Yoga is a physical practice that is not only about passive stretching and endurance but also building strength. The traditional asana practices in yoga feature long holds that build endurance and passive stretching that increases passive flexibility. However, yoga is evolving, and there is a shift towards building power and increasing active flexibility through dynamic movement. Yogis are now cultivating strength, and this is partly because they are bringing in lessons and knowledge from other athletic disciplines such as dance, martial arts, and calisthenics.
Yoga is well-suited for strength building for two reasons. First, it utilizes repetition, which progressively fatigues our muscles and 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 just as we would in any other athletic discipline.
Gaining strength in yoga requires us to incorporate principles from exercise science into our approach to structuring our yoga practice. 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. Neural adaptations are more influential on our overall strength. 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, innervate fast twitch muscle fibers, and are activated by a higher-intensity electrical impulse in the brain. To gain strength and nail challenging yoga postures, we need enough stress to activate HTMUs and fast twitch muscle fibers.
To build strength, we need to think about how we structure our yoga practice. Here are a few ideas.
Begin with a warm-up that doesn’t exhaust you. A heavier-than-usual stress on the body is essential to strength-based yoga practice, and it’s important to warm up thoroughly without wasting energy or exhausting yourself. A few Sun Salutations or a short flow will suffice.
Do some skill-based work first. If you’re trying to nail challenging yoga postures, do it after your warm-up. This is the time when you have the most energy and focus on working on skill-based movements.
Add some strength-based work early on. After warming up and working on skills, it’s time for your strength work. One of the best ways to do this is with a short but challenging flow that you can repeat 1-3 times. Make the difficulty of this mini-flow match your level while throwing in one or two “reach” movements or postures.
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.
Since you’re putting an extra level of 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 the Sphinx pose. The extra work means you’ll need a little extra cool down to ensure 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 a strength-focused movement at the right times while using repetition and adapting to use progressively harder variations of each posture as we grow.
Hopefully, these quick tips can help you along your journey. Have you tried our (or a similar) approach? Let us know about your experience!
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