A Yoga Sequence to Build Lower Body Strength

As yoga continues to gain popularity, many of us are exploring ways in which we can use the practice to address musculo-skeletal imbalance, chronic tension and even prevention or rehabilitation of an injury. When a client comes to me with a musculo-skeletal issue such as lower back pain, as a yoga therapist I will often explore a variety of factors – their physiology, lifestyle factors that may be contributing to the problem and even their mental and emotional state. From a physical perspective, at a fairly simplistic level there are two main questions I ask when addressing an injury.

 

  • What muscles are tight or shortened, tense and overworking?
  • What muscles are weak, overstretched, underworking or inactive?

 

Yoga has the capacity to not only address tight tissues through dynamic movements and sustained stretches but also strength, stamina and stability in the weakened tissues. In order to build strength in yoga we need to consider three simple factors:

 

1. Choose simple poses – think poses such as locust, bridge, forearm plank, handstand against the wall. Oftentimes the best strengthening poses are relatively simple in form but deliver the biggest bang for their buck.

 

2. Practice with skill, precision and good alignment – this will ensure that you are getting the truly intended benefits of the pose. Consider what muscles you are trying to access and ensure these muscles are engaging as you practice the pose e.g. in chair pose can you feel your glutes firing? If not, consider how you might improve the alignment to make that happen, for example, shifting your weight further back into your heels.

 

3. Repeat frequently – building strength and stamina is often about repeating simple motions or postures again and again until you feel a pleasant level of fatigue in the target muscles. This will enhance stamina, endurance and tone in the muscles.

 

When it comes to muculo-skeletal issues in the lower body our sedentary lifestyles are causing great imbalances and weakness, leading to what is often referred to in personal training circles as the Lower Cross Syndrome. Sitting for long periods of time manifests as weak glutes and abdominals, and tight (but also often weak) hamstrings and hipflexors. The following Lower Body Strength Yoga Sequence is designed to strengthen and stabilise the hips with poses targeting the glutes, hamstrings, quads and hip-flexors. I have found a sequence that works on building strength in the glutes to be particularly helpful for clients who are struggling with lower back pain or knee problems.

 

For a printable version of the sequence please click here. Thanks to Tummee for the yoga sequence builder software!

 

A Yoga Sequence to Build Upper Body Strength

I’ve dabbled with weight training for a number of years but I’ll be honest if I had a choice between a weight-training session or yoga, yoga would win every time. That said, I do think strength training is a key part of maintaining a healthy, happily functioning body and whether I’m working with private clients or teaching group classes, strength and conditioning work is a major theme in my teaching.

 

One of the things I see as a yoga teacher are the consequences of weakness in the body which can lead to musculo-skeletal imbalances, chronic tension and pain. We are so sedentary these days that the major muscles of the spine, hips and abdominals tend to weaken and atrophy leading to lower back problems, neck and shoulder tension and gait issues.

 

It’s at this point that we might be tempted to practice yoga, but if we’re not bringing strength and conditioning work into our practice we might very well end up exacerbating or at best ignoring the very weaknesses that we bring to the mat. Combine this with our current obsession with images of extreme flexibility and range of movement, and we run the risk of doing ourselves more harm than good. Make no mistake, big ranges of motion require a corresponding level of strength in order to keep your joints healthy and to avoid injury.

 

I’d like to share with you a simple yoga sequence for building more upper body strength, particularly in the shoulders, upper back, lower back and abdominals. I’ll be teaching many of these poses in my upcoming September 6-week Yoga for Strength & Conditioning Course.

 

For a printable version of the sequence please click here. Enjoy and be sure to breathe! 🙂

 

Thanks to Tummee for the amazing yoga sequence builder!

 

 

 

Yoga – The Ultimate Keystone Habit

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act but a habit” ~ Aristotle

 

There has been a surge in recent years exploring the science and psychology behind habits – how we build new habits and how we extinguish unhealthy ones. One of the most interesting books to come out of the research is Charles Duhigg’s book ‘The Power of Habit’, in which he introduces the fascinating concept of ‘Keystone Habits’.

