Cultivating Strength in Your Yoga Practice

Strength in YogaOne of my favorite teachers was making the rounds in a crowded yoga studio, and she paused when she passed my mat.  I was deep into a pose, using all my focus to “melt deeper” and “find release” as yoga teachers are so fond of repeating.  She paused, and asked me to stand up and step off my mat.  Trusting her guidance, I stepped off, and she took my mat, replacing it with a blanket, and said, “Continue.” 

A blanket is the opposite of a yoga mat when it comes to traction, and I found myself barely able to get into the pose.  It took all my strength to support myself, and after a minute or two of struggle, she came back to my side.  “You’re falling into your flexibility, and resting on your ligaments.  Yoga is about more than flexibility.  You’re very flexible, that’s great.  Now focus on cultivating strength.  At first it’ll be a challenge to keep your footing on the blanket, but it will balance your practice.”   

Making a conscious choice to balance your practice, and incorporating strength and endurance into your yoga routine will help ensure that you’re developing the strength to support your flexibility, both on and off the mat.  Continuing to stretch and lengthen muscles without the strength to maintain stability can lead to injury.  Fortunately, there’s many simple ways to incorporate strength, balance and stability work into your yoga practice.

Yoga on a Blanket or Rug

Removing the stability of a sticky mat can be a great first step toward evaluating your strength and balance in some of your favorite yoga poses.  Without the mat, do your hands slip away from you in downward facing dog?  Perhaps you’re not generating enough lift through your hips or core engagement.  Cant maintain warrior pose?  Perhaps you need to work on strengthening and engaging your adductors, quads or posterior chain.  Be safe, and make sure you slowly attempt poses on a blanket or rug, because while the purpose it to make you work to not slip, you obviously don’t want to slip and hurt yourself.  

Holding Positions for Extended Periods

If you’re a fan of vinyasa yoga, and tend to move rapidly from one pose to the next, what’s your rush?  Try deliberately holding challenging poses for extended periods, starting with 1-2 minutes, and working your way up to as long as 15 minute holds.  Wide leg squats in goddess pose may be easy to accomplish if you’re rushing through it, but can you keep your glutes and upper back engaged during a prolonged hold?  

Practice Slow Transitions

While many positions in yoga are comfortable resting places, the journey to them is often not.  When moving from down dog to up dog, if you’re used to rushing through chaturanga, try to remember that it’s known as a “yoga push up” for a reason.  It’s supposed to be hard.  It’s supposed to engage your upper body and core, and provide a repeated challenge as you use it to transition between poses, some times dozens of times in a single yoga class.  Slow it down, master your form, and make sure you’re using your transitions as a place of instability that you slowly move through while consciously engaging your muscles. 

Repetition to Exhaustion for Endurance

Once you’ve mastered perfect form in chaturanga, and can engage your core to slowly lift your legs into the perfect headstand, it’s time to do it again.  And again.  Then maybe 3 or 4 more times.  Is it getting harder?  Good.  You’re toning and shaping your muscles through repetition of challenging poses.  Obviously you don’t want to repeat positions or transitions to the point of total exhaustion, but once you’re strong enough to complete a move in good form once, trying to repeat it a few times once you’ve already engaged and fatigued the muscles involved will build strength and endurance and improve your practice.  By working up to a few repetitions, you are ensuring that when you complete that pose or transition in the course of normal practice, you preform it flawlessly. 

Switch Up Your Routine

If you’re practicing at home, or even in a studio with the same instructor on a regular basis, likely you’re not exposed to new and challenging poses.  Your body becomes accustomed to the same sequence and routine.  In your own home practice, you’re most likely to repeat positions that you’re already good at.  It’s human nature to seek that positive reinforcement of a well executed position or sequence, and repeatedly practicing that which you’ve already mastered isn’t providing new challenge to your body.  Try out a new teacher, or a new modality.  In your home practice, pick a few poses you’ve never tried or rarely practice and focus on them for a few weeks, and then move on to a new challenge.