6 Ways to Build more Strength in your Yoga Practice

It’s probably fairly obvious to say given that this is a blog about yoga, but I love yoga. I mean really love it. If I could get away with spending most of my time just practicing yoga I would (with the occasional break to explore my other two loves, reading and cooking).

Some years ago though, I experienced something of an uncomfortable revelation. I was running late to teach a yoga class and had to run like the wind to get to the studio in time. I made it (just), but was so out of breath that it took me a good few minutes, bent over double to recover myself before I could walk into the studio with any sense of composure. To give some context, at that time in my life, I was practicing vinyasa yoga at least 60-90 minutes a day, walked everywhere, and to look at seemed in pretty good shape, but in that moment, gasping for breath, I was somewhat appalled to discover I was not as fit as I had thought. I resolved then and there to start switching up my movement patterns and activity to develop a more well-rounded level of overall fitness.

This is when I started to explore the concept of general fitness vs fitness specificity. General fitness programs look at creating a balance across a few key areas such as strength, endurance, speed and flexibility. To do this we need to practise a varied movement diet. However, when we train mainly in a specific movement practice such as running, cycling or yoga we develop fitness specificity for that type of movement i.e. our body adapts over time to become super efficient at handling the stresses of that particular way of training. This is a good thing and enables us to become highly skilled and proficient in our sport of choice.  However, these days professional athletes and sportsmen understand the importance of cross-training with other kinds of movement practices, not only because the more you train in only one kind of movement type, the greater the potential for imbalance and injury, but also because cross-training will actually make you better in your chosen sport.

So to address the imbalance, I started lifting weights, doing some more cardio and HIIT. I kept the yoga separate and sometimes missed having the time to do long practices as I tried to squeeze in other kinds of training. As time went on however, I wanted to explore how I could bring more of a cross-training mindset into my yoga practice. I started to weave in other kinds of movement. My sense of what yoga was or could be started to broaden. I began to realise that the fundamental component of any physical yoga practice was a) a strong sense of the breath and b) mindfulness, and with these two elements intact I could bring the feel of yoga to any kind of movement.

It was from this place that I started to evolve how I was teaching – looking to bring a more well-rounded physical experience to my students, so that they too could benefit from a more inclusive, all-encompassing way of moving. Below are the 6 big changes I have made to my own yoga practice and the way that I teach – the result being that I feel stronger and fitter than ever before.

 

 

  1. Get creative – bring in ideas from other movement modalities

One of the things I love about yoga is how alive it is as a discipline. Yoga is a constantly evolving, growing practice – new poses and ways of moving around the mat are constantly being added to the repetoire. Over the past few years I’ve noticed teachers weaving lots of other movement modalities and disciplines into their teaching. I have seen inspiration from Pilates, somatics, functional movement, Feldenkrais, ballet, bodyweight strength training, calisthenics, plyometrics and HIIT being incorporated into yoga in exciting and creative ways that challenge our bodies and minds to stay present and connected.

A big part of this approach requires us to redefine our idea of what yoga is or what it ‘should’ look like. For me, yoga is more about cultivating a certain quality of attention. It’s about learning to be more present, more focused, more disciplined and the body becomes a tool through which I can hone these skills.  That being the case then, any movement practices could be thought of as yoga once combined with breath awareness and mindfulness.

As a long-term yoga practitioner I know how easy it is to get stuck in the yoga treadmill – the same poses, the same movement patterns and sequences – and how easy it becomes for the mind to tune out and the body to go onto auto-pilot. It’s very hard to stay curious, exploratory and present when this happens. Our bodies, nervous systems and brains also stop learning and growing when something becomes familiar and it becomes too easy to fall into ingrained habits and repetition.

Doing the same kinds of physical training over and over is also a sure fire way to create imbalance. Yoga is fantastic for improving pushing strength through all of its weight-bearing work in poses such as plank and downward-facing dog, and for increasing joint mobility and flexibility, but perhaps not so good for developing others areas of fitness such as cardiovascular endurance or pulling strength (more on this specifically later). Another common area of imbalance for yogis is the tendancy to train hip flexion (when the knee comes towards the chest) more than extension (when the leg goes back behind the hip). Yogis tend to be strong in their quads and pectorals due to all the lunges and chaturangas, but not necessarily as comfortable with movements that engage the extensor chain such as hamstrings, glutes and middle/lower trapezius.

