Yoga for Strength
I have recently been craving a more dynamic yoga practice than is my norm of late. Having spent the last two decades practising various types of yoga at the gentler end of the spectrum, now, with my half decade birthday not too far off (I can no longer with all honesty describe myself as still being in my mid-forties), I am craving something a bit more physically challenging. This has never happened before. What is going on?
I think it’s precisely because I have thrown myself in at the deep end with one of the most gentle, but inspiring of practices. For the last year I have been regularly attending classes and workshops with the lovely Scaravelli-influenced teacher, Caroline Reid. When I started, I wasn’t looking for Scaravelli classes in particular (I had little idea what to expect); it just so happened that Caroline’s classes were at a good time for me, easy to get to, in a beautiful yoga space and, best of all, I instantly liked Caroline. I wasn’t as sure about the yoga, to be honest. It all seemed a bit unstructured and esoteric (the Wannabe husband calls it “wiggle yoga”). But for all the reasons mentioned I kept going. A year down the line I’ve overcome my initial bewilderment and am quite evangelistic about the benefits of this particular style of yoga over other forms.
Today I feel more at ease within my body than I have done for a long while – probably not since before the Wannabe kids made their appearance. Excitingly, I now feel I can demand more from my body and that it might actually respond in a friendly and positive way, rather than either refusing to participate outright or reluctantly engaging before embarking on a sulk the following day. So it seems a natural progression to challenge myself a little more. I’ve been looking at how yoga can improve my strength.
For those of us of a certain age, maintaining strength is vital. From the age of around 30 we start to lose our lean muscle mass in a natural process called sarcopenia that accelerates as we get older. Postures for strength will maintain muscle mass which is linked to our metabolism and therefore help keep our weight in check. Strength training provides other health benefits too, including stronger bones, lower blood pressure, a sharper memory and reduced risks for heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes.
So now that I am craving something a little stronger, what to do? In addition to Caroline’s weekly sessions, I am experimenting with different teachers, styles and classes but so far haven’t found any that I like or suit my schedule. Instead I am incorporating some postures into my daily practice that particularly work on strengthening. This isn’t to say that we don’t practise these poses in Caroline’s classes; we do. It’s just that we approach them with a different focus so, for example, we might do Utkatasana while moving into a squat and explore that movement, rather than holding it firm and building up muscular stamina as you might in a more traditional Iyengar class. It’s merely a different approach that challenges your body in a different way.
Here are some of the poses I try to incorporate:
- Uttihita Chaturanga Dandasana (Plank)
- Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-limbed staff pose)
- Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward dog)
- Anjaneyasana (Crescent lunge)
- Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge)
- Utkatasana (Chair)
Now, the observant among you may have noticed that the first four poses essentially make up a sun salutation (Surya Namaskar). Which makes it so much the easier. Others might have noticed that some of these poses are remarkably similar to exercises you could do down the gym. A plank (Uttihita Chaturanga Dandasana) for example, that turns into a press up (Chaturanga Dandasana). Or some static squats (Utkatasana). And just as you can practise yoga and also go running or kickboxing if you so wish, you could practise yoga and then separately go to the gym and do these exercises. Or you could turn them into a little bonus yoga routine to tag onto your practice instead. I know which one I’m doing.
If I was a Scaravelli purist I couldn’t possibly consider doing these as an adjunct to my practice. For Sophy Hoare, one of Vanda Scaravelli’s students and author (along with Diane Long) of Notes on Yoga: The Legacy of Vanda Scaravelli, when she immersed herself in the teaching of Scaravelli she found that “the new [form of yoga] could not be grafted on to the old; and I began to realise the two could not be merged”.
But I’m not a purist. I’m listening to my body and this is what works at the moment. These extra poses offer up the yang to my yin, and that’s good enough for me.
Do you work with different styles of practice? Is it ok to mix things up or are you a purist? Read more next week on why maintaining strength is so important. Don’t want to miss out? Subscribe to my newsletter.