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Building strength is a beneficial byproduct of participating in a regular yoga practice. You often don’t realize just how intensely your muscles are working in the most foundational poses. Think about how many muscles it takes just to work your way into alignment for Tadasana (Equal Standing Pose). It may appear that you're just standing upright effortlessly, however, while standing in Tadasana a multitude of muscles work together engaging from the neck all the way down to the toes.
Throughout an entire yoga practice, you engage, breathe, lengthen, release, and repeat in order to transition from Asana (pose) to Asana. Each of these complex movements helps build both physical strength in your body as well as the mental strength required to consciously flow from one Asana to another with present moment and full body awareness.
Learning new, particularly difficult Asanas can be discouraging, but by strengthening some key muscle groups in the body you’ll be able to dive deeper into your yoga practice than you ever thought possible.
The following seven yoga poses offer a variety of ways to strengthen your arms, core, legs, back, and mind. By working with these poses regularly, you will begin to develop the basic strength necessary for many of the Asanas seen in typical yoga classes. Bonus: strong and flexible muscles help keep the body healthy and youthful.
If you’re new to yoga, start by working your way into the variations listed below and advancing gradually. If you’re familiar with the poses listed below and can easily access them with proper alignment, try holding them a little longer than you typically do. Take note of the key muscle groups working synergistically for the duration of your hold while maintaining a steady mind and body.
Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)
Why Adho Mukha Svanasana? Downward facing dog helps increase the range of motion in the shoulders while strengthening the arms and upper body. By pressing the hands into the mat, the arms lengthen and the outer upper arms (biceps) engage.
How to do it: Begin on your hands and knees, otherwise known as a table top position. Your hands will be directly under the shoulders and your knees will be directly under the hips. Engage your belly so the back side of the body is neither rounded nor sinking toward the mat. Walk your hands about six inches in front of you. Tuck your toes under and lift your hips up and back so that your body resembles an upside down V shape. Spread your fingers wide on the mat and press down with all four corners of your hands. Draw the sit bones up and back simultaneously and release your heels to the mat as far as they will go.
Variation: If bearing weight on your arms and wrists causes you discomfort, try downward-facing dog using a chair. Place your hands on the back of a chair. Walk backwards until your arms are straight, parallel to the ground, and your ears are in the center of your upper arms. Engage the biceps and draw the outer edges of your arms down toward the floor.
Ardha Chaturanga Dandasana (Plank Pose)
Why Ardha Chaturanga Dandasana? Plank pose is a great way to build wrist, arm, abdominal, shoulder, and back strength. When in proper alignment, all of these muscles groups are fully engaged and working diligently to maintain a straight line on the entire backside of the body.
How to do it: Begin on your hands and knees (table top position). Tuck your toes and lift your hips so you make a straight line on the entire backside of the body. With your shoulders stacked over your wrists, engage your arms by keeping a tiny micro bend in the elbows, and draw your shoulders back toward your feet. Engage your abdominal muscles by drawing your naval in toward your spine.
Variation: Release your knees to the mat.
Navasana (Boat Pose)
Why Navasana? Navasana strengthens the hip flexors, abdominal muscles, and thigh muscles. The key is to balance on your sit bones and maintain a straight spine. If you find yourself rounding in the lower back, then try some of the variations below.
How to do it: Begin by sitting with your knees bent about hips distance apart and your feet flat on the mat. Find your way up to your sit bones with a straight spine and lengthened neck. Draw your arms up so they are parallel to the mat and your fingers are reaching in front of you. Lift your legs up like a V and point your toes. Engage your abdominal muscles by drawing the naval into the spine, and lift your chest.
Variations: There are many variations to this posture. The best one for beginners is to keep the feet flat on the mat and the hands on the backs of the thighs. Focus on sitting up on your sit bones and finding a straight spine. To go deeper in the pose, lift your arms parallel to the mat and extend through the fingertips. To go even deeper, lift your feet off the mat but keep the knees bent so that the shins are parallel to the mat.
Utkatasana (Chair Pose)
Why Utkatasana? Utkatasana strengthens the legs and the knees.
How to do it: Start standing with your feet together. Press your feet into the mat and begin to sink into the hips and bend into the knees as if you were sitting back into a chair. Extend your arms overhead so they are parallel toward one another and next to your ears. Engage your core and release your shoulders down your back.
Variation: Use a wall for support. Slide your back down a wall until you feel the engagement of the thighs and calves. Extend your arms parallel to the floor or overhead so they are next to your ears.
Vrksasana (Tree Pose)
Why Vrksasana? Vrksasana strengthens the thighs, calves, ankles, and spine. By adding balance poses to your practice, you will begin to strengthen your muscles and waver less.
How to do it: Begin in an equal standing position. Distribute all of your weight onto one leg; then take the opposite foot and place it either below the knee on the inner calf or above the knee on the inner thigh. Avoid placing the foot on the knee joint. Press the foot into the inner calf or inner thigh and create a counter balance by pressing your thigh or calf into the foot. This will help engage the thigh of the standing leg. Take your hands to the heart center in a prayer position or extend your arms toward the sky so they are parallel to one another alongside your ears.
Variation: Place your foot on the inner edge of the standing foot so that the ball of the foot on the bended leg is still using the floor as support instead of putting all of your weight on the standing leg. Another variation is to use a chair or a counter top with your hand to support you while you build the leg strength to bear all of your weight on the standing leg.
Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose)
Why Setu Bandha Sarvangasana? This backbend strengthens the back and thigh muscles. It’s also calming to the mind.
How to do it: Start by lying on your back with your knees bent and your feet about hips distance apart. Stack your knees over your ankles. Both shoulders, the entire length of your arms, and the back of your head are on the floor. Press your feet into the mat as you lift your hips up toward the ceiling. To build strength in the thigh muscles, draw the inner thighs down toward the mat. To build strength in your back muscles, maintain the natural curve of the back of the neck and draw your shoulders further under your body and toward one another. Open your chest toward the ceiling.
Variation: Place a block underneath the low back sacrum to release some of the weight on the thighs and shoulders.
Sukhasana (Easy Pose)
Why Sukhasana? Sukhasana is a balancing and stabilizing asana that’s great for meditation and strengthening the mind.
How to do it: Find your way up onto your sit bones and cross your legs at the ankles. Rest the backs of your hands on your knees with palms toward the sky for more receiving, or place your palms down on your knees for more grounding. Draw your shoulder blades toward one another and release them down your back. Lengthen the crown of your head toward the sky. Close your eyes and breathe.
Variation: If you notice your knees are up higher than your waist, and you’re rounding in the lower back, sit on top of a block, blanket, or meditation pillow to allow the knees to release further toward the floor and the hips to open.