Refine Your Approach to Strength Building: A Lower-Body Sequence

The early-20th-century writer Henry S. Haskins said, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” The vision of yoga agrees with this assessment of our human situation. Yoga teaches that within each human being lies a core of unshakable, diamond-like strength.

How can postural practice help us harness it?

Postural practice focused on working in a way that builds strength is an opportunity to intentionally cultivate the quality of strength itself. It’s a way to not only get stronger in your body but to also explore what it feels like to be strong from the inside. 

Of course, asana isn’t the only way to build strength. It’s maybe not even (or always) the best way. But it does have at least one advantage other strength-building practices don’t: its emphasis on mindful self-awareness.

This is why the physical strength you build in postural practice has the potential to help you access and tap into the inner core of strength that can support you in meeting challenges.

Bringing this inner experience into all your other strengthening activities can make them more holistic and integrated—deepening your weight-training regimen or your resistance-band workout, for example, so you’re not only building physical muscle but also building mental and emotional muscle.

Consider these three aspects of inner strength as you practice the poses in the sequence that follows:

1. Strength helps you feel powerful. When you feel strong in your body, it can translate into a sense of empowerment. Strength is force and vigor. It is energy we can unleash through our actions. Physical strength can help you to feel more solid in your character, more confident in your way of being in the world. It can help you to act with greater conviction and purpose.

2. Strength is stable. On a purely functional level, this is important. Muscular strength helps stabilize and protect your joints. This is especially crucial if you’re more naturally flexible. Building stability through strength work makes everyday movements safer and your yoga practice more sustainable. On a deeper level, the stabilizing aspect of strength can help to stabilize and hold you steady on an emotional level too. It can support you to navigate the ups and downs of life with greater steadiness and equanimity.

As you feel the strength of your leg and hip muscles in the following poses, see if you can translate that experience into a feeling of supportive inner strength. Consider how you might bring it to bear on challenges in your life.

3. Strength is reliable. When something is strong, it is able to withstand strain and resist pressure. It doesn’t buckle or retreat. Strength endures, it persists, and it allows you to as well. As you develop physical strength, you can use it to cultivate greater fortitude and resilience. You will come to know you can depend on yourself to persevere no matter what life throws at you.

The Practice

This sequence focuses on five excellent poses for strengthening the lower body. Each one entails a progression of more challenging variations. As you perform each pose slowly and mindfully, focus on their strength-building actions through conscious attention to their micro-movements.

See if you can maintain your thread of awareness by focusing on where you are feeling the quality of strength itself—the way each pose challenges your body to be strong, to hold steady, and to build the stability and power you can rely on physically and otherwise.

Start with the warm-ups and then practice each progression separately or put them all together and add a resting pose such as mountain pose (tadasana), standing forward bend (uttanasana), or child’s pose (balasana) between them. Conclude with the closing poses.

Props needed:

  • 2 Blocks 

  • 1 Strap

  • 1 Blanket 

  • 1 Chair

  • A small amount of wall space 

Warm-ups

1. Chair downward facing dog (adho mukha svanasana) on the exhale; upward facing dog (urdhva mukha svanasana) on the inhale.

Five times total.

2. Calf Stretch 

Bend and straighten your back leg.

Hold each position for one or two breaths on each side.

Bending your back knee stretches the larger gastrocnemius muscle; the smaller soleus muscle gets a stretch when your straight leg is straight.

Progression 1: Straight-Leg Lunge

Begin in downward facing dog pose and step one leg forward. Hold each variation for three to five breaths. Stop at the variation that feels like the appropriate amount of challenge for you or repeat the full sequence two to three times and then switch sides.

1. Hands on floor

2. Hands on front thigh

3. Arms overhead

Progression 2: Chair Pose (Utkatasana

Hold each for three to five breaths. Again, stop with the version that feels like the right amount of challenge for you or repeat the full sequence two to three times. 

1. Hips at wall

2. Wall squat. (Keep your whole back against the wall for this one.)

3. Away from the wall

Progression 3: Warrior 2 (Virabhadrasana II) 

Hold each variation for three to five breaths. Repeat the full sequence or practice only the variations that feel like the right amount of challenge for you.

1. Goddess prep with inner thigh resistance—press your hands and inner thighs into each other and, if possible, try lifting your hips a little bit off the chair.

2.  Sitting on chair—use your outer hip and glute muscles to lift yourself off the chair, or work toward lifting yourself off the chair.

Repeat three times and change sides.

3. With a chair and wall. Sitting on chair with your back foot at wall—push your back foot into the wall to help strengthen your back leg. You can either lift yourself off the chair or stay seated. Hold for two to three breaths and change sides.

Progression 4: Extended Hand to Big Toe Pose (Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana I and II) 

Practice both variations holding your leg with your hands first. Hold each position for three to five breaths. Repeat, or for additional challenge, practice the two variations using the strap. Then change sides.

1. Bent leg with chair or wall

2. Straight leg with strap, chair, wall, or any combination

Progression 5: Warrior III (Virabhadrasana III)

Practice the first three variations without the wall, or only the ones that feel like the right amount of challenge for you, on both sides first. Then practice any (or all) of the variations with your foot at the wall on both sides. Hold each variation for two to five breaths.

1. Hands on two blocks

2. Hands on two blocks or one or two hands off block, one or both arms alongside body.

3. Foot at wall with hands on blocks or off blocks with one or both arms alongside body or ears.

Closing Poses

1. Chair figure four 

Hold each side for six to nine breaths (30 to 45 seconds). Repeat if you’d like.

2.  Chair twist

Twist to each side for six to nine breaths (30 to 45 seconds).

3.  Chair child’s pose forward bend

Stay here for 9 to 12 breaths (45 to 60 seconds) or up to three minutes if you’d like.

4.  Savasana with legs on a chair

Place a folded blanket on the seat of your chair if you wish. Rest for 3 to 10 minutes.

As you conclude your practice, take a moment to acknowledge yourself with appreciation for your efforts. You might also reflect on your experience of how yoga connects you to your innate power and strength, and how building strength in your body helps to foster resilience and self-trust.

About the teacher

Barrie Risman is the best-selling author of Evolving Your Yoga: Ten Principles for Enlightened Practice.... Read more

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