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Have you ever seen – like, really, actually paid attention to – what yogis can do? From holding their own body weight in crazy contortions to performing push-ups (chaturangas) seemingly every few minutes throughout class, yoga’s strength is often totally underrated. In fact, it’s often not until people take their first yoga class until they realize how much strength it actually requires! 

Yoga for Strength

Can yoga help you build strength?

Absolutely. However, the amount of strength that yoga helps you build is directly related to the type and level of class you take, so be mindful of your strength-training goals when choosing the classes that you take.

How does yoga help you build strength?

Yoga is a combination of meditation, breathwork, flexibility, and strength training in the form of bodyweight training. Studies have proven that bodyweight training is just as effective as weight training for gaining muscle mass and leaning fat.

You don’t have to be strong to take a yoga class – yoga isn’t about the pose, it’s about the journey to and into the pose – just showing up on your mat is all it takes; the strength will follow.

Which type of yoga is best for strength building?

Any type of yoga class that requires you to hold your body’s own weight will be best for building strength. Usually, the following classes will require considerable strength. These are ordered from lesser strength requirements to most:

1. Vinyasa Flow

Vinyasa flows are generally all-level classes (unless otherwise specified) and are totally customizable – always feel free to modify. You’ll do a lot of Sun Salutations, which are basically yoga push-ups coupled with a flow that brings the heart rate up.

There will usually be an even balance of flexibility and strength training in Vinyasa classes, and often a bit more “play time” where the instructor will offer inversions practice, arm balance practice, or a rest.

2. Power Yoga

Think of Power Yoga as Vinyasa on steroids – it usually moves a bit faster, yet holds the bodyweight poses (such as planks, hovering in push up, etc) for a bit longer.

There is usually more focus on consistent movement (cardiovascular) and strength than on flexibility.

3. Any Arm Balance Workshop/Class

Arm balances require you to put all your bodyweight into your hands, instead of your feet. They also require a SEVERE amount of core strength, which most people don’t realize until they start practicing.

How to know if you’re ready

If you can hold:

4. Any Inversion Workshop/Class

Inversions such as Pincha Mayurasana (forearm stand), handstand, and headstand all require you to support your entire body weight, upside down – so you’re working your strength and stability at the same time.

Inversions aren’t only strength-building, they’re also exhilarating – they turn your world upside down and leave you feeling energized.

You’re ready to try an inversion workshop/class if you can hold:

  • Boat pose: 30 seconds or more
  • Forearm and regular plank: 60 seconds or more
  • Dolphin pose: 30 seconds or more
  • Four-limbed staff (hover in chaturanga): 15 seconds or more

You’ll notice that these suggestions are the same as forearm balances – in arm balances, your bodyweight is parallel to the ground, so you are requiring a ton of core strength;

In inversions your bodyweight is completely perpendicular to the ground, requiring core strength coupled with trunk strength and the ability to stabilize your limbs in space.

As you extend yourself away from your center of gravity, it gets harder to stabilize. In arm balances, you are generally compressed, making your center of gravity easier to achieve, while in inversions, your limbs are extended skyward – very far from your center of gravity.

What yoga won’t help build strength?

There are dozens of kinds of yoga available on local schedules at any given time, each kind boasting its own benefits, but if you are seeking strength-building as the main component, the following types are classes you should not attend on the days that you’re feeling like flexing your muscles:

1. Yin or Restorative Yoga: a gentle class that eases the body into positions where the muscles can release tension, while breath work slows the heart rate and declutters the headspace. This is a highly relaxing class that many students will literally say they felt like they had a massage when the class if over – certainly not a strength training class!

2. Beginner Flow: usually an intro to Vinyasa Flow, with slower movements and basic walk-throughs of Vinyasa Flows to prepare you Vinyasa class.

3. Hatha Flow: Similar to a Beginner Flow, this is generally the step before Vinyasa – it’s a slower pace that is focused on connecting the breath with balance.  Sometimes there won’t even be any sun salutations!

 4. Iyengar: B.K.S Iyengar created yoga to answer to his own physical needs in the form of modifications, as he was quite ill (physically and internally). This yoga centers entirely around proper alignment of the human anatomy, and is heavy on prop use to achieve it.

Kundalini: a more devotional form of yoga that centers largely around meditation and mantra chanting; it is said to awaken all of the energy centers in  your body and it is quite energizing, but it does not focus on strength.

Why should I practice yoga for strength?

The Office of Disease Prevention & Health Promotion recommends 180 minutes per week of muscle-strengthening physical activity for healthy children and adults – that’s 60 minutes at least 3 days per week. Strength-based yoga is an excellent form of muscle-strengthening that will help you reach this target – it’s as easy as attending 3 classes per week! With our free printables in our Resource Library, you don’t even need to leave your living room to meet your quota.

Also, some people just can’t stand going to a gym and lifting weights repetitively – if you’re anything like me, you get bored and discouraged. When you’re taking yoga, you’re so immersed in the experience of the class, the flow of the breath, and the combination of movement, strength, and flexibility, that you really are not giving it any thought (until the next day, when you’re sore in places you didn’t even know you had muscles!).

Can yoga be my only strength training?

If you want it to be, yes. Your physical activity routine revolves around you, and no one else. If your yoga is making you feel good and you don’t want to touch a single weight, keep on keepin’ on with your chaturangas! I personally only practice yoga for my strength (as opposed to any additional weight training or lifting), and I find that it serves my body – physically and mentally – best.

