People are not often convinced that yoga can build strength, but one look at some of the postures advanced practitioners of yoga can hold, should be enough to dispel that belief.
It is possible to build strength working with your own body-weight.
The fundamental difference between yoga asanas and other forms of exercise, like working with weights, is that yoga opposes violent muscle movement that builds up large amounts of lactic acid in the muscle fibres, causing fatigue. If it’s practised correctly, you should feel energized and relaxed after a yoga session, not exhausted. This is because of the stress yoga puts on breathing and relaxation in asanas, promoting the supply of oxygen and counteracting the built-up of lactic acid.
Managing your body-weight through various postures builds awareness, strength, and control. Stretches combined with correct breathing keep the muscles supple. By holding postures, the muscles gain strength and endurance, giving you a powerful and toned body. Over time, this translates into mental strength and determination.
Here are three postures that promote strength building and allow you to easily gauge your own progress.
Before you begin, make sure there’s a 3-4 hours gap from your last meal.
The chair squat
The pose of Utkatasana is exactly like sitting on an imaginary chair. It is also called powerful pose since it taps into the life energy or ‘prana’ in and around you. It may look passive, but when you practise it, you will realize how powerful it actually is. To get into the pose, begin by bringing your toes and heels together. Your big toes touching, spread the other toes out and really ground yourself firmly through your feet. Inhale, stretch both your arms straight up close to your ears. As you exhale, bend your knees (both knees touching) until your thighs are as parallel to the ground as possible. Your arms, head, shoulders and spine should be in a straight line. The effort should be to not allow your chest to stoop too forward, by keeping your abdomen tight; you will notice that your back becomes straighter. Note the effect it has on your thighs. Utkatasana builds overall body strength, especially your glutes, calves and thighs and around your ankles and knees. The pelvis is also opened up.
Stay in the pose initially for 15 seconds, gradually moving it up to 30 seconds and then a minute.
When you are done, lie on your back in Shavasana (corpse pose) for 5-10 minutes and allow each part of your body to relax.
The plank pose
In Utthita Chaturanga Dandasana (extended four-limbed staff pose), the aim is to make your body as firm and stable as a four-legged staff.
Begin with your hands and bend to touch the floor. Place your hands directly under your shoulders, shoulder-width apart. Spread your fingers out. Press the mounds of your fingers and palms firmly into the ground. Now take your legs back, one at a time. Stay on your toes, then push your heels away from you. Fix your gaze on the floor, a foot ahead of you. Do not bend your knees. Try not to allow your hips to either sink down to the ground or be too high up in the air. Activate your core strength by tightening your abdominal muscles. Also keep your buttocks and thighs tight.
It may seem tough at first, it may not be possible to hold the pose for more than a few seconds and your breath may be strained, but over time you will find yourself getting stronger, and your breathing more relaxed. Keep your focus on the length of your breath, the length of your spine and the stability of your core.
The plank is a base for many arm balances. It strengthens the arms, wrists and shoulders, as well as the core and the thighs. Try holding the pose for 15-20 seconds to begin with, and work your way up to holding for 3 minutes at a time.
This is typically a preparatory exercise to the headstand and builds strength in the arms and shoulders. Begin by sitting on your heels in Vajrasana (kneel on the ground so that the toes of both feet touch each other; sit on your heels, knees together, and spine straight in line with the neck), fold your arms and hold on to either elbow with the opposite hand. This is a way of measuring the width of your shoulders. Keeping this measurement intact, lean forward and place your elbows on the ground. Straighten out your forearms and clasp the fingers of both hands together to make a fist. Now raise your hips up and straighten your knees. You will now be on your elbows, forearms and toes. Your head should be above the space between your elbows. Inhale, and as you exhale, bring your body down, aligned to as parallel as possible to the ground. With the base of your arms acting as a lever, your chest moves forward. Keep your chin away from you. As you inhale, raise your hips up again, taking your chest back. To begin, start with five dolphins, then move it up to 10. Once you are strong enough, you can move it up to three-five sets of 10 dolphins each.
When you’re done surrender to the hare’s pose or Shashankasana: Come down on your knees and rest your chest on your thighs and head on the ground to relax your muscles.
Tara Goswami is a Delhi-based author, artist and yoga teacher, trained in the Sivananda form of yoga at the Sivananda Vedanta Nataraja Centre, New Delhi, and Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram, Kerala.