When people think about yoga, strength isn’t always the first thing that comes to mind. But this doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be a part of your practice!
Traditional asana practices often feature long holds (which build endurance) and passive stretching (which increases passive flexibility). However, as yoga evolves we’re seeing a shift towards building power and increasing active flexibility through dynamic movement. Perhaps the most distinct shift is the strength that yogis are now cultivating. This is partly spearheaded by yogis bringing in lessons and knowledge from other athletic disciplines such as dance, martial arts, and calisthenics.
The physical practice of yoga is actually quite well-suited for strength building for two reasons. The first is that it utilizes repetition. When we repeat a motion, whether it be a Chaturanga or Warrior II, we progressively fatigue our muscles which allows them to grow back stronger. Secondly, each posture in yoga has numerous modifications that allow us to make it easier or more difficult. Therefore, as yogis build strength, it’s easy to find more demanding and difficult progressions that will allow us to continue that growth. By utilizing reputation and adaptation, we’re able to achieve the principle of progressive overhead (i.e. increasing demand on the musculoskeletal system to gain strength, size, and endurance) just as we would in any other athletic discipline.
However, gaining strength in yoga requires us to actually incorporate principles from exercise science into our approach to structuring our yoga practice. So let’s discuss how learnings from gymnastics and strength training can help us create yoga flows that build strength (and allow us to master fun new skills).
To very quickly summarize (before we get into what it all actually means) –– to gain strength with yoga, we first need to think about how strength is built. Let’s try and simplify this as much as possible.
Exercise science tells us that strength is equal to neural adaptations –– how our body responds to a stimulus, plus cross-sectional muscle growth –– the size of our muscles (Lowe, 2016). The former is more influential on our overall strength (Nathaniel et al, 2017). When talking about neural adaptations, we can think in terms of motor units (motor neurons sent by the brain to the muscles), and the type of muscle fibers being activated. The two ends of the motor unit spectrum are Low Threshold Motor Units (LTMUs) and High Threshold Motor Units (HTMUs). LTMUs correspond with a slow twitch, endurance-focused muscle fibers and take a weaker electrochemical brain signal to activate. HTMUs correspond with strength and power. These innervate fast twitch muscle fibers and are activated by a higher-intensity electrical impulse in the brain. Put simply, this means that if we want to gain strength (and nail that press to handstand), we need enough stress to activate HTMUs and fast twitch muscle fibers. Still with me? Great, let’s get started!
Putting this into practice
First, let’s get this out of the way–-building strength will not make you overly muscular or necessarily decrease your flexibility (unless you’re exclusively tossing barbells overhead in the weight room). So get that powerlifter image out of your head, and think more about the lean and muscular physique of a gymnast or circus performer.
So how do we do it? And how will this be different than how yoga is usually practiced? Here are a few ideas?
1. Begin with a warm-up that doesn’t kill you.
The idea behind this approach is that part of your strength-based yoga practice is going to be putting heavier-than-usual stress on the body, which means it’s essential to warm up thoroughly without wasting energy or exhausting yourself. Just warm up until your heart rate is elevated and you’re sweating lightly. This could mean a few Sun Salutations or short flows.
2. Do some skill-based work first.
Trying to nail Eka Pada Bakasana (one-legged crow) or a freestanding handstand? Do it after your warm-up. This is going to be the time when you have the most energy and focus to work on skill-based movements. In yoga, we often put these challenging positions as peak poses at the end of a practice. While not necessarily harmful, this doesn’t allow us to approach them to our full ability since we’re often already exhausted.
Please note that there are two exceptions to this approach. Firstly, if you’re working on drills to support difficult postures (i.e. handstand holds against the wall, etc.), do that after your skill work. Secondly, if you’re working on positions that mainly require flexibility (as opposed to strength or balance), place these later in practice once you’ve spent more time opening up.
3. Add some strength-based work early on.
After warming up and working skills, now is the time for your strength work. One of the best ways to do this is with a short but challenging (think very challenging) flow that you can repeat 1-3 times. After each repetition of the flow, take a long rest in Child's pose. Make the difficulty of this mini-flow match your level, while throwing in one or two “reach” movements or postures. You/they will eventually adapt to the challenge.
4. Move through the rest of your regular practice after strength work.
After having used your maximum strength in your mini-flow, feel free to move through the rest of your practice as you usually would. This could focus on more dynamic movement, slow endurance-focused postures, breath work, or whatever other priorities you have.
5. End with additional mobility and flexibility work.
Since you’re putting extra stress on the body during your difficult strength-focused flow, be sure to end by giving those parts of the body a little extra love. If you were hand-balancing, open up the wrist joints. If you were working the core, take some time in Sphinx pose. The extra work means you’ll need a little extra cool down to assure that you’re able to avoid injury and keep up with your practice.
Yogis are able to accomplish some amazing feats. But to do so, we have to be experimental and scientific about our approach to practice. Part of this should be drawing on what we know from other disciplines. Gaining strength in yoga isn’t difficult. However, it does require us to structure our flows so that we explicitly perform the strength-focused movement at the right times, while using repetition, and adapting to use progressively harder variations of each posture as we grow.