bodies. Muscles complaining? Good, keep going! Pain? Ease back.
The important thing about engaging core muscles, and any strength building, is to ensure you relax those muscles too. This is why a yoga class is so good – you get a nice savasana afterwards! Practise deeply engaging, then deeply relaxing your core muscles. You don’t want to always be wound like a spring.
Feel the heat
If you’re not sweating yet, it’s time to practise some isometric exercises. If the class instruction is to bring your palms together, press them together. Feel the muscles in your hands, arms and shoulders working. If you’re lifting your arms overhead, imagine you are having to push them through thick tar, or that you have heavy weights in your hands. Once you get the hang of it with arm movements, apply this to all movement. Go slow and heavy. It sounds easy, but you’ll feel the heat.
Hold poses for longer. This might be trickier in a class environment, but stretch out every second you can. Any pose that requires some strength to get there – triangles, warriors, downward dog, cobra, camel, bow, chair of the heart – may feel easy initially, but become surprisingly difficult if you add ten or twenty seconds or more to the hold. It’s especially hard when you don’t lock any joints, so you’re using your muscles rather than resting on bones.
Ensure your core is engaged, that the points in contact with the floor are strongly grounded (press into the floor, and sink low in standing poses like warriors) and upper points (usually the sternum, or hips in an inversion) are well lifted. Ground more, lift higher. There will be a stretch and a corresponding strengthening. Don’t collapse anywhere. If you can’t maintain alignment, it’s your body saying that’s enough for now.
The benefits of balance
Get into some balancing! Balancing is amazing for body strength. If you think about it, your legs normally share your weight, and now you’re asking one leg to take it all! That’s doubled its workload. The other great thing about balancing is it doesn’t just target main muscle groups. It hits every little supporting muscle around the joints, which is fantastic for strength building and general wellbeing. The obvious examples of balance poses are tree, dancer and warrior three – anything where you are on one leg. But don’t forget that positions where you are up on your toes, or in a narrow plane of movement (such as a lunge or triangle pose) are also great balancing poses.
To strengthen, hold the balance for as long as you can. If you feel like you could stand on one leg or in a high lunge all day, make it harder by adding a little upper body movement. Be a tree swaying in the wind! Core engaged, joints unlocked and aligned, grounded, lifted, moving slowly and deliberately and like the air is made of syrup, breathing deeply…this is as much a workout for the brain as the body, and you’ll definitely feel it!
A focus for your yoga
There you have it. Apply this to any of your yoga practice and you have a strengthening workout. You’ll be surprised how much you can add on and how much further you can take it when you get into your body and explore. Ask: what muscles am I contracting here? How can I engage these muscles more in this pose? And the wonderful thing is that as you strengthen one muscle, its opposite will get better at stretching!
Always have a focus for your practice. Be mindful about it, rather than just plonking onto your mat and awaiting instruction. Are you here today to deeply relax? To clear your emotional body? To strengthen the physical? You may be guided to check in on all levels, so notice what stands out this time. Take charge of your body temple and give it what it needs. Which, of course, brings us back to the main point: listen to your body. It’s a body of love, it knows what it needs, and it’s longing for you to simply listen.