What does it take to create a strong yoga practice?
I received a question from a student some time ago asking for my advice on how to create a strong yoga practice. The subtext was that the student felt he leaned more on the bendy side of things than on the strength side.
It’s a good question: How do you create a strong yoga practice?
What is strength?
First, we should define what we mean by “strength”. Are we talking about doing flashy transitions or gravity-defying arm balances? Or is strength something more than that?
Spoiler alert: yes, strength is more than an attachment to fancy asanas.
We create a strong yoga practice not by finding the extra “right” exercises to magically lift us up to jump through, but by cultivating consistency, patience, tenacity, and a sense of awareness.
Consider what you mean by strength and how you know or see that someone has a strong practice. Are you seeing brute “weight-lifter type” strength or are you really seeing strength of focus, determination and strength of awareness that have a particular expression in an asana because the practitioner has been applying those qualities to an individual asana over a long period of time?
Strength does come to those who practice although not perhaps on the timeline that you’d prefer.
Strength is not the opposite of flexibility
In fact, from an anatomical and kinesiological point of view, the strength available in an action or movement can be lesser if the tissues involved are in a very short, tight state. More strength in an individual muscle does not always equal more strength in a posture or in a broader “strong practice” sense of things. We could have very “strong” shoulders and upper arms in the sense of being able to pick up a very heavy object, but if those muscles were also very tight, we would be limited in the amount of strength that we could access in postures that also require a full range of motion from the shoulder girdle. Flexibility and range of motion are also tools to create a strong yoga practice.
One of the things that still surprises me about many “advanced” postures that appear to be all about strength, is how much flexibility is needed to align things in the strongest, most stable way in gravity. For example, in this photo of visvamitrasana, while you might notice right away that the pose appears to require considerable strength from the shoulder girdle, you might not notice how much flexibility of the muscles around the pelvis is required to place the body in position.
Suggestions to Create a Strong Yoga Practice
When feeling challenged by the strength required in a particular posture, look backwards
Where else in all the postures that came before the one that you’re working on does that action also occur? Chances are this is not the first place that you have met that action. Work the action you are challenged by in all the opportunities you have.
For example, are you challenged by handstands? Break down the posture. What movements are handstands made up of? Where else in practice do those movements occur? Can you work on them in other poses?
This idea of the interconnection of postures is exactly why I wrote the second half of my book, Functional Anatomy of Yoga in the way that I did. I point out how you could look at postures as being connected via their anatomical patterns. I ask the question: How does this simple version of a forward bend or backbend evolve, grow, and change into more complex versions as we advance through asana? If we get to the more advanced postures and feel stuck, have we paid enough attention to that easier version of the posture?
Don’t set yourself up with an arbitrary timeline about when things should happen. Everyone’s experience of practice is different. Things will happen in their own time. Strength does not equal aggression or force. Trying too hard can increase your chances of getting hurt.
Cultivate awareness on your mat
How do you honestly feel at any particular moment? Do you have energy to try that challenging posture one more time or are you fatigued to a point that you should stop for the day? Pushing through when you are getting clear signals from your body to stop will only increase your chances of injury and your likelihood of quitting or avoiding practice because you have created a negative association with it.
Most of all: Show up to your practice consistently
Change will happen with consistency of effort.
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David explains why stabilization and depression of the scapulae is as important as squeezing the shoulder blades together in upward dog.