In order to become stronger (and more mentally engaged) we need to continuously challenge the muscles and joints in new ways – to move them out of their comfort range, to explore new transitions, new joint angles, movement patterns and investigate the end range of our mobility. This end range has been described by Gary Ward in his fantastic book ‘What The Foot’ as the ‘dark zone’ and he suggests ‘growth and potential develop only when you step into the unknown and challenge yourself to do or be better’. When we move only within our comfort zone we limit ourselves and can not develop our true potential for strength and mobility.

So think outside the box – weave in ideas from other movement practices, play with new patterns and enjoy how your experience of yoga evolves and the potential of your body opens up.

 

 

  1. Incorporate mobility and strength drills (not just static holds) into your yoga practice

A healthy muscle should be able to shorten, lengthen and relax at optimal length, and healthy movement patterns rely on the ability of each and every muscle to do this. With this in mind, we need to start incorporating eccentric, concentric and isometric loading in our practice through movement, not just static holds of yoga poses. To clear things up a little let’s start by defining these terms:

Concentric strengthening– this is where we strengthen a muscle as its shortening under load

Eccentric strengthening – this is where we strengthen a muscle as its lengthening under load

Isometric strengthening – this is when we strengthen a muscle in a static length under load – i.e it is neither shortening or lengthening

In styles of yoga where we hold poses for longer periods of time such as Iyengar we do a lot of work in the isometric range. Working in the isometric range is useful for stabilisation and can be helpful particularly for students working with back pain. Muscles, however, need a wide variety of movement and to be strengthened at various different lengths in order to work at their optimum.

How might this look in a practical sense in a yoga pose? Say our desire was to strengthen our core and we wanted to practice forearm plank. One way we could challenge the abdominals to work in a new pattern is by incorporating a cat-cow type movement into our forearm plank so as we inhale we allow the lower belly to move towards the floor, lengthening the abdominal muscles as we keep them engaged (eccentric load), and as we exhale lifting the belly, contracting the abs and trying to round the spine towards the ceiling (concentric load). The neutral place between those two movements would be where we’d hit isometric strengthening but note this happens naturally anyway between the eccentric and concentric action.

When we start to look at this way of training the muscles in yoga it opens up an exciting range of movement possibilities. I have learnt and created lots of mobility/strength drills over the past couple of years and feel not only stronger but a lot more fluid and controlled as I move around the mat as a result.

 

 

  1. Bring in some equipment

When I first started yoga I remember naively thinking that needing props in yoga was a sign you were a beginner. These days my car is filled to the brim with yoga kit, and I personally use lots of it in my own practice and with clients. I’m not necessarily suggesting we need to go so far as bringing dumbbells into our yoga classes (although why not), but I do love to use equipment that can be used to introduce more resistance or movement opportunities.

Yoga straps and blocks can be super useful for helping to bring awareness to certain muscles. For example, I use straps to help students with mini lat pull-down type movements, or blocks between thighs in mountain pose to help students feel the adductors and pelvic floor turn on.

I have also recently fallen in love with mini-bands and resistance bands and use these in class to help with glute activation and to develop better awareness of how to set the shoulders for weight-bearing poses such as plank and downdog.

I use tea towels and blankets to act as foot sliders for movements such as hamstring curls in bridge or to practice hip pikes in sun salutations. I also love the small Pilates balls to help with spinal articulation and core work. There is really so much to choose from – the key again is to get creative and playful.

 

 

  1. Include plyometric movements

Plyometric movements are movements that require the rapid stretching and contracting of muscle fibres to increase muscle power and strength such as sprinting, jumping and hopping.

Most traditional yoga styles are steady, slow affairs. In Ashtanga and vinyasa styles there are some elements of jumping, particularly during the transition movements in sun salutations but there are not really enough of them to significantly boost the aerobic function of the heart and not varied enough to challenge the body in new and interesting ways.

