Yoga is a body-weight-bearing exercise. With a regular yoga practice you don’t need to pump iron at the gym to build muscle to enjoy the benefits of strength training. Yoga won’t bulk you up but it will improve flexibility, balance, bone density, endurance, muscle mass, agility and energy level. Tailor your yoga routine to focus on toning specific muscle groups, but vary the poses for a whole-body workout.
The large muscles and bones of your lower body carry you through your day and lift you from sitting and reclining to vertical. The stronger they are, the more vigorous you are. Standing poses place weight on the bones and muscles of the hips and legs, building muscle and bone density. Ground yourself and stand tall in Mountain pose to strengthen your thighs, knees and ankles, tighten your tummy and butt, and align posture. Try the Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend to place weight on your feet, legs, arms and wrists, stretch your hip flexors and emphasize the healthy curve in your spine. Holding a pose and breathing into it increases the weight-bearing benefit by stressing muscles and bones. If you have trouble finding or holding the correct positioning for a pose, use blocks or other supports until your strength increases.
Problem Areas and Fitness Pluses
Weight-bearing exercise can help to lower the risk of injury to vulnerable body areas. Save your back with spine strengtheners like Cobra pose, Supported Bridge pose and Locust pose. As your practice develops, add deeper back bends like Camel pose and Bow pose. Plank pose and Four-Limbed Staff pose will give your wrists a workout. The really intrepid can balance on hands-only in Crane pose or Firefly pose. Loss of muscle mass due to aging begins in your 20s, so it’s never too early to work at musculoskeletal fitness. Yoga improves both strength and flexibility; use it to maintain balance and coordination, avoid the poor posture that comes from weak muscles, and burn 35 to 50 calories each day for every pound of muscle.
Upside-down yoga includes some of the most challenging body-weight-bearing poses, and it may be too strenuous for some yogis. Inversions increase pressure in the head so they are unsuitable for glaucoma and stroke patients and people with neck injuries. But healthy beginners can approach inversions gradually, building up to solid upper-body strength and flexibility before attempting full inversions like Headstand or Shoulder Stand. Start with less-taxing partial inversions like Downward-Facing Dog and Dolphin, which strengthen arms and legs and stretch arches, calves, hamstrings, shoulders and hands. In addition to the benefits to muscles and bones, "Yoga Journal" says up-ending your body weight against gravity may promote better lymph drainage, boosting immunity and speeding healing.
Modify Your Muscles
Challenging yoga poses that use body weight for strengthening may require greater strength than you have for proper execution. Certified Iyengar Yoga teacher Julie Gudmestad offers a solution. Your muscles match your demands -- if you stress a muscle with body weight in a pose, that muscle modifies itself to perform the action within about 48 hours. Practice several times a week or every other day to increase strength so you can perform harder poses unassisted. Consistency is the key. Do Warrior I and II with correct form but only go down halfway until you can manage the full pose. Your reward is a significant gain in fitness. A study published in the "Asian Journal of Sports Medicine" concluded that regular practice of the Sun Salutation six days a week for six months improved muscle strength and general endurance to optimum levels in test subjects.
- ACSM: Conditioning Beyond Strength Training
- National Center for Biotechnology Information: How Effective Is Sun Salutation in Improving Muscle Strength, General Body Endurance and Body Composition?
- Yoga Journal: Poses for Osteoporosis
- Yoga Journal: The Science of Strengthening
- Yoga Journal: Inversions 101
- Yoga Journal: Is Yoga Enough to Keep You Fit?
Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .