A complete guide to yoga for strength in our mind and body. This article includes the best yoga poses for building strength and a free Handstand Course!
Yoga is a great way to strengthen our body. As we become more experienced we might continue to just practise yoga for strength in your body, however over time our yoga may evolve and become an inner practice that strengthens our mental and emotional health too.
When I first started going to yoga classes I began to feel fitter, stronger and more agile, this is what got me hooked and kept me going back for more. As I built strength and accomplished more challenging poses there was a sense of joy and pride, along with increased confidence both in my yoga practice and in my life.
Yoga becomes a tool not just for outer physical strength but also inner strength. Improving our mental agility, cognition, focus, mood, yoga for strength helps us to develop tools that help us find balance and harmony through life and inevitable challenges.
This is a complete guide to understand what we mean by yoga for strength? How to specifically use our yoga practice to strengthen and train our body? What are the best yoga poses for strength building in our yoga practice? What is the difference between inner and outer strength and what do we mean by yoga for strength of mind?
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”Chapter 64 of the Dao De Jing ascribed to Laoz
Why is it Important to Build Strength?
1. Improves Bone Density
Yoga for strength, especially with weight, improves bone density. This is particularly important for women as they have a higher risk of osteoporosis as they go through menopause (find out more in the menopause course). MFML teacher and menopause expert, Gabriella Espinoza, writes that ‘when you’re bearing weight through feet and hands… you are applying stimulating pressure to bone which activates bone strengthening cells’. (Read more about how Yoga can support you through Menopause)
2. Maintain Muscular Strength
As we age we naturally lose muscular strength, but yoga for strength can help maintain it.
3. Positive Effect on Mental Health
Training and moving our body is proven to have a positive effect on our mental health by releasing endorphins and possibly improving our body image too.
4. Improves Physical Health and Relieves Pain
Building physical strength improves body pains, sleep, resilience and builds confidence too. Yoga for strength can also improve our heart health, circulation, and respiratory health.
5. Prevents Injury
Prevents injury – when we focus on training certain muscle groups we can improve our posture, balance, and strength and prevent injury. E.g. Training and strengthening the glutes
The 10 Best Yoga Poses for Strength
Plank helps to build strength in the core, shoulders, arms and legs all at the same time. It’s a super all round pose but can be very challenging, so important to practice correctly. Try this Plank Pose tutorial to get guidance from Andrew McGonigle
How to do it: start in hands and knees and step the feet back into plank position.
Engage and lift belly whilst reaching tailbone back towards the heels. Keep the shoulders above the wrists and arms strong.
Up level: From plank lift one foot away from the floor and hold it parallel, then alternate legs. Try this with lifting the arms alternately. BONUS – lift the opposite arm and leg and see if it’s possible to stabilise enough around the centre to find your balance!
Modify: Place the knees lightly on the floor, but keep the hips forwards in a straight line from head to knees, keeping the core active!
This yoga for strength pose is a side version of plank (as it says!) and it builds strength in the side body.
How to do it: From plank, transition the weight onto one arm and rotate the feet to the opposite side. Stack the legs and feet. Keep your chest open and try not to collapse onto the shoulder.
Up level: Lift the upper leg. Also try to rotate from plank to side plank, back to plank, and then the other side.
Modify: It can feel a lot in the supporting hand/wrist/shoulder – lower the knee of the underneath leg and use it for support. If there is wrist pain, another option is to do side plank on your forearm instead of your hand.
Chaturanga is one of the hardest poses to master in yoga and takes a lot of core and upper body strength. It is important to go slowly and move in a controlled way, mindfully and with the breath.
How to do it: From plank pose, tilt the weight forwards so the shoulders come over the wrists. Bend the elbows and keeping the elbows hugged into the waist, slowly lower to the ground.
Remember that this pose depends a lot of strength in the abdominals and shoulders, so if it feels hard then start to gradually build strength.
Up level: Generally there is no need to uplevel a chaturanga but if you’re dying to make it harder you can do a one leg chaturanga or make it double push up!
Modify: Either simply hold plank pose (above) or lowering your knees to the ground whilst you lower to the floor.
Dolphin pose is an inversion that is great for the strength and mobility in the shoulders and upper back.
How to do it: Start in forearm plank, keeping the abdominals strong and shoulders over the elbows. Walk the feet in and lift your hips to enter dolphin pose. Remember to keep the elbows shoulder-width apart, and shoulders open.
Modify: keep a block between the hands so hands and forearms stay parallel. If there is less mobility in the shoulders you can build strength holding forearm plank. Also lower to your knees for support.