The Best Yoga Poses to Build Strength

If you are more of a stay-at-home yogi, you can include these postures in your practice regularly to build strength over time:

Lower body strength:

High lunge:

  • Start in Mountain Pose.
  • Step you left leg behind you about 2.5 feet with your heel lifted.
  • Rotate your hips so they are equally aligned and facing forward.
  • Reach through your chest and lift your arms up overhead.

Chair

  • Start in Mountain Pose with your feet together and palms facing forward.
  • Begin to balance your weight onto the heels of your feet as you sink your seat down towards the ground, keeping a straight spine and lifted chest.
  • Raise your arms up overhead and sink deeper with each exhale, being mindful to keep knees and hips even.

Goddess Squat

  • From Mountain Pose, step your feet out wide with your toes facing outward and heels inward.
  • Ground through your feet, then sink your seat until your thighs are parallel to the ground.
  • Bring your arms into cactus arms or straight up overhead while lifting through your chest.
  • Sink deeper with each exhale.

Warrior II

  • From Goddess Pose turn your left foot to face the front of your mat, and your back foot in a 3 o’ clock position.
  • Rotate your torso forward and lift your arms up into the air as you lift through your chest.
  • Your front leg should be bent at a 90 degree angle and both feet should be grounded.

Core and trunk strength:

Plank

  • Start on all fours with your hands under your shoulders and fingers spread.
  • Step one foot back at a time with your legs together.
  • Engage your core and slightly pull up through your belly button, making sure to create a straight line of energy in your spine.
  • Ensure to keep your hands inline with your shoulders and keep your gaze slightly forward.

Boat

  • Start in a seated position with your legs straight out in front of you.
  • Bend one knee at a time, still keeping your feet flat on the ground. Place your hands slightly behind your hips.
  • Begin to lift one leg at a time while you lean back slightly until you start to feel your core engage.
  • Bring both feet up to a 90 degree position and bring your arms straight along your sides. Lift through your chest.
  • You can stay here or straighten your legs for more of a challenge!

Superman

  • Start lying face down on the ground, and stretch your arms out in front of you.
  • Take a deep inhale, then on your exhale, lift everything off the ground as much as you can.
  • Stretch through your fingertips, your chest, actively try to lift your thighs off the ground while extending through your toes.
  • Be conscious to keep your shoulders away from your ears.

Dolphin

  • Start on all fours with hands on the ground shoulder width apart and toes tucked.
  • Come down onto your forearms, with either hands parallel or clasped together.
  • On your exhale, push your hips back as you would in Downward Facing Dog.
  • Engage you core and continue to extend through your heels and send your hips back, balancing the weight between your upper body, core, and legs.

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Upper body strength:

Forearm plank

  • Start on all fours with hands parallel, then come down to your forearms.
  • One at a time, send your feet back to straighten out behind you, touching together.
  • Engage your core and lift through your belly button, maintaining a flat back.

Side plank

  • Start on all fours with hands underneath shoulders.
  • Step one foot back at a time straight out behind you to come into Plank Pose.
  • From here, move your weight onto the right side of your body as you begin to float your left hand into the air, pivoting onto the side of your right foot, stack your left foot on top.
  • Lift up through your hips and float your chest open, looking up towards your left hand.

**For a modification, you can bring you right knee onto the ground, or plant both sides of your feet on the ground instead of stacking them.

Chaturanga

  • Start on all fours, then come into a plank.
  • Hug your elbows in towards your sides, and make sure your entire body is engaged.
  • Slightly float your body forward with your toes as you bend your elbows to a 90 degree angle and hover the ground.
  • Keep your elbows tucked and be mindful not to collapse your chest.

To learn more about modifications for chaturanga for beginners, read our article Why is Chaturanga So Hard?

Crow Pose

  • Start in Yogi Squat Pose, or Malasana.
  • From here, plant your hands out in front of you, parallel to each other.
  • Begin to shift your weight by allowing your knees to rest on your upper arms, squeezing in towards each other. You arms should have a slight bend in them.
  • Try experimenting lifting one leg off the ground at a time until you feel you have found a good balance.

This one might take some time to learn. Allow yourself to have fun while building your upper body strength!

 

 Things to Keep in Mind When Combining Strength Training and Yoga

  • It’s not you – it is hard. Don’t get discouraged! Remember that the only people that tell you that yoga is easy are the ones that are either taking easy classes or have never taken it at all.
  • Yoga doesn’t have to be about building physical strength. If that is your goal, that’s great, but yoga is also about building mental strength and emotional resilience. Even if that’s all you walk away with, that’s strength in its own right!
  • You’re not going to be a bodybuilder. Yoga strength is a functional strength, not a pile it on for a body competition strength. Yoga works the entire body as one, so your muscles intuitively balance and counterbalance each other. You will have a balanced, strong figure, not a spot-strengthened figure.
  • Time constraints exist. If you don’t have 60-90 minutes to spare 3x per week for a yoga class, you may decide that a quick weight session is more practical for you.
  • Don’t push yourself TOO hard. You just watched your mat neighbor go from a headstand, jump back into a double push-up, then somehow finish in an arm balance… while you’re still attempting to hold plank.  This is your practice, and the only thing that matters is what’s happening within the four corners of your mat.