This brings us to the difference between slow and fast twitch muscle fibres. Slow twitch muscle fibres are used for endurance activities, like taking a long 90 minute vinyasa class, whilst fast twitch muscle fibres are developed through short, sudden bursts of activity like running for the bus or jumping to catch a ball. To cultivate balanced strength ideally we want to incorpoate both types of movement into our training.

By incorporating drills in our yoga practice that incorporate plyometric-style movements such as jumping or hopping we can improve our cardiovascular health, train our fast-twitch muscle fibres and potentially improve the health of our bones, reducing the risk of osteoporosis. Some ideas include:

  • adding burpee style jumps into our sun salutations
  • mountain climbers
  • downdog bunny hops
  • plank-to-squat jumps

The options are huge and only limited by one’s imagination!

 

 

  1. To build more strength in a pose, do 1 or a combo of these:
  • Increase duration of hold
  • Increase the number of repetitions
  • Increase the load
  • Add movement variations to introduce variety, challenge and complexity

If you want to get stronger in a specific yoga pose there are 4 main ways to go about it – you could work with just one or try a combination. What you choose to do will depend a lot on the type of pose or movement you’re doing, but to give a simple example, let’s imagine you wanted to improve your strength in plank pose:

  • You could simply increase the length of time you hold plank, for example, from 30 seconds to 45 seconds
  • You could increase the number of times you practice plank in your yoga practice say from 5 times to 10 times.
  • You could place a sandbag or heavy cork yoga block on the back of your hips to hold up whilst in plank thus increasing the load.
  • You could incorporate the cat-cow movement as described in section 2 to provide a different kind of challenge.

 

 

  1. Buy a pull-up bar, monkey bars or rings

Ok, so technically this may not be something you’d incorporate within the yoga practice per se, but I do believe this has made a huge change to my overall body strength and has addressed a significant area for potential imbalance from doing only yoga, so I had to incorporate it in here.

Through my consistent yoga practice I have no issues with holding plank for at least a couple of minutes. I’m also very comfortable with the majority of regular arm balances in yoga. In terms of pushing shoulder strength I’d say I’m pretty strong. However, the first time I tried to lift my bodyweight up on a pull-up bar was very humbling to say the least. Basically I couldn’t do it, my feet weren’t going anywhere, let alone lifting off the floor!

Since then, I have worked hard to incorporate some amount of pulling work into my movement routines. I have a pull-up bar above my bedroom door and try to incorporate a few pull ups with different grip positions throughout the week. There are a lot of benefits to hanging including strengthening the wrist, elbow and shoulder joints – all essential for any aspiring yogi who wants to practice long-term. For more info and a list of the benefits I highly recommend checking out Ido Portal’s blog on ‘Hanging’ and his 7-minute daily hanging challenge he outlines.

A Yoga Sequence for Knee Health

Please remember that this post only provides general guidance around knee health. If you have had a knee injury or recent knee surgery there are many factors that need to be considered before engaging in any rehabilitative exercise regime and its best to consult your doctor, health-care team or physio before starting yoga. 

It may seem a rather obtuse or clinical title for a yoga sequence – certainly not as sexy as A Yoga Sequence for Better Sleep for example (although that is coming soon!) – but building greater knee strength is a subject matter close to my heart, and has been a massive part of my yoga regime for years.

In fact the whole reason I came to yoga was because I had dislocated my knee several times and I faced the hearbreaking realisation that a dance career was just not going to be for me. Yoga early on presented an alternative. I loved the movement, the mindful connection to breath. The grace. It’s not a coincidence that many yogis and yoga teachers are ex-dancers.

Whilst yoga is often touted for its ability to enhance flexibility and range-of-motion, what I often find gets missed is yoga’s fantastic strengthening and stabilising qualities. To be sure it doesn’t have the grunt appeal or forehead-mopping benefits of lifting heavy weights or working with a resistance band but I believe yoga has a LOT to offer those of us with sore, sensitive or unstable knees.  As always it’s all about what you practice.

