While yoga isn't known best for its strengthening benefits, many yoga poses require considerable strength, and lack of it can be a source of frustration for students both beginning and experienced. In fact, beginners can get so discouraged by their lack of strength, inability to keep up with class sequences, and soreness after a hardworking class that they stop coming and give up yoga altogether. How can we, as their teachers, make the poses and the process of strengthening more accessible, so that our students will continue to practice and incorporate yoga into their lives?
Toward that end, I like to meet people where they are rather than stick to an unyielding agenda. My theory is that if I can modify poses a bit so that my students have a taste of success and leave class with a feeling of accomplishment, they're more likely to stick with the learning process. Inside their heads, I'd like them to hear, "I can do this," rather than "I'm too out of shape for this, I can't do it." I'd like them to feel that they've worked in class and pushed the limits a bit, but not pushed so hard that they're too sore to practice the next day. And probably most important, I'd like them to be confident that they're not hurting themselves. After all, if they're in the habit of pushing themselves through pain in poses, how will they be able to distinguish the pain that causes injury, and stop before going too far?
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The 48-Hour Rule
In order to help your students build strength, it helps to understand how, and when, human bodies accomplish this task. The foundation of understanding the process is the fact that muscles are constantly being remodeled according to the demands being placed on them. In other words, they accommodate to exactly the load that you place on them in your regular activities. For example, if you regularly lift a 15-pound bag of groceries or dog food or laundry, your lifting muscles, including the biceps on the front of your upper arm, will be just that strong. If, on Monday, you decide to work the biceps by lifting a 20-pound dumbbell ten times, your body will immediately start remodeling the biceps. I call this remodeling process "the 48-hour rule," which means that in the first 24 hours after you've worked a muscle, the old structure, which could lift 15 pounds, will be taken apart; in the next 24 hours, the new structure, which can lift 20 pounds, will be built. If you lift the 20-pounder again on Wednesday, Friday, and Monday—about every 48 hours— your body will maintain the strength. If you don't lift the 20-pound or even the 15-pound bag again for two weeks, your body will have begun to decondition the muscle significantly.
Now let's apply the 48-hour rule to yoga. If your student only practices once a week or every other week—, the days she comes to yoga class—, that's not often enough to maintain strength, let alone build it. She's likely to feel frustrated with her lack of progress and may become discouraged or overwhelmed. I therefore encourage students, as part of developing their home practice, to work on their "problem areas" three times each week, in a way that gently challenges them. They're usually pleasantly surprised when they come to class and a previously difficult or impossible pose is easier.
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.
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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.