Up level: Try Dolphin push ups – moving your body from forearm plank back to dolphin pose and repeat 5-10 times
Forrest yoga is an amazing practice for building all over strength – try this class Release and Transform with Ana Forrest
Locust pose (Shalabasana)
Locust pose is a great backbend that strengthens and tones the muscles around the glutes, hamstrings, upper and lower back, and arms. It can be quite a challenging pose and it requires physical and mental strength to hold the pose
How to do it: Lay on the belly with arms by your side, palms facing down. Breathe in and lift the upper body and legs at the same time. Keep feet hip-width apart and your body weight on the belly and pelvis. Try and hold this posture for 3-5 deep breaths. Slowly release.
Up level: Try different arm variations – for example breast stroke arms swimming through the air, each time you pull back you lift up a little higher.
Modify: Try lifting one leg at a time, or flower down and take sphinx pose instead, keep the legs on the ground and resting your elbows on the floor underneath the shoulders. This give you support to then lift your upper body with a bit more ease.
Crow Pose (Bakasana)
Crow can be a gateway for the other inversions and arm balances, like headstand and handstand, it has lots of other benefits too. Crow strengthens arms, wrists, core, back and shoulders. It’s a great way to build and practice core strength. It develops balance on the hands, improves proprioception and body awareness, and builds courage as we start to float the feet away from the floor.
How to do it: Bend the knees and bring the palms flat on the floor shoulder distance apart.
Spread the fingers wide and press firmly into the fingertips. Bend the elbows back like chaturanga arms as you lift onto the balls of the feet. Aim your knees to the upper arms and use the arms as a ledge. Lift the head and tilt the weight of your body forwards onto the hands. Move to your tip toes and slowly lift the feet from the ground. Focus on lifting the whole body up and away form the ground.
Up Level: Transition in and out. Jump back to chaturanga or move into tripod headstand
Modify: Just lift one leg at a time rather than both together.
Try the MFML Crow Challenge to build strength and confidence in Crow Pose
Otherwise known as the king of the asanas (poses), handstand is no easy feat and takes all over body strength to be able to master it. It is perhaps the key yoga for strength pose!
How to do it: Make sure your body is warmed up. Find a good place to practice by the wall. Place the hands shoulder width apart and come into a short downward facing dog. Walk the feet towards the hands. Lift one leg into three legged dog and begin to transfer your weight into your hands, remember to press into your finger tips. When ready hop up and bring the legs together at the wall. Keep everything hugging in, strong and active.
Up level: When you are ready you can begin to practice away from the wall!
Modify: Try an L-shape to modify handstand and to gradually build upper body strength.
Other MFML classes to build strength in our handstand practice:
Warrior Three (Virabadrasana Three)
Warrior three strengthens the glute maximus and hamstrings whilst also building stability whilst balancing on one leg.
How to do it: There are many ways to enter warrior three. One way to focus on alignment is to start standing and fold forwards, bring the hands to touch the floor directly under your shoulders. Pick up one leg and reach behind you until it as aligned with the hips. Then float your hands away from the ground. Either reach then forwards alongside the ears, or by the side of the body, aligned with the hips.
Up level: Move in and out of warrior three during a flow sequence. Focus on finding stability in your core through the transitions. Try strengthening the standing leg with one legged squats.
Modify: Use blocks under the shoulders so you can find warrior three alignment with the upper body, without having to balance the upper body too. Or try bringing the hands into prayer and pressing them towards each other.
Try this Warrior Class with Liz Lark and explore moving in and out of Warrior three in a Vinyasa Flow sequence
Chair Pose (Utkatasana)
Chair pose strengthens our legs and arms. A much more accessible yoga for strength pose.
How to do it: From a standing position, step your feet hip distance apart. Bend the knees and hinge forward slightly at the hips. Keep the weight toward the heel of the foot and sweep your arms forward alongside the ears. Keep the arms strong and try to hold chair for 5-10 breaths.
Up level: Try different arm variations, or try lifting one foot from the ground, or simply sit a little deeper into chair pose.
Modify: Decrease the bend in the knees and stand slightly taller. Try with a block between your thighs so you have something between your thighs to help you stabilise the legs.
Boat Pose (Navasana)
Boat pose is great for strengthening abdominals, hip flexors and improving balance.
How to do it: sit with the knees bent and feet to the ground. Reach forward with the arms parallel to the ground. Slowly lean your weight back so you are resting on the sitting bones. Here you can start to feel the core engage, and gradually lift the feet off the floor. Keep the knees bent and shins parallel to the floor. Hold for 5 breaths.