 

5 Reasons Why Yoga is Great for Knees:

  1. Its low impact i.e. in most forms and styles of yoga we don’t jump or bounce therefore reducing the amount of load, force and therefore stress on the joint.
  2. We use a lot of Closed Kinetic Chain (CKC) style movements and postures which are generally safer for knees that feel weak or unstable and are easier to control and therefore maintain good form whilst doing. CKC movements involve having the foot fixed on a solid surface e.g. the floor, as you do the movement or posture.
  3. We move slowly and mindfully which gives us a chance to focus on good tracking alignment of the knee (misalignment of the knee is a big factor in weak, unstable or injured knees). By taking our time as we consciously move in and out of positions we can retrain our habits and postural tendencies.
  4. Yoga recognises the holistic nature of the body and that knee problems often have their source in musculo-skeletal imbalances further up or down the body. Remember that the site of the injury is often not the source of the problem. When I have clients come to me with knee injuries, I always look at what’s happening in the position and alignment of their feet, hips and spines.
  5. In yoga we build isometric and eccentric strength which are fantastic for building strength and stability in our joints.
    • In isometric work we are holding the muscles and joints in a loaded static position – think of what happens to the muscles of your legs as you hold a Warrior 2 position for example.
    • In eccentric strength work, we gradually lengthen the muscles as we load them, for example, when we hinge forwards from standing into a forward bend the hamstrings are eccentrically lengthening.

 

Designing a Well-Balanced Yoga Practice for Knee Health

With the above in mind, the following sequence is designed to not only work all of the muscles that surround and stabilise the knee but also some muscle groups that seem relatively distant and unconnected. We will also work on stretching out some muscles that when tight can often cause knee tracking issues. Here’s a nifty table that outlines some of the major muscles and connective tissues you need to address for optimal knee health.

Strenghten Stretch
Quadriceps (muscles on the front of the thigh) Iliotibial Band or ITB (a tract of connective tissue running down the side of the upper leg)
Hamstrings (muscles at the back of the thigh) Outer quadriceps (when tight can pull the knee-cap outwards)
Glutes (your bottom!) Tensor Fasciae Latae or TFL (a muscle on the outer side of the hip)
Adductors (the inner leg muscles) Adductors (the inner leg muscles)
Vastus Medialis Obliqus VMO (a small tear-shaped muscle in the inner knee)

 

A couple of tips for practice:

As always the devil is in the details. I often say to my students – you spend the first 6 months in yoga just learning the basics, where do your hands and feet go, the general shape of a pose, remembering to breathe. You spend the rest of your life learning all the little details that make this practice so rich and exciting!

With that in mind there are a few small alignment tips that I think make all the difference when you are working on knee health.

 

  • Root down through the heel bone. When you press your heel firmly into the floor you will feel the muscles and connective tissue around your sitbone engage helping to strengthen the glutes and stabilise the hips. Strengthening the glutes plays a HUGE role in knee health.
  • Check your foot to knee-cap positioning again and again. The knees are the prisoners of whatever is happening in the feet and the hips! If the feet are turned out but the knees are pointing forwards (or even inwards) then your knees end up taking the strain of this misalignment. Happy knees are ones which track in the same direction as the centre of the ankle/2nd or 3rd
  • Engage the VMO. Getting the VMO (that tiny little tear-shaped muscle at the inner knee) to switch on can be tricky. If you’ve injured your knee it is likely that this muscle won’t be firing properly. Rooting through the heel bone can help to switch this muscle on but I also like to bring my fingertips to the area to help give me tactile feedback so that I know when it’s engaging.
  • Do not lock the knee. There is a tendancy for many students to “lock” the knee cap backwards in standing poses, particularly balance poses. Unfortunately this can often lead to torsion, instability and potential wear and tear of the knee joint. Instead we want to keep what I refer to as a slight micro-bend of the knee joint (the leg will still look straight) whilst engaging ALL of the musculature evenly around the knee (front-to-back and side-to-side).

The following practice gives some ideas for the sorts of poses that I regularly use with clients when working improve knee health. All of the poses/movements are designed to be repeated several times through until you feel a comfortable level of fatigue in the muscles without losing good form and technique. The exception to this is the two standing balances – Standing Quad Stretch Pose and Tree Pose which should be held for 30 seconds on each side, and the supine stretches at the end of the sequence which you can hold for up 1 minute on each side. Enjoy and feel free to leave any questions or comments below! 🙂

 

3 Great Exercises for Core Strength

In my last blog post I talked about how to engage two muscle groups that are responsible for stabilising the lower back, pelvis and torso. The Transverse Abdominals (TA) and Multifidi can be tricky muscles to tune into as their engagement creates a more subtle sensation of stabilisation compared to the muscle burn we might be used to feeling in say a bicep curl or a squat!

