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The Science of Strengthening

Use the principles of muscle memory to teach students to build strength slowly.

By Julie Gudmestad

Modify and Repeat

In our sedentary society, there are a few areas of the body that are usually weak in students who are in their first year or two of yoga: the quadriceps on the front of the thigh; the "push" muscles in the arms, including triceps on the back of the upper arm and pectorals across the chest; and the muscles of the mid-back, including the rhomboids and lower and middle trapezius. To illustrate how you might use the 48-hour rule in yoga, let's use the upper body's push muscles—which need to be strong in many poses that bear weight on the arms—to demonstrate how you might progressively challenge the muscles as you build from weak to strong.

For a student with a deconditioned upper body, start by instructing her to move from Downward-Facing Dog to Plank and back, with her hands on a chair seat or even a wall. She should begin strengthening with a few repetitions, held briefly, a few times per week. As she can do more repetitions and hold each one longer, she can move to the floor and even add a few mini-pushups, in which she lets down toward the floor from Plank for a few inches, and then pushes back up. If even that proves too difficult, she can set her knees on the floor, still keeping a straight line from knee to hip to shoulder to ear, and either do mini-repetitions or go all the way to the floor and back up. These modified poses can be substituted in class or used at home, and over time they'll build needed strength in the push muscles for Handstand, Headstand, Sun Salutations, and more. Similarly, a student with weak quads can work on bent-leg standing poses such as Warriors I and II, going only between halfway and 90 degrees with good knee alignment, and doing a few of each with brief holds. The student with a weak back can add Locust variations on a regular basis.

The key to progressively building strength is to encourage your students to practice at home a few times a week, and to include a pose or variation that challenges their weaker areas but is doable. For example, encourage your student with weak arms to throw in a few mini-pushups when she practices Downward Dog. She'll have to work a bit, yes, but she won't hurt herself or be too sore the next day. She'll feel the confidence in herself and in yoga that commitment and practice can bring. And, as she progresses in her practice, you can be sure she'll keep coming back to your class.

Julie Gudmestad is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher and licensed physical therapist who runs a combined yoga studio and physical therapy practice in Portland, Oregon. She enjoys integrating her Western medical knowledge with the healing powers of yoga to help make the wisdom of yoga accessible to all.

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