Many of us come to yoga to build strength. There's no question that when you're physically strong, you're better able to handle the demands of your day with grace and ease. But you can build endurance and power through almost any athletic pursuit. The beauty of practicing yoga is that it builds inner strength—which you need to ride life's emotional currents with faith and equanimity—even as it tones your body.
One way to build inner strength is by practicing regularly, whether you're feeling inspired or not. That simple act develops your capacity for commitment and for not letting the rest of life get between you and what you know to be essential to your well-being. By being true to yourself in your yoga practice, you enhance your ability to be true to yourself in other situations.
Of course, maintaining a consistent home practice is, in itself, an exercise in strength. At home, the notorious obstacles of procrastination, distraction, and skepticism come up all the time. To help dispel these stumbling blocks, choose a regular time and create a sacred space for your practice. It also helps to have several sequences on hand for those days when you're unsure of what to do next.
This sequence was designed specifically to build both physical strength, especially in your arms and upper back, and the mental strength you need to go upside down. (It's also good for enhancing the flexibility in your shoulders, which you'll need to get into Handstand.) Regardless of your ability to get into each of these poses, let this sequence be an opportunity to notice and experiment with your areas of strength and weakness. After practicing this sequence several times, you'll probably find that you can hold each pose a little longer. Enjoy each baby step to a stronger you. For a fully balanced practice, remember to add the poses in the Round Out Your Practice section.
1. Vajrasana (Thunderbolt Pose) with arms overhead
Come into Balasana (Child's Pose) with your arms along your sides. Slowly begin to move the breath into your upper back. As you inhale, extend your arms forward. Press your palms down and straighten your arms by lifting your forearms and elbows, then sit back on your heels. Hold a block between your hands at its widest and reach your arms overhead. Extend your arms from your waist. Press your palms into the block and firm the muscles in your upper arms. Soften the muscles at the base of your neck and continue to reach up. Visualize your arms and the sides of your body as one unit. Soften your facial muscles and breathe smoothly. This pose might look easy, but after holding it for at least a minute—longer if you can—your arms will let you know where you are weak.
2. Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)
Come onto all fours. Place your hands 2 inches in front of your shoulders. Press into your palms as you draw your shoulders away from the floor. Firm your upper arms and draw your forearms toward each other. With an exhalation, lift your hips and come into Downward Dog. Notice that your hips are above your heart—you're already in an inversion. Instead of looking at your navel, keep your ears in line with your upper arms (to strengthen the upper back) and let your gaze fall wherever it will. Relax the muscles at the base of your neck and let them slide down your back. Lengthen your arms and torso by using your legs to lift your hips away from your shoulders. Start by holding this for 10 breaths and build up to 1 minute. Repeat the pose three times, coming down into Child's Pose in between.
3. Vajrasana with Gomukhasana arms (Thunderbolt Pose with Cow Face arms)
From Vajrasana, reach your arms out to the sides about shoulder height and draw the muscles onto the bones. Release your shoulders away from your ears. Bend your right elbow behind your back, and walk your hand up your spine, with the palm facing out. Use your left hand to coax your right elbow higher up the back. Resist rounding your right shoulder forward. With an inhalation, bring your left arm up. As you exhale, bend your left elbow and clasp your right hand—use a strap if you can't clasp hands. Stay here or fold forward, directing your breath into any areas of tightness. Before switching sides, extend your arms sideways and then reach them overhead to release tension. Hold each side for 10 breaths to 1 minute.
4. Virabhadrasana III, variation (Warrior Pose III)
Place your hands on the wall, shoulder distance apart and at hip height. Walk back until your arms are fully extended and your feet are directly under your hips, creating a right angle. Work your arms as you did in Downward Dog. Step your feet together and squeeze your outer hips toward the midline of your body. Press your feet down to lift and strengthen the front of your thighs. Keep your arms straight and the weight even in your hands. As you begin to lift your right leg to hip height, pay attention to both hips. Resist sitting in the left hip; instead, draw your outer hip toward the midline. Notice how your right hip tends to lift, throwing your weight more into your left side. To correct this, spiral your right leg in, keep your hips level, and reach your leg as far away from your body as you can.
5. Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand)
Place your hands 2 to 3 inches away from the wall and go into Downward Dog. Shift your shoulders directly above your wrists. Press down with your palms to lift your shoulders away from your ears. Squeeze your forearms toward each other and firm your outer upper arms. Keep in mind the rotation and extension of your leg in the previous pose. With an inhalation, step one foot in and lift your lower body up and over your shoulders toward the wall. Rest your heels on the wall, flex your feet, and reach your legs away from your hips. Hold for 5 breaths to 1 minute—as long as possible without straining your shoulders. If your shoulders are stiff or you have trouble straightening your elbows, make a loop with a belt and place it just above your elbows. When coming out of the pose, rest in Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend). If you're new to Handstand, it may take several tries before you kick up—or you may not kick up at all. Simply repeat Warrior III at the wall and you'll soon be able to kick up.
6. Dolphin Pose
Kneel on your mat, facing away from the wall. Curl your toes under and place your heels on the wall. Press your forearms and elbows into the floor. Make sure your elbows are shoulder width apart and interlace your fingers. Rotate your arms externally, toward your ears. Slowly lift your hips off the floor, as you would in Downward Dog. Keep your head off the floor and relax your neck and head. Avoid rounding your back—draw your upper spine into your body. Stay here for 5 breaths to 1 minute. You'll build the arm and upper back strength you need in order to move safely into Headstand.
