A Strong Start
Although the idea that January first is a good time for fresh starts is a fairly artificial one (we could just as easily begin our new year on any other given day), it’s established enough that we feel its collective pull whether we consciously want to or not. Perhaps it works on us in part because by the end of the holiday season we’re all dragging at least a little bit. There’s the anticipation, the preparation, the pressure to get it all right, to deliver the gifts of everyone’s dreams, and to serve up memorable moments. Hopefully, all that is mixed in with interludes of real contentment and meaningful time with family and friends but it can wear a person down. By the time the obligatory New Year’s Eve revelry has come to its inevitable conclusion (good morning sore head and weak stomach!), it’s no wonder that it feels about right to start building yourself back up to fighting strength.
A consistent routine is at the heart of any strength-building endeavour and yoga is definitely no exception. You don’t get much stronger with a once a week kind of practice. Establishing a schedule is the most effective way of making your commitment to yoga stick, which is what is necessary to fully experience its beneficial effects. That’s where the whole ‘hitting the reset button’ idea actually comes in handy. No matter what you’ve done in the past month, no matter how many yoga classes you’ve missed or how your routine has been blown off, no matter if you’ve never done yoga or you are making your way back, it doesn’t matter at all what your past story is because you have the opportunity to write your story in the present.
If you’re new to yoga then you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s mostly about stretching out and getting more flexibility. You’ve probably seen the photos of people with their legs wrapped around their head (and somehow still looking serene). While that is one way to do yoga, the flexibility that yoga is so well known for must be balanced by strength. You don’t even have to go out of your way to make this happen. Just by doing more yoga, you’re going to get stronger. By doing standing poses, you will strengthen your legs and your lower back. Supporting your weight in poses like Downward Facing Dog and Plank will strengthen your arms and upper body. Every time you balance, your core is benefitting as your body recruits the muscles it needs to keep itself from tipping over. However, there are also several ways to adapt your personal practice to amp up the strengthening side.
4 Ways to Practice Strong
1. Hold your weight-bearing poses for longer.
Something that might feel easy for three breaths is going to really start to be challenging ten breaths in. A slow practice of longer holds is often more intense than a fast-paced flow in which you spend only a breath in each posture.
2. Activate your muscles.
In a standing pose you might be able to get away with just casually standing there but why would you try to? Always keep engagement through your limbs, never letting them go noodley. Activating your fingertips and toe tips whenever they are off the ground also helps you stay present.
3. Go deeper.
When we talk about deepening the pose in yoga it’s often interpreted as intensifying a stretch, but it can also be done in a strengthening way. So, for instance, in any standing pose when your front leg is bent, make sure to take your thigh as parallel to the floor as possible (as long as this feels ok on your knee joint). You will feel the burn firing up your muscles pretty quickly. Go deep and stay there in poses like Utkatasana, Extended Side Angle, and Warrior II.
4. Introduce dynamic movement.
Introducing dynamic movements into poses that are traditionally practised statically requires control and can add an element of strengthening to any posture. If there is balance involved, it also works your core. In a High Lunge pose, for instance, straighten your front leg on an inhalation and then rebend it on an exhalation. Do this three to five times with your breath cycle. Or move from Boat to a Low Boat (legs straight, heels and shoulders hovering off the floor) and back again for a yoga version of an abdominal crunch. If and only if your Chaturanga alignment is strong, knock out a few ‘yoga push-ups’ when going through your Vinyasa, dropping your knees to the floor if necessary.
Take Your Meditation Daily
We shouldn’t ignore that yoga’s capacity for building strength applies to the mind as well as the body. While you are working your muscles through asana, your brain is also fortified, lifting your spirits and preparing you to contend with another day. Practices like yoga are the mental equivalent of eating your spinich, preparing yourself to handle the challenges that continuously arise.
In the interest of flexing your grey matter, now is also the perfect time to start (or restart) a meditation routine. Sitting for meditation provides a counterpoint to the intense physicality of asana practice. It often comes more naturally to sit right after a yoga session or first thing in the morning when the mind is already relatively quiet. There are many meditation techniques but staying aware of the present moment by focusing attention on your breath is a good way to begin.
A Strong Finish
The trick to establishing a healthy routine isn’t so much in the start (it’s very easy to start something) but in the follow-through. Take advantage of the opportunities that abound at this time of year, whether it’s a monthly challenge with internet friends, a series of classes at the local yoga studio, or a good deal on a gym membership. Everything in life is cyclical: you may go through periods where it’s harder to practice or your routine may lapse at times. Start strong now and start strong again whenever it’s necessary. Just know that yoga will always want you back, whatever the season.
Featured Yogini @chelseasyoga