Up level: Straighten the legs, or tap alternate toes to the floor and lift up again to straight.
Modify: Hold behind the back of your knees for support. Try holding a block width ways between the thighs to stabilise the legs.
Some other Yoga classes for Strength:
- Advanced Vinyasa Flow
- Stand in your Strength
- Be a Warrior not a Worrier
- Forrest Yoga back Strengthener
“Strength doesn’t come from what you can do. It comes from overcoming the things you once thought you couldn’t.”Rikki Rogers
What is Strength Training?
Yoga for strength increases our muscle tone and strength. It can be done with free weights, weight machines, or just body weight (such as in Yoga).
- It is about quality over quantity – try two short 20 minutes sessions per week.
- Start small and gradually build up the repetitions as you feel stronger
- According to the American Heart Association it is a good idea to do strength training at least twice a week
Is it Enough to do Yoga for Strength Training?
This is a great question because as Rakhee Jasanee says ‘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’.
The truth is that yes there are some yoga practices that are simply to relax, stretch and unwind (like restorative yoga and yoga nidra). However there are many yoga practices that train our muscles and build strength (like Power Yoga, Vinyasa Flow, or Hatha)!
Through our yoga ‘asana’ (poses) practice we can do strength training. If we’re disciplined and build a regular yoga practice, then we train our muscles through repeated drills, isometric holds, and challenging flow sequences. In this case our yoga practice becomes a great way to increase our agility, mobility, and strength.
Whilst research does show that 12 weeks of a Hatha yoga practice can improve strength and cardiovascular endurance, there are many teachers who suggest combining our yoga practice with other forms of training to get a well rounded and complete movement regime.
- Try to do yoga 2-3 mornings a week, one day do a pilates class focusing on stabilising the core, another day do a Barre class, and another day go out for a run.
- Weaving in some additional strength training to our Yoga practice, adding in weights to our Warrior two, or resistance bands to train our upper body.
Is Yoga for Strength or Flexibility?
We all know yoga is great for stretching and improves our flexibility but do enough people use yoga for strength? Did you know that by strengthening our muscles we also improve our flexibility and mobility?
MFML teacher Adam hocke says ‘Yoga isn’t just about flexibility – strength is a crucial part of the mind and body equation.’ Strength and flexibility go hand in hand and although some yoga practices like Yin Yoga and Restorative Yoga are slower and more stretch based practices, many yoga classes focus on finding balance between strengthening and stretching.
Building strength around the joints is an essential part of improving flexibility. It means we don’t collapse into joints and we hold ourselves with our muscles in the poses. The combination of strength and flexibility builds mobility and means we can move in a more coordinated way exploring our unique range of motion and agility.
What Course can I do to Build Strength in my Yoga Practice?
Summer strength challenge – Build strength incrementally – This course is for physically fit intermediate or advanced yoga students and great for those who like fiery classes. The key is to always remember to synchronise breath and movement and not to push beyond our edge. These classes build mental strength alongside physical ability.
The strength challenge – Physical strength helps us to move better, reduces the risk of injury and illness. We feel stronger, more courageous and more resilient when we have inner as well as outer strength. This course helps you to build strength, especially if you don’t know where to start. Expect classes to build upper body and core strength and strategies to tackle fear of advanced inversions.
Yoga to build strength – Increasing our physical strength can help us to navigate our way in the world. This course is for intermediate and advanced practitioners and is designed to strengthen our body including the core and upper body. Yoga for strength will help us to build our physical strength and flexibility and develop confidence in our practice. This course is aimed at intermediate and advanced practitioners.
Handstand challenge – This course is free to everyone, whether a subscriber to MFML or not! These are targeted classes to help us build our handstand skills and build strength in vinyasa yoga classes. Going upside down lets blood flow to the head and upper body, giving us renewed energy and a sense of calm. This course is great for those who already have a strong practice, are fit and mobile and want to have fun with inversions whilst building more strength.
Crow challenge – Crow Pose, or Bakasana, is often the first arm balance we learn, and it is often easier than it looks. This challenge is to help us learn crow pose with Sylvia Garcia. Once we have mastered crow pose it could infuse the rest of our practice with strength and confidence.
Yoga for Strengthening the Inner and Outer Self
As well as physically strengthening our body and helping us achieve more feisty poses, practising yoga can strengthen our mental and emotional resilience. Through a mindful yoga asana practice, with a focus on the breath to keep us present, we find the strength to soften into each moment. The strength to be here now.