Keystone habits are habits with super-power transformative capabilities. They are habits that once integrated into our day tend to have a powerful positive ripple effect into all other, often seemingly unrelated, areas of our lives. One of the examples he gives is the keystone habit of exercise:

 

“Typically people who exercise, start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. Exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change.” ~ Charles Duhigg

 

This sounds very similar to the kind of positive impact that I have seen a regular yoga practice have on my students’ lives.

I remember one student saying to me after one of their first yoga classes ‘Yoga has reminded me how good it’s possible to feel.’ The more removed and disconnected we get from ourselves and our bodies the more we get used to feeling less than brilliant. It’s almost like we forget what it feels like to be well. However, once we get a sneak peak into what it feels like to be healthy and vital again, we’ll often do anything to retain that feeling, which is why yoga can be such a catalyst for positive change and transformation. Yoga it would seem is most definitely a keystone habit.

 

I’ve been privileged to witness many of these personal transformations in my students over the years, and below are just some of the many amazing knock-on benefits I’ve seen from practicing yoga.

 

Adopted a healthier diet

When people start practicing yoga they begin to often unconsciously change their way of eating. For some that may mean cutting down on their alcohol intake, eating less processed foods and takeaways, for others it might be the conscious decision to reduce or cut out the amount of animal products they consume. A regular yoga practice brings you into a more direct understanding of the relationship between what you eat and how you feel. After all it’s much harder to ignore bloating or discomfort when you’re trying to move your way through Sun Salutations. Over time this renewed awareness can lead to a more sensitive and intuitive approach to your unique dietary needs and a more mindful approach to the process of eating generally.

 

Stopped smoking/excessive alcohol-intake/drugs

Yoga has this uncanny effect of highlighting our less than optimal habits and behaviours. Particularly in the early days, our yoga practice can sometimes be a fairly uncomfortable wake-up call to what happens when we neglect our health. As we breathe, and stretch, and ask our bodies to do things we may not have asked of them in a long time, we begin to see the honest impact of the decisions we make. For many, the realisation of how much the body is suffering is enough to kick-start a resolution to take better care of ourselves.

 

Left an unhappy or unhealthy relationship

There seems to be a bit of a pattern of relationship break-ups straight after a yoga retreat or teacher training and I don’t think this is just a coincidence. When we dive into a yoga practice we start to see things from a different perspective and we may find ourselves questioning the status quo. The more contemplative aspects of the yoga practice invite us to ask questions of ourselves that we were previously too busy, distracted or fearful to ask. What makes you happy? Where do you see yourself going in life? The answers to these questions may invite us to see that the person we are in a relationship with is no longer part of our journey moving forwards. Our practice and the community that surrounds us can give us the courage and conviction to move on from relationships that no longer serve us, or that hold us back in old patterns of behaviour that we are slowly moving away from.

 

Improved body image and self-esteem

Yoga can be an incredible tool for helping us to make peace with our bodies and to practice greater compassion and respect for this incredible body we carry around with us all day every day. So many of us struggle with a disordered body image and a yoga practice can give us the tools to practice more gratitude for the body we currently have, whilst also developing a greater sense of confidence as we see our bodies getting healthier and stronger. Learning to arm balance was one of those pivotal moments for me. Having always considered myself a bit of a weakling, to then learn that I could do some pretty extraordinary things whilst balancing on my hands, gave me an enormous sense of strength and empowerment. It was the beginning of a much kinder relationship with my body which has over time developed irrespective of my physical capabilities on the mat.

 

Change a job or career path to something more meaningful

Yoga’s emphasis on becoming more present and awake has the ability to snap us out of autopilot and to question whether we are really making the most of our lives. I have seen many yoga students eventually leave jobs that sacrificed their physical and mental health, and take a leap of faith into new careers that are more aligned with their core beliefs. Just like the earlier student who remarked that yoga makes us realise how good it’s possible to feel, the shadow side is that we become less tolerant of anything that saps our energy, burns us out, or is no longer in line with our deepest values. For many, this realisation is the beginning of an incredible journey into what makes us feel alive, passionate and engaged.