Spend any time on Instagram and you’ll likely be bombarded with images of svelte and toned yogis with their leg extended above their head or feet wrapped around some part of their body espousing the benefits of yoga. I admit, as a one-time ardent student of yoga, I myself used to strive for such amazing feats of flexibility. In short, I wanted to be Gumby. Eventually, I did get into some magazine-worthy shapes. However, those came with a price—two knee surgeries to be exact. My joints sounded like Rice Krispies cereal when you poured milk on it—Snap, Crackle and Pop. In an attempt to achieve the aesthetic of yoga that is often seen in mainstream media, I became hypermobile—a condition that causes joints to easily move beyond their normal range of motion as a result of loose, weak and potentially damaged connective tissue.
No doubt, the physical practice of yoga asana can be a wonderful way to increase range of motion and mobility. However, many are pushing the limits of their capacity based on what seems to be generally accepted positions of extreme range of motion. The truth is some of the most popularly photographed yoga postures include a degree of hypermobility.
After my second knee surgery, I became obsessed with learning why my body felt out of balance and consistently injured and pulled. Convinced I could do something about it, I sought out those much smarter than myself: the top physical therapists—and what I like to call “body dorks”—in the country. They all concluded that I was weak. What? Me? Not strong? I was in the fitness business teaching dance, cycling and yoga. That may have been true. But years of overemphasizing cardiovascular and flexibility training, rarely tending to my strength game, left me at great risk for injury. After one session of squats, lunges, bridges and other physical therapy exercises, I realized the pros were right. (Duh!) My glutes, hamstrings and hips were weak because I insisted on repeating movement patterns that favored my limitations and exacerbated my imbalances.
The more I continued with my prescribed exercises, the better my hamstrings felt and the more flexible I became. I laid off the yoga, increased the strength moves and I was more flexible? Why is this?
As I strengthened key muscles in my body, I was creating a safer container in which to move and stretch. My body no longer felt like I was pushing it past a safe range of motion, which allowed it to relax into postures as opposed to me forcing the flexibility. This is proof that power is usually more effective than force when it comes to achieving any goal. Imagine a car whose framework and engine are all meticulously aligned and powerful, working in harmony. It creates a steady and smooth ride as opposed to a car whose wheels are out of alignment, bolts loose and brake pads worn.
A safe and effective asana practice requires just as much strength as it does flexibility. In fact, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, often touted as the father of modern yoga, was known to have said that if you had to favor one over the other in your asana practice, choose strength over flexibility. A similar concept of balance can be found in the “Yoga Sutras.” In verse 2.46, Patanjali states asana or postures should embody sthira or stability (which we can consider the strength of the pose) and sukha or ease (which we can consider the flexibility). This is one of Patanjali’s only three comments on how to perform yoga asana.
Here’s what it comes down to: Strength builds stability, while flexibility builds adaptability and mobility. While you need both strength and flexibility to ensure not only a balanced, effective and safe asana practice but also a balanced and efficient body, it’s wise to make sure you first set a strong foundation for your practice, especially given all the attention flexibility in yoga receives.
Here are a few yoga poses that on the surface may look to be all about flexibility but require an equal amount of strength.
Parsvottanasana (Pyramid Pose)
While this pose does require hamstring flexibility in the front leg, it also requires a great deal of leg strength to ground and stabilize the pose. To safely execute the posture, make sure you don’t simply “dump” all your weight onto your front leg. Ground down through your back leg and firm your front leg, engaging the hamstrings and quadriceps.
If you feel a tearing or pulling sensation in the insertion area between your hamstrings and glutes, back out of the pose or use blocks to either side of your front foot for your hands to support the weight of your body. It’s crucial that you are lengthening the belly of the muscle and not simply tearing the ligaments and tendons that support the hamstrings.
You can keep a slight bend in your front knee to ensure safety until you feel more comfortable in releasing all the way to your front thigh. Also, it’s helpful to press your big toe pad of your front foot into the floor to engage your front leg as well as thinking of squeezing your inner thighs toward one another. Lastly, engaging the abdominals can help the muscles around the spine to relax and release.
Trikonasana (Triangle Pose)
Similar to Parsvottanasana, this pose requires quite a bit of leg strength. The same cues for the legs apply in this pose as in the previous and even more so because you want to feel as expansive through your body and chest as possible, which requires you to keep your weight lifted off your legs. If you examine the pose from an energetic perspective, you can imagine your feet strongly grounded as they pull energy up from the earth and in through your inner thighs culminating around your pelvic floor. From there, that energy gets pulled through your root with the strength of your core and radiates throughout your body and out your arms. This pose always reminds me of the sun: A strong and bright center allows for rays of light—in this case your limbs—to expand and shine.
Natarajasana (Lord of the Dance Pose)
This is a pose you’ll often see in magazines and social media, and with good reason. It’s beautiful in its elegance and strength. It definitely requires flexibility in the shoulders and back, but the strength required for the standing leg as well as the abdominal wall is crucial to perform this pose safely, no matter how high the lifted leg gets. The risk in this pose is dumping weight into the lower back. Think of really rooting down through your standing leg and, once again, lifting that energy through your pelvic floor to keep pressure out of your lower spine. Make sure your lower belly is somewhat engaged to support your lower back and ensure more of the back bend is encouraged throughout your thoracic spine.
Ustrasana (Camel Pose)
Another beautiful backbend, Camel Pose must be entered with an awareness of the lower back and also the neck because it is easy to simply force yourself into this pose. Don’t. To help find the inner-thigh engagement and lift, try placing a block between your inner thighs and squeezing to help, once again, find your lower abdominal muscles to ensure you are not dumping into your lower back. And although your front body will be stretching, it’s important to find the balance of the engagement of your abdominal wall to help lift your solar plexus and chest toward the sky. Be cautious to not allow your head to drop all the way back. Keep your neck muscles slightly engaged to keep your cervical spine safe.
In today’s stress-filled world, most of us seek balance because it is where we can live freely and perform optimally. Your asana practice should be no different. Make sure your flexibility is supported by strength, and you’ll feel as comfortable and receive the most benefit as possible from your practice.
Photo credit: swissmediavision, Getty Images