Nevertheless these stabilising muscles play a very important role in maintaining good hip and lower back alignment and creating a seamless fluid transition between movements making us more efficient and less prone to injury in daily activities and sport. These muscles are also particularly useful to look at when it comes to rehabilitation after a period of lower back pain.

So now that you are a bit more familiar with the actions of these muscles and how to enagage them in simple postures (if you need a recap click here) let’s take a look at three of my favourite core stabilisation exercises that I use regularly with my clients:

 

Supine opposite arm to leg extensions

Start by lying on your back with your knees bent, feet on the floor hipwidth apart and parallel in constructive rest pose. Bring your fingertips to the skin just to the inside of your frontal hip points. To engage the deep lower abdominal muscles, imagine you’re trying to narrow the hip-points and at the same time zipper the skin of the lower belly in and up towards the naval. The skin under your fingertips should tighten and draw down slightly as the lower back stays in a neutral position.

You will feel your breathe move more into your chest as the belly remains still.  Breathing naturally and maintaining the awareness of the lower belly bracing on your next inhale extend opposite arm to leg out along the floor. As you exhale return to the starting position, arms by your sides, knees bent. Then inhale to switch sides. Continue to go side to side with the breath for about 1 minute.

As you do this movement avoid letting the hips rock or the lower back overarch or flatten. The arms and legs are moving but the torso, lower back and pelvis remain still throughout.

To make this movement more challenging, you can explore hovering the heel away from the floor.

Supine opposite arm to leg extension pose

 

Toe Taps

For toe taps start by lying on your back, bringing your knees up over your hips, shins parallel to the floor and the feet flexed, as if you were sitting in a chair.

Avoid allowing your lower back to hyper-arch away from the floor but also do not flatten your lower back down – try to find a neutral curve in your lower back. At the same time, bring your hands to the skin to the inside of your hip points. Feel for narrowing the frontal hip points and drawing the lower belly in and up. Both these actions will ensure that the transverse abdominals and the multifidi are switching on.

Inhale, and as you exhale lower your right foot towards the floor, tapping the toes whilst keeping the knee bent and minimising any movment in the lower back or hips. On an inhale return to the starting position. Continue going side-to-side for about 1 minute.

If this proves difficult to control and your lower back is starting to over-arch or your abdominals start to bulge out, explore not lowering the legs as far, maybe hovering the foot a few inches from the floor as you lower.

Alternatively if this becomes easy and you want more challenge try straightening out the leg that you lower, floating the leg 1-2 inches off the floor, all the while keeping your lower back, hips and torso still and steady.

 

Toe Taps

 

 

Bird-dog

Start in an all-fours position. Knees hip-width apart and hands under your shoulders with the fingers spread and knuckles rooting into the mat. Gently draw the shoulder blades down the back away from your ears.

Feel for bringing your spine into a neutral position (use a mirror if needed) with its natural, neutral curves intact. Become aware of a long line of energy from the crown of your head out to your tailbone.

To engage the the lower abdominal muscles imagine you are narrowing your waist as if to tie up a belt a couple of extra notches, and at the same time zipper the lower belly from the pubic bone up to the naval. Maintain this abdominal bracing as you continue to breathe steadily in and out through your nose.

Keeping your lower back long in neutral (don’t allow it to overarch), on an inhale slide your right leg back behind you. Lift the leg only as far as you can whilst maintaining length in your lower back and keeping your hips square to the floor.

For more challenge you can reach the opposite arm forwards, spinning the palm to face inwards (like you’re going to shake someone’s hand) keeping the shoulders away from the ears.

Hold for 5 breaths. As you next exhale lower the right leg (and arm if lifted) back to the starting position. Inhale to switch sides. You can also vary this work by moving more fluidly with the breath, going side-to-side for about 1 minute.

Bird-dog

 

Image credits: Tummee 

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