There seems to be a common misperception that yoga asana (the physical practice of yoga) is all about stretching and finding your calm. However, many different styles of yoga and poses can help you build strength, too.
Yet, is yoga considered strength training? It can be. Camille Moses-Allen, a Baltimore-based senior yoga teacher, says it depends on the pose, class style, and approach.
Here’s what research — and yoga instructors, themselves — say about using yoga for building muscle strength.
Strength training is any form of movement that increases muscle power.
Some forms of strength training involve resistance bands and weights, while others require machines. However, you can also build strength via the combination of gravity and your body weight. This is why yoga makes you stronger.
Flexibility is only half the story of a well-balanced yoga practice. Many of the postures in yoga qualify as isometric exercises, in that you’re holding a muscle contraction in a fixed position for a period of time without changing the length of the muscle.
One study looking at the effects of a 12-week Hatha yoga intervention found that in addition to flexibility, yoga significantly improved muscular strength (
Though one study found yoga to be as effective as the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) recommended strength exercises, on its own, yoga may not be sufficient for whole-body strength training (
Instead, many yoga and fitness professionals recommend complementing it with other forms of exercise.
Kat Rebar (nee Heagberg) created a successful “Yoga for Strength and Endurance” program for Yoga International, an award-winning streaming organization based in Pennsylvania.
To build strength in poses, Rebar suggests adding resistance tools, such as weights or bands, and incorporating other movement modalities, such as bodyweight-focused practices from Pilates or more strength-focused, yoga-inspired high intensity interval training (HIIT) drills.
Tiffany Russo is a managing partner of CAMP LA — a one-stop shop for all movement modalities, with yoga being just one slice of their diverse pie.
Russo has been teaching yoga asana in Los Angeles for 15 years, and though she admits her view may be somewhat controversial to yoga purists, she does not feel that yoga alone is a complete package.
This was one of her motivations to become part of CAMP, as it’s a space where people can get everything they need in one place, though it may be through different classes.
If you’re looking to build strength, you may be tempted to seek classes that are a little more physically challenging. However, don’t let the difficulty level fool you!
A beginner’s class in which you hold simple postures can sometimes require more muscular effort than an advanced class in which you flow through poses quickly. Rebar jokes, “The hardest classes I take are level ones.”
One study looking at the effects of a 10-week adapted chair yoga program for older adults found great improvements in strength, and almost all of those poses in the study were done sitting (
While you can build strength in most classes, here are some strength-focused yoga styles:
- Ashtanga. In Ashtanga yoga, the holds tend to be shorter, but the pacing is vigorous. This style can be especially helpful at building upper-body strength.
- Vinyasa flow. Born from the Ashtanga yoga, Vinyasa yoga classes link postures to breath. Moses-Allen recommends seeking flow teachers who hold the poses, as much as they move from one pose to the next.
- Iyengar. Though slower paced and often recommended for beginners, Iyengar yoga is known for its incredibly long holds, which requires the muscles to engage differently than in faster-paced classes.
- Yoga with weight. If you can’t find the strength you seek in the more classical styles, check out hybrid classes, which are becoming increasingly popular.
Utkatasana (Fierce or Chair Pose)
Strengthens: legs, arms
- From a standing position, bend your knees, let your body hinge forward slightly at the hips, and reach your arms overhead.
- Keep your weight toward your heels.
- Keep your arms firm.
- Try to hold the position for a minimum of 8 breaths.
- Engage your legs and return to standing.
- Repeat once more.
Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III Pose)
Strengthens: glute maximus and hamstrings of the lifted leg
- From a standing position, fold forward and place your hands on the floor underneath your shoulders. Most people will need blocks to reach the floor.
- Slowly, reach your left leg back behind you until it’s at hip height.
- Float your hands off of the floor, and either place them on your hips or reach them out to the sides like a “T.”
- Try to hold the position for 8 breaths.
