by Kino MacGregor: Yoga is more than just stretching and relaxation. Daily yoga practice includes a comprehensive system that builds strength in the body and mind.
My journey in yoga has been from weakness to strength in every sense possible. There are some key postures that helped me access the deep reservoir of inner fortitude that every person contains within. The 10 postures outlined below will help you develop the strength and stamina needed to truly build core power in your yoga practice. If you feel any of these postures are too easy, just hold the posture for one full minute while maintaining healthy alignment to test your strength and steadiness of mind and body. There are so many amazing postures that build strength in yoga that it was hard to choose the top 10, but I’ve selected postures that contain the foundational alignment and strength needed to master many more advanced postures. The 10 postures below contain the basics of all the strength work in yoga and its application to daily life. If you integrate regular practice of these 10 postures into your yoga practice you can experience a steady development of strength that will last your entire life. Strong, flexible muscles help keep your body youthful and your mind energetic. Practice with diligence and be patient.
A combination of core strength, hip flexion and mental steadiness, this posture has many different variations so that all levels can practice it. Holding for a minimum of five breaths daily builds powerful core muscles and aligns the spine. A weak core can sometimes create chronic back pain; this posture can be used therapeutically to help alleviate back pain due to weak muscles. Navasana means boat posture in English and it helps to think about hollowing out the pelvis like the inside of a boat to keep the stomach sucked in. Try this movement to get a strong core through Navasana:
Traditionally the last posture in the rigorous Ashtanga Yoga practice, every muscle in the body engages while pulling into the core of the body. Translated literally as “sprung up,” it is best performed with a full lotus position, but can be modified by simply crossing the legs. When the legs are crossed this is sometimes referred to as Lolasana, but the principle of lifting the entire body off the ground remains the same. The arms, core, thighs and chest are toned. Holding the posture for at least 10 breaths daily builds mental and physical endurance. Practicing this posture directly before taking final rest at the end of your yoga practice helps the muscles relax more fully. Combining Navasana with the Lolasana version of the lift up is an integrated part of the Primary Series of Ashtanga Yoga that tests mental limitations as well as physical endurance. Here’s how to lift up in Utplutih:
Since the arms are straight in this posture almost everyone at all levels of practice can hold the plank position for a solid five breaths. Used as a transition between more challenging postures, the plank holds the basic tools for integration of core strength with upper body power. Directing the mind to remain steady and calm in plank helps calm the nervous system in even more arduous movements. Try to hold plank for one minute to really build strength:
4. Chaturanga Dandasana
Translated into English as the four-pronged staff posture, this yoga push up position builds healthy shoulder alignment when done properly. Be careful if you do not have good upper body strength because it can be difficult to keep the shoulders in a healthy position. Repetitive movement through Chaturanga Dandasana throughout daily yoga practice builds inner determination and solidity in strength. Since the elbows are bent rather than straight a conscious activation of the entire shoulder girdle is necessary in order to prevent injury and build strength. Once you are proficient in both Plank and Chaturanga Dandasana see if you can combine both movements to go up and down, initiating the push up from the core of the body rather than just the arms. Here’s how important the shoulder position is in this posture for building solid strength:
One of the most fundamental of all arm balances, when the student truly masters this posture, most other arm balances are possible. In the ideal position the knees rest in the hollows of the armpits. It is important to engage the shoulder girdle while flexing the spine and firming the pelvic floor to integrate the deep work of Bakasana. Used as a transition repeatedly from other more challenging arm balances it is crucial to be fully established in regular practice of Bakasana in order to develop strength in yoga. However, if you rush into the posture without proper development of the core it may put strain of the wrists so proceed with caution. If you are proficient in the posture you can try jumping directly back into Chaturanga Dandasana, jumping into the posture from Downward Facing Dog or entering and exiting Bakasana from Handstand. Check out the strength you need to jump into Bakasana here:
Translated as eight angle posture, this asymmetrical arm balance will build symmetrical strength in your shoulders over time. By practicing both sides equally your shoulders and core will learn to support the weight of the body. Traditionally practiced in the arm balance sequence of the Third Series of Ashtanga Yoga, do not underestimate the level of difficulty needed in order to find stability in and out of the posture. This is the easiest way to approach Astavakrasana:
The most basic and perhaps healing inversion, headstand, known in Sanskrit as Sirsasana, tests the alignment of the shoulders and spine while calming the nervous system. Traditionally done as a Closing Posture when the mind is meant to be moving more towards a meditative state, headstand can be held for long periods of time, sometimes as long as twenty minutes. However, beginners are recommended to start off with only 10 breaths and increase slowly as strength and alignment improve. Long periods of time spent in Sirsasana create mental stability and focus. Here’s a nice easy headstand for beginners:
Increasing the activation and strength required for headstand, Pinchamayurasana is a forearm balance that demands a conscious activation of the shoulder girdle and the core of the body. If your shoulder collapses or pinches forward this is not a safe posture. If your core is too weak and your spine extends into a backbend the alignment of your spine will be compromised. Regular practice teachers students how to press through their foundation, align the spine and strengthen the shoulders. Finding the balance point in Pinchamayurasana helps build mental and emotional balance as well. Build strength through the shoulders to prepare for Pinchamayurasana here:
One of the greatest test of all inversions, balancing fully on your hands requires strength of mind and body. If your mind wavers while you attempt a handstand you will most certainly fall. The long journey into building the strong shoulders and core needed for a stable handstand tests even the most brave and tenacious students. Once the handstand is mastered it can be used to further develop strength through transitions into and out of other arm balances such as Bakasana. When you’re ready you can even build strength beyond a handstand:
Named after the sage Vishwamitra, this posture is the first of the challenging Third Series of Ashtanga Yoga. It is sometimes called Vashistasana is other styles of yoga, but it is nonetheless the same posture. Built on a one arm side plank this posture tests alignment in the shoulders and of core of the body. Regular practice will even out asymmetries in strength and build steadiness of mind. Find the strength through side plank to enter this challenging posture here:
International Yoga Teacher, Author