The Strength Benefits of Yoga

by Miller Chandler ACSM Certified Exercise Physiologist and Owner of Foundation Wellness, LLC

We tend to associate certain positive outcomes with yoga, right? Improved flexibility always makes the list, as does lower stress and anxiety, the so-called “mind-body” benefits. But what about the just plain old “body” benefits? What can yoga do for things like muscle tone, weight loss (or healthy gain), and increased physical stamina? According to the experts, quite a bit. Yoga may not take the place of throwing around free weights, but it definitely can complement and enhance your gym workout.

There are three main types of muscle contractions. There are concentric contractions (muscle contracts as it shortens), eccentric contractions (muscle contracts as it lengthens), and isometric contractions (muscle contracts with no change in length). And for the latter, you are simply holding a pose, or pushing against an immovable object. Sound familiar, yogis? The static strength required to hold myriad yoga poses absolutely does enhance one’s muscular health. And it does so in a way that is more sparing to the joints than pumping iron.

Mary Irby, E-RYT 500 and Owner of White Crow Yoga, puts it this way:

“While our first thought of yoga benefits may lean toward creating mindfulness and increasing flexibility, practitioners are also presented with a great opportunity to build strength. When we incorporate poses such as the plank, 4-limbed staff, side plank, bridge, and locust, we introduce strength work into our practice. There are even ways to create strength in poses we may think of as traditionally used for flexibility. For example, in a standing forward fold, if we place our hands on a block or the floor and alternately abduct the leg straight out toward the side, we will definitely feel the strength building benefits in the legs and hips! Yoga provides a great way to increase strength throughout the body and the only equipment needed is a yoga mat, so it is a great way for all of us to add some strength training into our day.

So, it’s not a question of do I do my strength workout or my mind/body work today. In yoga practice, one can have both.

Master of Public Health and RYT-500 Melissa Shah, who regularly leads classes at Vanderbilt’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine and studios such as Liberation Yoga and Blooma Nashville agrees:

“A regular yoga practice, often seen as solely “stretching,” offers so much more for body, mind, and spirit. Our body is a vessel for transformation, and yoga is an incredibly valuable tool for strengthening our vessel . . . Many of the clients I see suffer from some degree of joint pain. Yoga offers tools to build muscular strength around the joints to reduce pain and prevent further injury. Since almost every yoga posture requires some degree of both strength AND flexibility, it makes it an ideal method for building strength through the entire body in a way that is sustainable.”

In addition to the aforementioned misconceptions, there is also a disparity between the sexes when it comes to yoga participation. More specifically, there seems to be an opinion shared among many of my brethren that yoga is a “woman thing.” Well, I have to tell you, fellas, that this is just flat wrong. Yoga is challenging and fruitful physically for a variety of reasons, and there have been more than a few professional football players over the years, including Ray Lewis and Nashville’s own Eddie George, who have counted themselves as yogi practitioners. Again, this is because yoga manages to be both physically challenging and relaxing and therapeutic all at the same time! It’s a tough workout, but in a way that actually leaves you feeling better when it’s over.

My hope is that some of you who are still hesitant to hit the mat and give yoga a try will now open yourselves up to the possibilities. And for those of you who are already yogis, please remember that on some days, your practice should emphasize the more challenging, muscle-building aspects of yoga. Along with the mind/body benefits. Yoga can count as part of your regular strength work, too. Be well, Nashville, and Namaste.