How Yoga Can Make You Stronger

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Yoga is great for meditation and centering, but it can also provide a great workout. Leo Mowry, founder of Toronto’s Village Yoga, explains the strengthening benefits of the practice.

Q: Can yoga make you stronger?

A: Yes. There are two reasons for that, the first being, physical strength: Instead of using weights you’re using the weight of your body. Standing poses and abdominal poses, in particular, will strengthen your core in addition to the muscles you’re targeting. Take that into consideration with different poses, especially balance poses. You build muscle when you’re standing on one leg, but you also have to stabilize through the core to keep your balance. With the plank position, you’re strengthening the arms and shoulders, but also activating your core and legs.

The second piece is flexibility, which is one of yoga’s biggest physical benefits. Increasing flexibility also increases strength. Muscles are either contracted or relaxed, but if a muscle is so tight that it’s always contracted then that muscle is weak — it’s the act of contraction that strengthens. If you can soften the muscles and allow them to contract, it will increase your strength.

Q: Are certain types of yoga better than others for strength building?

A: The slower practices aren’t going to build muscle as quickly. If you were to look at a restorative therapeutic practice, that isn’t going to build strength in the same way a Vinyasa or Ashtanga practice are going to build it. Ashtanga is a vigorous practice build around three series of poses; it’s grown into a hybrid where it’s a more vigorous version of Vinyasa. Even in a Hatha practice, which has come to be known as a more gentle form, can be quite vigorous, and Ashtanga is a form of Hatha yoga. It depends on the intention of the class and the teacher and the studio. But these are all spiritual and enlightenment practices, which is the ultimate purpose of yoga.

Q: Are certain poses better for building strength?

A: All of the poses, except for the relaxation poses, work for strength-building. In terms of strengthening, it depends on a person’s ability or strength and how long you hold a pose. For example, the longer you hold the Warrior II pose, the more strength you’ll build in your arms and legs. And if you’re looking for a pose that strengthens and tones the whole body, then Downward Dog is the obvious choice. How long you hold it depends on where you’re coming from, but the typical practice is five breaths in and out. The more you do it, the stronger you’ll become.

Q: How is building strength through yoga different from building it through other types of exercise?

A: That depends. It’s very self-directing. If you look at the difference between yoga and Pilates, for example, a yoga body tends to be long and lean instead of hard and dense. In every yoga pose, there should be a balance between engagement and disengagement, between soft and hard. For example, if you look at Warrior II again, the legs and arms should be engaged but the spine should be relaxed; rigidity in the wrong body part upsets the flow of energy, and improving the flow of energy is one of the key goals of yoga.

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