One thing I love about yoga asanas is that I can build strength simply by using my own body—I don’t need any weights or expensive machines. Holding the body in yoga’s various poses while resisting gravity builds muscle strength, while also helping build strong bones. Even moving into and out of poses, especially when done slowly and with awareness, helps gain strength throughout the body.
Take Triangle Stretch, for example. As you slowly move into the pose, so many muscles, big and small, are involved in helping you make the transition from standing upright to the side bend. The muscles of your feet, legs, hips, torso, shoulders, neck, and arms are all active. They are stretching and contracting, constantly readjusting to help you stay balanced as you move. Once you are in the pose, your body doesn’t stay perfectly still. You’re aware that you need to stay focused to maintain your balance and to feel the finer aspects of the pose—pressing the back heel down, opening the chest, reaching the top arm up, and so on. All of these small movements help to build strength—even if you’re not bench pressing 100 pounds!
By the same token, yoga also offers us a variety of poses where we do feel most of our body weight. In Imaginary Chair (Utkatasana), when we bend our knees, our body moves out of its natural alignment and we can feel our thighs strengthening as we hold the pose. In Toes and Palms Balance (Plank) we bear all our weight on our hands and feet. Holding this pose requires us to engage most of the muscles in our body. It specifically targets and strengthens the core muscles.
We’ll also build strength in a variety of poses simply by holding them a little longer. Don’t come out of Warrior 2 when your body first tells you to. Stay up in Bridge for a few extra breaths. Of course, listen to your body—you don’t want to hold the pose so long that you strain or pull something. But it’s often possible to hold a pose quite a few seconds past the moment when your mind first tells you to come out—breathe into it. And don’t neglect your transitions into and out of the poses as strength-builders. They also give you greater body awareness and are just as important as “getting there,” so enjoy the journey!