We are often hardened around the edges, subconsciously self protecting from perceived threats and competition. Having the strength to soften is a big task. As we practice yoga we begin to soften. As we soften we might find more self-acceptance and compassion for our body, for people we are relating to, this ripples out further into the world.
Yoga for inner strength is this ability to hold strength and softness simultaneously as we move through the challenges of life. Whether it is stress or anxiety from work or relationships, or transitioning into motherhood, menopause or ageing. The ability to transition with grace, to stay present and breathe are lessons from our yoga practice and can be applied both internally and externally.
Yoga is a powerful vehicle for change. As you build strength you start to believe in your own potential.Tiffany Cruikshank
TRY: The strength challenge – Build physical strength and as we get stronger feel more courageous and more resilient. This course builds inner as well as outer strength.
Yoga for Brain Health and Mental strength:
Read more about how Yoga can change and strengthen the mind in this article by Rakhee Jasanee. As we practice yoga we build more volume of protective grey matter in our brain, especially our left side of the brain, the side associated with our creativity and expression.
Through Yoga we train our mental resilience and strength. We become more in control of our mindset, reduce our stress levels and help us focus on the important things in life. With a stronger mind we have more clarity and can live a happier and more aligned life.
How can Yoga Improve Brain Health?
- Yoga regulates stress
- Discipline and commitment to our practice (TRY: Adam Hocke’s Slow Flow for Discipline)
- Breath to calm and focus the mind
- Improved sleep and routine (Try: The Sleep Challenge on MFML)
“Sleep appears to restore our emotional brain circuits… sleep is not a luxury that we can optionally choose to take whenever we like. It is a biological necessity, and without it, there is only so far the band will stretch before it snaps, with both cognitive and emotional consequences.”Matthew Walker (of Why we Sleep)
Why is Strength Training Important in Menopause?
There is extensive research into the benefit of strength training as we reach menopause and beyond. The Royal Osteoporosis Society suggest to women going through menopause should ‘commit to regular weight bearing, impact and muscle strengthening exercise to keep their bones strong and maintain good balance.’
Strengthens the Bones
Strength training keeps the muscles strong and this keeps the bones strong to help combat osteoporosis. Read here the importance of strong bones and strength training in Menopause.
Training and exercising helps to avoid weight gain associated with the metabolism slowing down, as it improves the resting metabolic rate (RMR).
At some stages of life we experience transition and change. This transition can feel overwhelming, which makes it super important to have the tools to stay present, calm, and feel strong enough to face the challenges of change. Doing exercise or Yoga can give us the mental resilience to adapt and grow with the changes we are experiencing.
Improves Mood and Energy
Training the body releases endorphins that lift our mood and improves our energy. You may also feel more confident and comfortable in our body.
Apart from Yoga, what else can I do to Build Strength?
Barre – Barre is a movement practice that incorporates ballet, yoga and pilates all together. It uses small controlled pulsing movements and focuses on form, alignment and core engagement.
Pilates – Pilates has a strong body-mind connection and focuses on moving with control, specifically core stability. Both Pilates and Barre are great practices to build strength incrementally without impact.
Try the Course: Barre and Pilates – Super charge your core strength
Build strength, flexibility, balance, stability and endurance, all whilst reducing stress! Suitable for all levels, although some classes are tough – take these at your own pace, listening to your body’s wisdom and return to classes as many times as needed.
The Importance of Balance – Yoga for Strength and Softness
“Your strength is how calmly, quietly and peacefully you face life.”Yogi Bhajan
Real strength is found in balancing our power and our softness. Strength on its own can be overbearing and threatening. As with everything it is important to find balance. As well as doing all the yoga for strength it is important to turn to yoga that softens our mind and body. After all life would get exhausting if we are always activating and strengthening. We all need a moment to rest.
Maybe try something different and explore Mimi Kuo-Deemer Qigong Balance Series. These are a series of classes on the importance of structural, energetic and emotional balance as tools to build strength and stability into our practice and our life.
How about incorporating one Yin class per week to balance the Yang energy of life and our regular yoga and movement practices?
Try the Yin Yoga Challenge for inspiration.
Further reading on Yoga for Strength
- Yoga for Mental Strength
- Yoga and strength with Adam Hocke and Rakhee Jasanee
- Strong Bones with Gabriella Espinosa
- Strengthening the Glutes
- Inversions – the top 8 benefits
- Building Strength into your practice – a Podcast with Adam