Strength vs. Flexibility
When starting yoga, people often think they’re not flexible enough, strong enough, or both, and therefore, they’ve already given up before they’ve even started. Yes, yoga requires both of these elements, but it also builds them from the ground up and keeps them from counteracting each other.
Being strong means to know how to properly utilize the muscles & joints in order to perform a certain asana. Being flexible means to be able to stretch the muscles, joints and tendons to a great extent which results in deeper poses and smoother transitions. Having one of these qualities don’t necessarily mean that a person is a ‘great practitioner’ or can do more in the yoga shala. Having both of them is an advantage, but knowing how to use them properly is the key to a strong practice. Strength contributes to better stability, proper use of the core muscles and balance, less muscle fatigue and longer holds. Flexibility brings more fresh oxygen into the muscles and allows them to utilize their own fibers and support the joints and bones. Combining these two elements creates flow, power, grace and a certain ‘ease’ in movement, which results in being able to follow your breath, establish your drishti (focus point), be determined to enter, hold and exit asanas, and fully relax at the end of your practice (in savasana). Sri. Pattabhi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga Yoga, said ‘Practice, practice, practice and all is coming’. Developing strength and flexibility comes from the practice itself, and there’s no real advantage if you’re better at one of the two qualities and lacking the other. Keeping them in sync creates balance, prevents injuries and teaches the body which asana requires more or less strength, and therefore more or less flexibility.
Our bodies are amazing and can do extraordinary things if we let them. Explore your own limits, go past them, and see where that takes you. If there is a certain asana you are struggling with, try entering it with a different mindset. Focus on the mind-to-muscle connection and use your intention to “activate” the muscle fibers you need to perform the pose. Use your breath to find stability and ease, and relax the muscles which are not being used primarily (e.g. shoulders when doing warriors). Only then, you will be able to figure out which quality (strength or flexibility) is more accessible to you and which one you need to work harder on. Use the one that prevails as an aid to improve the other, not as an obstacle. It always sounds funny when a teacher says “Breathe into the muscle you’re using”. It’s not a figure of speech and it’s not magic, it’s setting intention & deliberately sending brain waves and oxygen to the aforementioned muscle. When a student cracks this code, his whole practice changes and rises to a whole new level. Yoga asanas are created in a sequence for a reason. Every one of them prepares the body for the next one, builds muscle strength, and improves flexibility. That being said, you can always choose to work on both outside the yoga shala. Weight lifting & resistance training will definitely build your strength, and passively stretching & foam rolling will take your flexibility to the next level. Invest your time into researching different types of training, try them out, and see how your body will respond.
Some of the best asanas which you can use to assess your abilities and track progress over time are:
(Works on strengthening the core and quads & stretching the hamstrings)
(Works on strengthening and opening the shoulders, improves hamstring flexibility and
Vasisthasana (Side plank) and the full variation with the extended leg
(Strengthens the core, shoulders, triceps and abductors while stretching the hamstrings
and opening the hips)
Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel)
(Opens up the hip flexors and stretches the quads, the whole spine & back muscles while
toning them at the same time and contracting the hamstrings)
(Works on improving the flexibility of all leg muscles and opening the hips)
Prasarita Padottanasana (Straddle forward fold)
(Elongates the spine while stretching out the hamstrings and calves by using gravity)
Paschimottanasana (Seated forward fold)
(Elongates the spine, especially the lower back, while stretching out the hamstrings and
calves by lifting from the sitting bones)
Like with everything else, developing strength & flexibility requires time, dedication, consistency and patience. Don’t be afraid or frustrated if you don’t seem to see progress as fast as you may want to and don’t let it stop you from practicing yoga or trying out any other type of activity. Listen to your body, be patient, work hard & soon, you’ll reap the benefits from both, strength AND flexibility.