Building strength improves your yoga practice as well as overall health and well-being. A tighter core, strong legs and arms allow you to practice arm balances, inversions and more with ease. Yoga postures themselves are a great way to improve strength and endurance. A regular practice will even convert fat into muscle strength. Let’s look at how yoga can help you build strength.
Some people come to yoga classes looking to improve flexibility, while others who are already quite flexible need to work on their strength and stability. For beginners, building flexibility and strength will both happen as a natural process. Through regular practice, you will begin to strengthen major muscle groups (core, arms, legs, back) as well as supporting muscles that you probably didn’t even know existed! Along with this, yoga will strengthen the mind, helping you build perseverance and willpower.
Poses like dolphin push-ups, plank and boat are a great place to start. Many postures will tighten your stomach and strengthen your back, while certain cleansing practices will stimulate all the abdominal organs.
Why is it helpful to build strength
Apart from supporting you in achieving the advanced arm balances and inversions, strength improves your overall health. It allows the body to produce higher levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), also known as the “good cholesterol” in your body, increases your bone density, and even mental strength. It also improves stamina, endurance and immunity, thus improving quality of life.
Different types of yoga for strength
Dynamic styles of yoga like Ashtanga and Vinyasa are particularly good for strength building. Some would even say they are equivalent to doing a lot of reps of body-weight exercises.
Repeating postures and holding time is particularly helpful. For example, doing 12 rounds of Sun Salutations at a fast pace and then slowly increasing the reps to 18 and then 24 and so on, will go a long way in toning muscles. Such sequences work on every part and every muscle group in the body.
Apart from this, Hatha yoga and Yin yoga, where postures are held for a long duration are great for building muscle endurance. They push the practitioners to go beyond limitations, building new muscle memory. Once energy is used, the body automatically taps into the stored fat, thus converting fat to strength. So a combination of both types - faster sequences (that work like a cardio workout) and slow-paced longer holds are good for strength building.
Yoga postures for strength
A part of the Surya Namaskar sequence, this posture helps build strength in the core, shoulders, arms and legs. As you move into plank, inhale deeply, broaden the chest and as you exhale, engage the abs to strengthen the pose. You can do challenging versions like lifting your left foot off the ground and pointing your left foot straight back, engaging your left thigh and calf, or lifting your left hand and moving it in front of you and lightly, touching it to your right shoulder.
How to do plank pose:
- Come to your hands and knees on your yoga mat with your shoulders directly over your wrists. The knees should be a little further back in preparation for straightening the legs.
- Tuck your toes under and straighten your legs.
- Spread your fingers wide to distribute your weight throughout your palm.
- Avoid locking your elbows since this is hard on your joints. Softening your elbows just a little bit allows the support muscles around the joint to kick in.
- When the hips are in the correct potions (neither too high nor too low), you can trace a diagonal line from the crown of your head to your heels.
- If you can’t maintain this form, drop your knees to the floor as you build strength.
Side plank pose
This posture rotates the body 90 degrees from a traditional plank to strengthen the sides of your abs, waist and back. Keep the chest open, ensuring you aren’t collapsing into the shoulder closest to the floor. Expand your chest when you inhale and strengthen through the abs on your exhales.
How to do side plank pose:
- From Plank, shift your weight onto your right arm and simultaneously roll onto the outside of your right foot.
- Keep both of your legs straight. Bring your left foot on top of the right. You can also place the feet one behind the other if that's more comfortable.
- Lift your left arm up towards the ceiling and your gaze towards the left fingertips.
- After 3 to 5 breaths, come back to the center and repeat this on the other side.
This movement is a full-body exercise that builds immense strength. Ensure that the elbows stay shoulder-width apart and do not point outward.
How to do dolphin push-ups:
- From the forearm plank, walk your feet forward slightly. Similarly to the downward facing dog, you will raise the buttocks such that your body forms an inverted ‘V’. You can also interlock your palms. Make sure your elbows are not falling outwards.
- Let the head be straight between the forearms. Keep the neck straight and long.
- Keep your core engaged. Toes are tucked or feet are flat on the mat.
- Now move the hips forward and backward a few times. Try to coordinate with the breath.
Four-armed staff pose
Known as Chaturanga Dandasana, this posture improves arm strength, shoulders, back, and core as well. It is essentially like a push-up. Try doing 3-5 in a row. Beginners can drop the knees on the mat too.
