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.
Repeat by starting on the left side. Continue for as many rounds as you can do while maintaining the integrity of plank. Over time, you can build up to practicing this exercise for three sets of 30 seconds or a minute.
Why: This flow helps build strength in your chest, shoulders, biceps, triceps, and upper back. Because you are moving slowly through these asymmetrical positions while weight-bearing on your hands and arms, it fatigues the upper body quickly—which is exactly what we are trying to accomplish when working on building strength in the upper body.
ONE-HANDED DOWN DOG
How: From down dog, shift your weight onto your right hand and come onto the fingertips of your left.
If you feel steady, place your left hand on your left hip.
When you take your left hand off the floor, the asymmetricality of the pose will tend to make your right shoulder collapse toward the floor. Look under your right arm and lift your right shoulder so it is even with your left. Hold for five breaths, or as long as you can while maintaining regular down dog alignment in your shoulders. Place your left hand back on the mat and switch sides. Repeat this on either side for as many as ten repetitions.
Why: Practicing one-handed down dog demands that you engage all sides of your arms, your shoulders, chest, and upper back. Keeping your planted arm’s shoulder from collapsing fires up your upper body muscles in a mindful static hold. This makes it more stable than some upper body movements that ask you to keep the integrity of your pose while moving dynamically.
ONE-ARM ONE-LEG PLANK
How: Start in plank,
and maintain that shape as you lift your left foot off the floor only as high as you can while keeping your hips level and your leg straight.
If you can do so without turning or hammocking your hips, lift up onto your right fingertips.
If you can maintain the integrity of your plank, reach your right arm straight out in front of you alongside your ear with your thumb pointing up. Hold for three to five breaths, lower your hand and foot, and switch sides.
Why: Plank alone requires upper body strength. However, if you are looking to build more strength, you have to challenge yourself to the point that you are close to failure, but not beyond what is healthy for you. Try removing two points of your foundation, and your arms, shoulders, and chest will have to work harder to stabilize your body in plank.
ONE-ARMED L POSE
How: Start seated with your hips against a wall and your legs straight out in front of you.
Notice where your heels meet the floor. Place your hands so that the base of your wrists are where your heels are and come into tabletop.
With the crease of your wrists parallel to the top of your mat and under your shoulders, lift your hips up to come into a short down dog. Bend your knees enough to tilt your pelvis up.
With straight arms, place one foot on the wall and then the other. Walk your feet up or down the wall so that your legs are parallel to the floor. If your low back starts to round or if your shoulders come forward of your wrists, bend your knees slightly in order to lift your hips high and stack your hips and shoulders above your wrists.
If you can hold this position with straight arms, shift your weight to your right hand and come onto the fingertips of your left hand.
If your hips stay lifted and your shoulders even, bring your left hand to your left hip. Look under your right arm and keep your right shoulder even with the left.
Hold for five breaths, and gently lower your left hand. Switch sides.
Why: This position is the same as for a one-armed shoulder press, only upside down using your body weight. It helps to build both strength and endurance in your arms, shoulders, and back while your arms are in the overhead plane of your body. L pose, or handstand prep, also offers stability with your hands and feet planted. Then with this strong foundation, you could challenge your upper body by practicing using one arm at a time. Because your arms are in the overhead position, it is also helpful for advancing in backbends, like wheel, in which your arms are also in the overhead plane.