- Return your hands to your blocks or the floor and step your feet together.
- Repeat with the other leg.
Navasana (Boat Pose)
Strengthens: hip flexors, abdominals
- Sit on your mat and bend your knees with your feet on the floor.
- Reach your arms forward at shoulder height.
- Lean back so you’re on the center of your sit bones.
- Float your feet off of the ground.
- Keep your knees bent to maintain length in your spine, or experiment with straightening your legs all the way.
- Hold for five breaths.
- Place your feet back onto the floor.
- Pause and repeat 2 more rounds.
Phalakasana (Plank Pose)
Strengthens: abdominals, upper body, arms
- From tabletop position, meaning you’re on your hands and knees, step your feet back into a pushup position.
- Actively lift your belly, while keeping your tailbone reaching toward your heels.
- Keep your arms firm.
- If you need to modify, place your knees down.
- Hold for 10 breaths.
- Lower to your knees and repeat once more.
Strengthens: shoulders, upper body, arms, abdominals
- Start on all fours and lower down onto your forearms so that your elbows are under your shoulders.
- Step one foot back at a time.
- Resist sinking your lower belly toward the floor.
- Hold for 10 breaths.
- Rest on your knees and repeat once more.
Salabhasana (Locust Pose)
Strengthens: hamstrings, glutes, back extensors, upper back, arms
- Lie on your stomach.
- Separate your feet and legs hip-width apart.
- Keep your arms by your sides.
- On an inhale, lift your entire body off of the floor at once.
- Try to stay lifted for 5 full breaths.
- Lower and repeat.
Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose)
Strengthens: hamstrings, glutes, back extensors
- Lie on your back with your arms by your sides, palms down.
- Bend your knees and align your ankles below your knees, with the soles of your feet on the floor.
- Press into your feet to lift your hips.
- Press your palms into the mat or roll your shoulders under and try to interlace your hands underneath you.
- Hold for 8 breaths.
- Lower and repeat.
- Engage your muscles. Many people, particularly those with hypermobile bodies, tend to rely on their flexibility to maintain a posture, sitting into the pose, instead of using their muscles to support their weight. Before initiating a movement, think of your muscles as saran wrap hugging your bones.
- Go slow. Slow doesn’t have to mean boring! Moving slowly allows you to be mindful about your movements, which gives you time to ask your muscles to fire differently than when you flow super quickly through a sequence.
- Back off. Russo recommends modifying certain poses to find the muscular engagement rather than forcing yourself through something you may not have the strength for yet, as she says this may lead to joint loading. For example, put your knees down in Plank or Forearm Plank Pose, or lift one leg at a time in Locust Pose.
- Add resistance tools. Rebar co-authored the book “Yoga Where You Are: Customize Your Practice for Your Body and Your Life,” which shares ways of adapting poses to fit different body types. Variations are not always about making postures easier; some can make them more challenging. Rebar encourages adding resistance bands or weights to increase a posture’s difficulty level.
- Hold poses. Moses-Allen recommends seeking teachers who have a knowledge of functional anatomy and like to hold postures. She finds that maintaining holds smartly and safely (e.g., holding a well-aligned Warrior III for 10 breaths) are great ways to build strength.
- Repeat. You will notice in the above posture suggestions that each pose should be done at least one more time. While over-repetition can risk injury, doing a pose an additional one or two times mindfully can help you build endurance and strength.
In the practice of yoga, balance is not just about standing on one leg and creating length — it should also be sought to build strength.
While not all styles are created equal in terms of strength training, the right class and approach can help you increase your muscular power.
For those prone to flexibility or who have joint instability due to other reasons, focusing on strength building during yoga can be especially important to prevent hyperextension and further injury.
Though classical yoga asana by itself may not be efficient for whole-body strength training, adding resistance tools and other forms of movement into your yoga regimen can bring in those missing elements.
Finally, as Rebar recommends, keep it fun!