Resistance bands have been making big waves in the yoga world lately. They have shown to be an invaluable tool in redefining what it means to practice yoga in an interconnected way—meaning that when we move one part of our body against the resistance of the band, we are able to feel a clear reaction in another area of our body. You might say that using resistance bands can facilitate the mind-body connection. But that’s only one sliver of the positive impact that can result from using them.
Here are five good reasons to incorporate resistance bands into your yoga practice.
As an alignment-based teacher, I marvel at how much interconnection there is in the body and how language can facilitate the experience of that reality. What is happening if, in response to hearing the cue in mountain pose to “Press your feet firmly into the ground, and lift up through the crown of your head,” I do just that? Do I actually grow taller? Does my spine become longer? I’m not sure precisely what is happening, but yes, there is a connection. And I can manipulate my body to create all sorts of sensory experiences.
The big drawback with language, though, is that it has to be universally comprehensible in order to elicit the same response in everyone.
Sometimes language can be too abstract. For example, if a yoga teacher asks students to “lift the fronts of their thighs and descend the back of their legs without tilting their pelvis or otherwise moving their body,” students might wonder (for one) how to “lift” the fronts of their thighs. What’s doing the lifting?
Other cues can be so technical as to sound overwhelming to a student with limited anatomical knowledge. For example: “As you lift your arms overhead, draw the inner borders of your shoulder blades down your back as the outer borders of your shoulder blades lift and wrap around your side ribs.” If a student isn’t already familiar with the structure and location of their shoulder blades, a cue like this can be quite frustrating and very difficult to implement!
Resistance bands can help to clarify specific cues so that you can more readily feel what is happening in your body. In the case of “Press your feet firmly into the ground, and lift up through the crown of your head,” if you took a band and looped it around your entire body (under your heels and over your head) and pressed your feet down to lift your spine, you would undoubtedly feel how the band creates a container into which the body can push. The effect of the cue is then easily experienced.
The second reason to add resistance bands to your practice is also associated with embodying alignment cues. The bands provide feedback to the brain and strengthen the mind-body connection, which increase our proprioception—our ability to perceive where our body is in space.
It’s easy to have a false sense of proprioception. For example, when reaching our arms overhead into urdhva hastasana (upward salute) with the hands close to each other or together, we might think we are keeping our arms straight, lifting them directly overhead from the shoulder blades, when we’re actually bending our elbows after reaching our end-range of motion at the shoulders.
Using bands can reroute this misperception. If, in mountain pose, you stretch a band between your hands with your arms at shoulder height and then reach your arms overhead from there, it will be harder to bend your elbows. The resistance bands can strengthen accurate proprioception and therefore increase our ability to move the body more efficiently.
I’m a chronic hyperextender, and my ego would often override the idea of using my muscles to stabilize the actions of my joints—because I was already "doing" the pose. But if the purpose of yoga is to practice—not to do it—and we are working with stabilizing the joints by engaging all the musculature around the joint, practicing isometric work can be a worthwhile challenge. And resistance bands can help.
In isometric contractions, the muscle groups don’t lengthen or shorten and the joints don’t move. Isometrics bring an entirely new dynamic to the joint while physically supporting it. Add resistance bands to your practice, and you will almost immediately feel muscular activity surrounding the joint rather than just partial engagement (on only one side of the joint).
For example, in tabletop, the elbows can often “lock out” (i.e., hyperextend), and you may feel pressure in the elbows while firming the triceps. To create muscular engagement around the entire elbow joint, place a resistance band around your upper arms and push your upper arms out into it. The pressure shifts from solely the outer elbow to the entire circumference of the joint.
Resistance bands not only help you to work isometrically but also build strength to control your body as it moves against an external force. This facilitates ease and support in both your yoga practice and in your everyday movements.
Embodying cues like “pulling your leg down to the floor from supta padangusthasana (reclined hand to big toe pose) as if pulling it through molasses” allows you to slow down and control the action. But using actual resistance increases awareness of the muscular sensations this cue is meant to awaken.
Working with resistance bands is also a great way to sneak an extra element of strength training into your asana practice. And because bands come in all degrees of resistance (from a little to a lot), you can increase the resistance as you build strength.
And now for my favorite reason to use resistance bands in yoga.
While I enjoy practicing yoga and I love how it challenges me, I also realize that downward facing dog will always be downward facing dog and warrior II will be warrior II. There isn't much variability in a monotonous practice. For me to stay connected and present, resistance bands keep me super aware and help me to focus. Nothing brings me greater mind-body-spirit harmony than experimenting with "immutable" yoga poses and exploring, for example, what happens when I connect my opposing hand and foot with the band and then play in ardha chandrasana (half moon pose) or downward facing dog. I am then able to reinvent or reinvigorate ordinary poses, and I can fully explore this inner adventure.
Resistance bands may seem like “gym props” to some people. But I’d suggest you give them a test run and notice what kind of feedback they give you. They may well inspire you and change the way you experience movement in your body. Don’t be surprised if they deepen your mind-body connection and expand your proprioception—and yield such a treasure trove of sensory experience that you’ll want to incorporate bands into your practice every time you step on your mat.
Photography: Andrea Killam