Adam Hocke talks to Rakhee Jasani about yoga and strength. How it is vitally important to keep us healthy in the long-term.
What do you think of when you hear the word strength? For many of us strength can have very specific connotations. For me, it conjures up a physical robustness that I can sometimes equate with an extreme. So in all honesty, when I think of building strength, in my mind I think of superhuman feats of endurance combined with physical fatigue. I don’t often think of yoga. This got me thinking more about strength and as I began to put together The Strength Challenge, I wanted to find out more. So I turned to one of my teachers, Adam Hocke to try and understand more about strength as it relates to yoga.
What is strength as it relates to yoga?
Yoga isn’t just about flexibility – strength is a crucial part of the mind and body equation. We can look at strength in a variety of ways as it relates to Asana practice. There are four main areas that come to mind.
We can look at strength purely in a muscular way – essentially, what’s happening when we think of muscles contracting. In Yoga that would be our ability to support our body weight in poses like plank, downward-facing dog, standing balances, arm balances, handstands and basically anything where we have to stabilise against the force of gravity. We could think about strength joint by joint; wrists have to be strong to help us bear weight, as do the elbows, the hips, the shoulders and the ankles. In short, strength in asana is everything that helps us bear the weight of our body in a variety of different positions in opposition to the force of gravity.
Strength and Flexibility
I also want us to think about strength in terms of how it relates to flexibility. Without strength and coordination, we don’t really have control of our flexibility. It’s when we’re not in control that movements can go too far too quickly, potentially in a way that we could injure ourselves. We can combine strength and flexibility to build mobility which means an active, strong, and coordinated range of motion.
Strength and Resilience
Strength is also what we might think of as another way of describing resilience: physical, mental and emotional, and that is mainly to do with our ability to bounce back from setbacks. Remember we are not training to become invincible, but rather to be resilient enough to get back up when we fall over literally or metaphorically. Endlessly practising crow pose, or your challenge of choice, is not going to build your inner resilience unless you combine that practice with a sense of humour and an attitude of self-compassion and patience through difficulty.
Strength in the Teachings
There is also a strength that we can derive from the teachings of the dharma or the great traditions of yoga philosophy. Remember this strength is there for us to fall back on when things get tough. This strength can support us through life, because we know that whatever happens to us is part of our path of awakening. We are never alone in our adversity for we have the wisdom of thousands of years of teachers and practitioners to hold us up.
Do I need to do more than yoga to build strength?
If you have a wide range of physical activity: you run, climb, go to the gym, do pilates, then you are probably already taking care of all your movement and strengthening needs.
A lot of people, however, use yoga for their primary form of movement and exercise. If that is the case, it’s important that the way you practise postural yoga develops strength through your whole body and progressively adds variable load, resistance, and demand to each joint. Yoga is a bit limited by only using body weight so you will need to get creative!
And please hear this: yoga is not a good way to develop cardiovascular strength. It will be far more efficient to run, cycle, or swim.
So, how do we build strength in yoga?
Standing poses, balance postures, arm balances, inversions, chaturangas, planks… and on and on match strength to all the familiar flexibility challenges. Take time to build these poses up little by little over a long period of time by working in manageable increments and smaller versions (for example, bring your knees down in chaturanga). Then Slow everything down, take away momentum and leverage, add resistance and instability, and you will have no choice but to move mindfully with strength. Get creative with small weights in your hands, resistance bands on your outer thighs, or the very simple change of not using your hands to lift your legs into position for shapes like tree pose.
What else should we focus on?
There are a few actions that are often missing in a yoga practice. We have a major blindspot around strengthening the back of the body. Make sure you strengthen your hamstrings and glutes as much as you stretch them. Also make sure you take your arms and shoulders through all ranges of motion, especially into extension (try locust pose arms without clasping your fingers). Find any opportunity you can to ‘pull’ with the arms from overhead (imitate the action of doing a lat pull-down or a chin-up) or from forward (imitate rowing), as we definitely don’t do this much in yoga.
Inspired to find out more? Adam discusses yoga and strength in more detail in the MFML podcast on building strength in yoga