Updated: Jan 12
Many people view yoga and advancing in yoga poses as predominantly a matter of becoming more flexible. However, flexibility is always in a dynamic relationship with building strength. Staying strong in every pose and learning to engage our muscles properly inspires a sense of steadiness. Even in poses that require significant mobility, you must engage your muscles to avoid overstretching. As we practice, there is an ever evolving relationship between becoming and staying steady while opening up the body.
Additionally, becoming physically stronger can also benefit you mentally. It can build confidence and a sense of personal power. Developing upper body strength in particular can afford you more ease and efficiency in poses. For example, if you feel yourself collapsing in chaturanga, or the bottom of a push-up, building strength can help you maintain your optimal alignment and thus flow more seamlessly. If you have difficulty holding weight-bearing poses, such as down dog, plank, arm balances, or inversions, more upper body strength is going to be your friend.
The following pose variations will work your upper body more than their traditional cousins. Approach them like you would any other pose—maintain good alignment and challenge yourself, but only so much that you can stay connected to your breath.
How: In down dog, bend your elbows out to the side and angle them forward enough to maintain a subtle lift under your armpits. There should be a 90-degree angle in your elbows. Engaging evenly through your shoulders and upper back, slowly straighten your arms. Do ten repetitions total, or until you’re no longer able to hold down dog with your arms straight and a slight arch in your low back.
Why: If you want to build upper body strength, this is a good place to start. You take a familiar pose, in this case, down dog, and turn it into an exercise in mindfulness. By bending your arms and deconstructing down dog to slowly restraighten them while engaging your shoulders and upper back, you reaffirm good alignment as you build strength in your shoulders, upper back, and arms.
How: Start in plank with your shoulders over your wrists.
With control, move your right hand a forearm’s length forward and lower your right forearm to the floor. Make sure your right elbow is aligned with your left wrist. Bend your left elbow into a push-up or chaturanga position, with your elbow swinging away from your body just enough to keep your chest broad on that side.
Then move your left hand forward one forearm's length and gently lower your left forearm to the floor so that your elbows are now parallel to each other and under your shoulders in a forearm plank.
Pause here for a breath and then come up onto your left hand, moving it back under your left shoulder,
followed by moving your right hand back under your right shoulder.
Straighten both arms into plank.