How to do four-armed staff pose:
- From Plank, shift your weight forward into your toes so that your shoulders come in front of your wrists.
- Slowly bend your elbows straight back to lower your chest toward the floor.
- Stop lowering when your shoulders are in line with your elbows or above the elbows. Do not let the shoulders dip toward the floor or come anywhere near to touching the floor.
Perfect for building arm, shoulder and ab strength, this posture is empowering. Beginners can keep the toes on the mat or on a wall for support and simply lean forward onto your upper arms without actually putting your full weight onto them. Keep the spine straight and look at a spot in front of you about one foot in front of your hands. Engage your abs and imagine every muscle in your body is connected to your core and tighten them.
How to do crow pose:
- Place the palms shoulder-width apart on the floor, spread the fingers wide
- Bring the knees close to the armpits, as high as you can
- Press into the palms, keeping the hips high. Slowly, come on to the toes.
- Look forward and not down.
- Now, breath in and slowly bring one heel to the buttock and then lift the other leg up.
This is one of the best core and ab strengtheners. Introducing dynamic movement into the pose makes it function more like a crunch. To do this, lower on an exhalation as if you were going to lie down on the floor but keep your shoulders and heels hovering above the floor. This is called Low Boat. Then sit back up into the High Boat in an inhalation. Try moving up and down five to ten times, keeping your toes active the whole time. You can do cycle the legs once in the posture or make criss-cross movements.
How to do boat pose:
- Sit with your knees bent, the soles of your feet flat on your mat, and your hands resting lightly on either side of you. This position helps you feel your tailbone, which acts as the balancing point for the pose.
- Lean back a little bit to lift your feet off the floor. Keep your knees bent and bring your shins parallel to the floor.
- If it helps you keep your torso up, you can hold on to the backs of your thighs with your hands. If you can maintain a tight V without holding on, let go and bring your arms level with your shoulders. Your palms can be facing each other, turned up, or turned down, whichever feels better.
- Straighten your legs only if you can maintain the position of your thighs and torso when doing so.
- Move back and forth between Boat and Low Boat to build more core strength.
This asana strengthens the legs, core, arms, and back. To get the most out of it, try to increase the holding time to about ten long breaths.
How to do warrior 2:
- Set up with your right foot at the front of your mat and left foot at the back. Your left foot is tuned out 90 degrees (or slightly less) and the hip points are facing the left side of your mat.
- Align your front heel and back arch, and bend the right knee so that it comes directly over the right ankle and your thigh is as close to parallel with the floor as possible.
- Keep your shoulders over your hips and extend your right arm forward and left arm back, parallel to the floor. Your head faces the front of your mat. Take five to ten deep breaths while maintaining your alignment.
- Repeat the same with the other foot forward.
Other practices for strength
Apart from yoga asanas, breathwork is a great way to improve strength. It works on strengthening the core, muscles and oxygen usage.
Frontal lobe cleansing or Kapal Bhati
This practice impacts the abdomen while also helping manage weight, blood sugar and stress levels. The front and back movement of the stomach works towards strengthening the muscles. It also activates the core, especially the transversus abdominus, a deep muscle that is often weak or underactive. Furthermore, Kapal Bhati also ignites the digestive fire, having a profound impact on the digestive system.
This breathwork engages the abdominal muscles extensively. The contraction and expansion that happens with each deep breath also engages the torso and rib cage. It expands forward, back, and to the sides so there is a lengthening of the transverse abdominis muscles and obliques every time you breathe in. This means with abdominal breathing you strengthen your deep and side-core muscles every time you inhale.
How to do Abdominal Breathing:
- Lie down on your mat in the corpse pose (Svanasana). Place one hand on the middle of the upper chest. Place the other hand on the stomach, just beneath the rib cage but above the diaphragm.
- Inhale and slowly breathe in through the nose, drawing the breath down toward the stomach. The stomach should push upward against the hand, while the chest remains still.
- To exhale, tighten the abdominal muscles and let the stomach fall downward while exhaling through pursed lips. Again, the chest should remain still. Practice 5-7 rounds or as many as you can.
- You can also do this in a seated position with your spine erect.
There are many more yoga practices that help build strength. Join a yoga class with an experienced teacher and automatically your strength building will happen in a progressive way. Always listen to your body and do as much as you can. Over time you will begin to notice your strength increasing greatly. Use the breath to coordinate movements and be mindful of any sensations or feelings throughout the practice.