One of things I now love about integrating more progressive functional movement and strength training into yoga is the benefits of upper body strength.
For much of my yoga life, I have felt like I’m cheating and dipping out of body weight moves because they were too much for me. Like many women or people who come to yoga without a sporty background, my upper body feels much weaker – this meant I was always speeding a bit too fast through the endless plank/chaturanga to up-dog repetitions and struggled with certain movements. I definitely got stronger doing yoga, but then I hit a frustrating plateau, with sometimes niggly wrist and upper back pain.
Now I understand that some types of yoga (dynamic/ vinyasa styles) requires repetitive, upper body weight bearing positions with too much body weight load for the wrists and shoulders to have a chance to progressively adapt to.
In the last few years several things have been a revelation:
WRIST WORK IS A GAME CHANGER
It is so beneficial to actually do targeted work to strengthen and mobilise the hands, wrists and forearms. They are part of the shoulder girdle chain of movement and wrists often feel like a weak link. Your wrist mobility and strength can be hugely improved by adding a few focused minutes of prep exercises to your practice. If you’re struggling to hold table top or plank for any length of time, you’re then limited in the body weight strength work you can access, as so much core and upper body strength is in these positions.
My hands were really surprisingly stiff considering all the yoga I had done and now I feel so much more connected to feeling and moving the whole chain of from fingers, hands, wrists, right through to shoulders.
STRONG UPPER BODY = POWER CORE
Getting stronger in your upper body combines with a stronger core and torso as a whole. When you hold planks, side planks, table top balance variations and so on, you’re engaging all the musculature in your torso as well as your shoulder girdle. It’s a double win.
UPPER BODY STRENGTH GAINS =UPPER BODY MOBILITY GAINS.
Getting stronger in your shoulder girdle can actually be good for your mobility as well. When you work on movements which actively develop your range of motion in the shoulder joint (shoulder blades and the arm bone joint) these movements also create strength in all the muscles around the joints. Then you can hold strengthening positions better and you get stronger through a greater range of motion.
You want to feel strong with your arms in all possible positions, in front of you of you, as well as overhead or behind you, for functional purposes and to increase your general capacity for movement in all ways.
Here is a video I made of some examples of this, called Strong and Supple Shoulders.
UPPER BODY STRENGTH = ‘DON’T MESS’ ATTITUDE
As a woman in particular, focus on upper body strength in my yoga practice with progressive repetitions of a wide variety of loaded movements, makes me feel awesome and STRONG!! Of course I’m doing lower body focused movement too, but the psychological/emotional benefits of upper body focus feels really different to me.
Your lower body is your base, but you meet the world with your upper body. There is a sense of confidence and personal resilience when you regularly move and work all those muscles and FEEL your own physical strength, whatever your current capacity. It’s like free assertiveness training! Rather than ‘trying’ to stand tall with good posture, it naturally encourages an open, upright, relaxed posture.
Also, I feel such benefits in terms of overall sense of competence, stamina and maintaining energy in my everyday life. We all need to lift carry, and move things around, so it’s good to feel confident to do everyday stuff, rather than feeling weaker as you age.
Everything connects right?….I wonder if, when there is a perception of weakness in the upper body, it also undermine access to the core, creates more constant tension in the neck and shoulders, less connection to good diaphragmatic breathing and therefore just more energy expended to do everything and anything? Upper body strength-focused movement is like plugging in an energy battery!
PHYSICAL STRENGTH – IS IT YOGA??
Does focusing on the physical benefits and functional potential of strength training your body make it any less yoga? For me, no. The experience of yoga comes with the intention of your movement practice, and can include adding in targeted strength focused movement. Paying close attention to the way you move and feel physical sensations, how this impacts and connects with your mental/emotional states, experiencing how this effects your interaction with your wider world, your capacity for presence and connection, isn’t that yoga?
Within the more well known or accepted forms of asana (yoga postures), there is plenty of strength required, and it makes sense to build up to these movements skilfully with progressive, targeted movements. Mindfulness and practicing a sense of connection can happen with palm raises as much as holding an arm balance.
All of this is enough reason for me to be kicking of 2020 with an upper body strength focus in all my classes from the most gentle to dynamic. You can find more videos here and here and there will be more posted to Facebook and You Tube until Easter.
One of my inspirations for upper body strength stuff is Kathryn Bruni Young/@mindfulstrength. Kathryn was once a traditional ashtanga yogi, and now is the powerhouse behind Mindful Strength. She has been a light on my journey to a more functional, sustainable, progressive yoga practice and teaching.
She offers a free online course introduction to Mindful Strength, which is a great resource for anyone’s yoga or movement practice. I highly recommend it. She also talks about the benefit of strength focus in a movement practice in many of her interesting podcasts, here is a great one!
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, and about your experience of upper body strength/movement practice in my classes & workshops or elsewhere, and if you try any of the resources don’t forget to get in touch and let me know how it goes!