7. Sirsasana (Headstand)
If your upper spine rounds in Dolphin Pose and your shoulders feel weak, or if you've never done Headstand before, continue working with Dolphin Pose.
If you're ready to move on, place your hands close to the wall. Interlace your fingers comfortably, crossing your thumbs and cupping your hands. Keep your wrists firm as you place your elbows shoulder width apart and reach the crown of your head toward the floor. Strongly press your forearms into the floor to lift your shoulders. Rotate your upper arms externally so as not to splay your elbows. Inhale and draw your knees into your chest to come up. Reach your legs vigorously out of your hips. Soften your eyes and listen to the flow of your breath. Start by holding the pose for a few rounds of breath, then gradually increase the duration—you will experience therapeutic benefits when you can hold it from 3 to 5 minutes.
Keep your head down as you come out of Headstand, then rest in Child's Pose. Repeat Down Dog before continuing.
8. Viparita Dandasana (Inverted Staff Pose) using a chair
Take your mat away and place a chair about a foot from the wall. With your legs through the back of the chair, sit facing the wall with your knees bent. Hold the chair and lean back so your shoulder blades touch the front edge of the chair. Arch your upper back and release your head and neck. Bring your feet to the wall and slowly begin to straighten your legs. Press your heels down and rotate your upper thighs inward. Reach through the chair and grab the back legs. Pull on the legs of the chair to help you lift and open your chest. To come out, bring your hands to the top of the chair, bend your knees, and place your feet on the floor. Inhale and rise to sitting. Sit quietly with your eyes closed for 10 to 20 breaths before moving on.
9. Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose)
Stack two blankets neatly on top of each other. Lie down with your shoulders on the blankets and your head and neck off the blankets. Bend your knees and bring your feet 2 inches in front of your sitting bones. Keep your knees hip width apart, inhale, and lift your hips. Rotate your upper thighs in. Turn your palms to face each other and press the pinkie finger side of your hand down. Press your outer arms down to create a lift between your shoulder blades. Now interlace your fingers and increase the lift in your chest. The base of your throat should remain soft and the muscles of your face quiet. Stay for 3 to 5 breaths.
10. Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand)
If your elbows tend to splay in Shoulderstand, place a belt above one elbow. Carefully stack two blankets as shown above and lie back. The tops of your shoulders should be at the edge of the blankets; your head should be on the floor. Slowly inhale, bringing your legs over your head into Halasana (Plow Pose). Interlace your fingers, and if you're using a belt, place it over the other elbow. Press your outer upper arms down to create a lift between your shoulder blades. Keep your shoulders in line with your collarbones, rather than forcefully dragging them away from your ears. Now place your hands on your back, fingertips pointing toward the ceiling, and lift your legs one at a time to come up. Reach through your legs and the balls of your feet. Hold the weight of your body on your shoulders and elbows, not on your neck. Stay for 10 to 20 breaths. Roll down slowly, through Halasana, until you're lying on your back. Rest here for a few breaths, soaking in the full effects of the inversion.
Round Our Your Practice
Begin by lying down in a simple spinal twist or in your favorite gentle stretching pose. Stay there until you're ready to move on.
Om: Chant three times.
Breathing Exercise: Begin in Supported Corpse Pose with one block under your thoracic spine and another under your head. Rotate your arms open with your palms facing up; let your chest be full. Begin Ujjayi Breath (Victorious Breath). Make the inhalation as long and as smooth as the exhalation.
Warm-up Vinyasas: Warm up your upper back with Cat/Cow Pose. Come to a tabletop position, kneeling on your hands and knees, with your shoulders directly over your wrists. Take a few rounds of breath, alternately lengthening and rounding your spine. Inhale deeply as your tuck your tail, round your upper back, and drop your head. Exhale as you lift the sitting bones, arch the upper back, and gaze up.
Sun Salutation: Once your spine feels warm, transition to Sun Salutations—three "A" and three "B." If you practice late in the evening or have shoulder problems, modify the salutations to make them less strenuous. Skip the Chaturangas, and instead hold Plank Pose for a few breaths and move directly into Downward Dog. Otherwise, hold the last Upward Dog of each salutation to open your upper back and chest.
Standing Poses: These poses open the upper back and shoulders, which is helpful for inversions: Chair Pose, Warrior I, Revolved Triangle, and Intense Side Stretch with hands in reverse prayer. Begin with either Triangle Pose or Side Angle Pose, then move into the poses mentioned, playing with the sequencing and finding what works. Get creative and experiment from day to day.
Featured Sequence: Repeating poses is helpful. Often it isn't until the second round that we learn something new. Repeat each pose in the sequence twice, except for Shoulderstand
Forward Bends and Twists: After Bridge Pose, practice Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose using a belt around the lifted foot.
Closing Poses: Do Legs-up-the-Wall Pose. Fold two blankets in half and place them 2 to 3 inches from a wall. Sit on the blankets and, using your hands, lie back and extend your legs up the wall. Keep your buttocks close to the wall and place your arms in a soft U shape with palms facing up. Stay for at least 5 minutes. Gradually move into Corpse Pose. Place one blanket under your head and one over your thighs, and cover your eyes, if you like. Completely let go into a fully relaxed state.