Yoga isn’t all about being zen and meditative – some forms of it are as sweaty and strength building as a weights class! We ask the experts to explain how to use yoga to get stronger physically, as well as mentally.
Yoga is easy – that’s the impression I always got from social media or films. Despite never having been sporty, I assumed that yoga, unlike other forms of fitness, couldn’t be hard and as such, took my first yoga class a few years ago filled with misplaced confidence. How wrong I’d been!
I couldn’t hold a downward dog for longer than 10 seconds and the transitions definitely weren’t as easy as they’d looked when the teacher had given us a demo. Every class I’d seen on a screen looked zen and relaxing, with everyone effortlessly transitioning into each pose without a drop of sweat on their body. But the truth is – as I quickly discovered – yoga can be a brilliant form of strength training.
Yoga isn’t easy
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We often hear about the mental side of the practice and how staying present, meditating and staying still can be the most challenging parts, but for many of us, the sheer physical strength required to hold poses such as crow (Bakasana), wheel (Chakrasana) and eagle (Garudasana) can be tricky.
For teacher and influencer Sanchia Legister, yoga wasn’t something that came easily – despite being a trained performer.“I took it up from a wellbeing perspective,” she tells Stylist, “but I also went to The Central School of Performance and Drama, a performing arts university which was intense, so yoga supported other elements of my degree while giving me that mind-body awareness”. After a break, Sanchia eventually returned to the mat.
“I was probably doing it all wrong. I remember being really confused, like breathing in when you should be breathing out,” she says of her practice before. On her return, she still found yoga really hard. “I was sweating…dripping with sweat!” she recalls. “It was really, really hard and I was massively surprised at that. But I thought, I better stick at it because physically, it was making me feel better.”
Which type of yoga to choose
Yoga can feel sticky and sweaty, with certain forms of yoga being better for strength building than others. Take ashtanga yoga (AKA power yoga). It’s a fitness-based take on vinyasa-style yoga, with studios emphasising its impact on strength and flexibility.
Ashtanga became popular in the mid-1990s as a way for teachers to move away from the traditional sequence. By adding power yoga to your fitness routine, you can expect to make significant strides in terms of strength and conditioning. In fact, a 2012 study showed that older women who completed two 60-minute power yoga sessions a week for eight months had better leg press strength than women who swerved the mat altogether.
Temperatures in a hot yoga room can range from about 33°C to 40°C and while there may be all kinds of strength benefits associated, if you’re pregnant or have pre-existing health conditions, you’re probably better off sticking with cooler forms of movement. By practicing in hot rooms, you can look forward to developing greater muscular strength, with a 2015 study concluding that it increases lower-body strength.
One type of hot yoga is Bikram, which consists of 26 poses and two breathing sequences which are done in the same order each and every time.
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How to get stronger via yoga
1. Take up other forms of strength training alongside yoga.
Sanchia recommends calisthenics and barre. Calisthenics focuses on variations of bodyweight exercises that are usually grounded in one spot (think jumping jacks, squats and planks). Barre, a workout technique inspired by elements of ballet, yoga, and pilates, can help to build core strength.
2. Modify some of your poses.
Making changes to some of the poses can mean increasing the difficulty level and getting better muscle engagement. Try combining Chaturanga (the slow descent from a plank to the floor, elbows in) with a push-up. Once you’re comfortable with this, try a one-legged Chaturanga push-up.
3. Don’t always go for fast yoga classes – practice slower yoga too.
“There’s this misconception that you’re not going to build up any heat or create a sweat with slower classes, and it couldn’t be further from the truth. I think that holding the poses and having that muscle engagement is really key,” Sanchia says. A slow, powerful vinyasa flow class, for example, will help you feel the postures deeper as you’re holding them for longer. The longer you hold or move between poses, the longer you’ll spend under tension, which is a form of progressive overloading – a strength-building technique ideal for home, bodyweight workouts.
4. Persevere and be consistent with your practice.
Being consistent with your yoga practice will help to build strength and before you know it, your practice will feel easier. If you’re finding consistency difficult, start by incorporating 10 minutes of yoga into your day and increase the length of your practice when you start to feel more comfortable. “It’s also important to accept your progress for what it is right now, accept that this is the level of strength you have right now. You’re not going to build strength up over night,” Sanchia advises.
Yoga teacher Donna Noble first took up the practice after a colleague saw a picture of Madonna doing yoga and suggested that they give yoga a try. “I struggled to build physical strength at the beginning of my journey, but I overcame these with consistent yoga practice and repetition. Through this, I was able to achieve the strength to execute some of the postures,” Donna explains.
Poses to build strength
Donna recommends practicing the Warrior poses (Virabhadrasana) for strengthening leg, ankle and foot muscles.
Warrior poses include:
- Mountain Pose: the foundation of all standing poses, you stand feet slightly apart, arms down, palms facing forwards. Engage your thigh muscles, lift the knee caps, turn the thigh muscles slightly inwards, engage the core. Retract the shoulders, lift your sternum without flaring the ribs and keep your head still and balanced. It may look like you’re “just” standing but there’s a lot going on here.
- Warrior I: starting in mountain pose, step the right foot back as you raise your arms towards the ceiling. Bend the left knee to 90° and straighten the right leg behind you, turning the right foot out slightly to align both heels. Rotate your torso so that your hips are square towards the front of the mat. Sink into the pose and arch the back slightly to help you look up to the ceiling. Repeat on the other side.
- Warrior II: again, starting in mountain pose, take one foot back and raise your arms to be parallel to the floor – palms down. Keep the front foot facing forward and turn the back foot out so that your front heel is parallel to the arch of your back foot and bend forwards – keeping that back leg straight.
- Peaceful Warrior: same as warrior II but this time, bend backwards with your hand resting on the calf of the back, straight leg. Your other arm should be straight and pointing to the ceiling with your fingers engaged. Look up to the fingers, keeping the core, arms, legs, glutes, feet engaged.
Donna also advises regular Triangle Poses (Trikonasana), which help strengthen your quads and hamstrings, and Tree pose (Vrikshasana) which gets the whole of the lower body working.
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