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.

The Pursuit of Poses: A Shift in Perspective

A young Vicky in love with arm balances.

 

When I first began my yoga practice, I was both fascinated and captivated by the postures. Many of the yoga books attributed miraculous healing benefits and outcomes to each pose. However, as my journey into yoga evolved I started to realise that striving for ever advanced poses can be fraught with frustration.

 

The body waxes and wanes, your practice goes through peaks and troughs. Some days a pose is readily available, and some days a pose you used to be able to do mysteriously disappears from your repertoire. To base your sense of satisfaction and achievement on the relative ease (or not) with which you could attain these outward forms was like chasing a mirage.

 

As a teacher I witnessed how seductive the pursuit of poses could be and in many ways, as I reflect back on my earlier teaching years, I perhaps inadvertently encouraged it. I taught many classes that were all geared towards preparing you for some sort of ‘peak pose’ – usually an intermediate/advanced level arm balance or deep backbend. I tried to instill a message of finding joy in the journey but I do sometimes wonder if the message got lost along the way, that students felt an unconscious pressure to ‘get somewhere’ in their practice.

 

At this point, I want to say that I do believe in exploring, challenging and having fun with testing our physical and mental boundaries, whether that be through exploring a difficult yoga posture, training for a marathon or practicing cartwheels in your garden. My concern is that we don’t mistake the reward for the pose rather we recognise that the real pleasure and growth lies in the journey, the many pathways and detours we make towards it.

 

“Yoga is not about touching your toes, but about what you learn on the way down there.” ~ Judith Hanson Lasater

 

This quote speaks to the understanding that the poses are just tools, vehicles if you like for helping to light up and bring awareness to different experiences on all levels – physical, mental, energetic and even emotional.  What does the pose teach us about ourselves and our habits and tendencies? What does this pose have to offer us in terms of getting us to know ourselves better?

 

In truth, the process of learning to do something wonderful and crazy in your body (such as going upside-down, or balancing on one leg) is actually way more interesting and fun than the actual ‘doing’ of the pose. Even if we get a glimpse of satisfaction and achievement when we finally nail that handstand, human nature says that once we’ve learnt how to do something we quickly get bored and look to the next thing. This is not bad – constantly looking forwards is how we grow and evolve – it can just get a bit disheartening if you’re not aware of what’s happening.

 

A lot of my students tell me they want to learn the right way to do a pose – the correct technique. I always struggle with how to let them down gently. There is no right way. There is no neat list of cues that we can happily fit into a box called Downward-Facing Dog (DWD). This can be an inconvenient and uncomfortable realisation for those of us who like to have all the answers (basically me). In truth there are a million and one ways to do DWD depending on your skeletal structure and your intentions behind why you’re doing the pose in the first place. This lack of clarity around alignment can be confusing and frustrating for new students – they don’t want to get it wrong, they don’t want to get injured. And yet this is even further evidence to me that the way yoga is often taught may be missing the whole point entirely.

 

Downward-Facing Dog – annoyingly there is no one ‘right’ way to do this pose!

 

I humbly suggest that as teachers we need to empower our students to believe that they have the intuitive wisdom to align themselves in a way that feels integrated, strong and whole. This ability to feel into our bodies and discern and make sense of what we’re feeling and sensing can be a long and sometimes difficult process. In our analytical, logical, cerebrally-centered world many of us have learnt to ignore and shut down the messages of the body and yet what is yoga, if not the art and science of developing of getting to know ourselves better? This developing of self-awareness may in fact be the very best thing we can do for our health and well-being.

 

In my private sessions I am learning to be a little less prescriptive in my cueing (it is still work in progress).  Rather than saying  ‘Put your foot here, turn your shoulder this way – I invite students to try things, to see what gives them the greatest sense of space, strength and stability. “What would it feel like to widen your feet?”  “How can you place your arm to give you the greatest sense of opening in your shoulder?”

 

Rather than there being a wrong or a right way to do a pose – how about exploring many ways of doing something and finding the one that gives you the greatest sense of ease, whole body integration and strength?

Rather than the yoga teacher now being the “guru” or expert who supposedly knows all the answers, the teacher serves as a guide, asking questions along the way, helping the student to find their own answers.

 

Teaching in this way invites the student to see the practice as an internal experience, and a practice of self-enquiry, it creates an environment of playfulness and curiosity and ultimately reminds the student that they are the true authority on their body, not their yoga teacher, their physio or their massage therapist.

 

This type of learning comes from an inwardly directed force, rather than an externally directed dictate and it opens us to the realisation that there is no end goal, just this moment, this breath, this movement and the next time you step onto the mat it will all be different.

 

“We don’t use our body to get into a pose,

We use the pose to get into our body. ~Bernie Clark

 

 

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