I’m often asked how to “get better” at yoga and usually I answer with some variation of practice more often. Then, after focusing for the last month on arm balances in my group classes, I’ve noticed more of my students inquiring on how to improve. So let me be super honest, practicing yoga once a week is great, really great in fact; but, the truth is, if you’re truly working toward physical gains in strength and flexibility one practice per week just isn’t going to cut it. If we remember the purpose of our yoga practice, it’s to yoke or find balance. If you’re tight, the flexibility components of the practice will stand out for you and if you’re flexible working on building strength is likely your focus. To continue developing your yoga practice doesn’t always require more yoga.
For years, yoga was the main source of my physical exercise. I was practicing upwards to five or six times a week along with cardio sessions sprinkled in for cardiovascular health. During this time, I was able to really focus on technique and build a deep connection to my body within the scope of yoga. What I also found during these years of dedicated practice is that my strength and flexibility plateaued. It was then that I began looking to other movement modalities to continue feeling good in my body. Read on for my recommendations if you’re hoping to deepen your yoga practice.
Increase the frequency of your mat time
This one might seem obvious but a good rule of thumb for practice frequency is as follows:
One practice per week to build up your mind-body connection
Two practices per week to feel the connection and see subtle improvements, week over week
Three+ practices per week if you really want to grow strength and flexibility regularly
Try other forms of physical exercise
Hitting the weight room and trying other resistance training classes is another really great way to build up strength components needed for trickier arm balances and inversions. I recognize this isn’t every yogi’s goal so approach this in a way that makes sense for your personal goals. Incorporating resistance training will improve strength and connection to the way various muscle groups fire within the body. If you’re newer to yoga, understanding the ways to activate the body relays nicely into the technique that is often focused on in yoga. If you’re also feeling slightly overwhelmed about how to start a resistance training program, I have personally loved using the Sweat app. The app provides three resistance workouts per week with gif videos of how to perform the exercises and slowly introduces different weights and exercises as the weeks progress.
My practice grew by leaps and bounds when I began incorporating reformer pilates into my regular exercise regimen. The focus in pilates is on the core which directly translates to our movements on the yoga mat. By building this connection and engagement to the core muscles your movements in a vinyasa yoga class will become more effortless and controlled as well.
If flexibility is an area you’re working on, try a yin or restorative yoga class. These classes are designed to lengthen muscles and connective tissue. Flexibility can be slow but important work. While it might be more “fun” work on strength and see gains, we’re only as strong as we are flexible. Being able to fully lengthen the muscle belly will also lead tapping more deeply into your power and strength. It may not be flashy but equally important! If you’re looking for props to support you during your home practice, I recommend starting with a bolster, I use this one at home, and a couple of yoga blocks.
Create a focus for your practice
Focusing on a particular area of the body whether it’s a group of poses (backbends, forward folds, shoulders, etc.) can be really beneficial as well. Most yoga classes are sequenced in a way to reach total body engagement so when you show up to your mat, connect with your purpose. if you know you’re particularly tight in an area or working toward endurance in something, use that to inform your movements—linger a little where you need it most.
Every yoga class can be framed in a way to support your goals. So much of what is happening in the body depends on your focus. One of my favorite things to do after a yoga class is to pick out a couple of poses that were challenging and revisit them. In the typical one hour vinyasa style classes, teachers often move from one pose to the next so rapidly that it’s hard to really unpack them and understand what to engage or lengthen, so stay an extra five minutes and explore a pose or two before rolling up your mat. Being curious about the sensations and developing a willingness to explore can be extraordinarily profound. Some of my biggest yoga learnings haven taken place after class—in fact, many of the posts I add to social channels are in the studio after I’ve taught or taken a class because the body is finally warmed up and ready to really explore.
My hope is that your desire to continue learning and exploring the endless abilities the body has and remember that ultimately our movements and activity should feel sustainable and good, leading to longevity in the tissues. Let me know what has helped you cultivate a deeper practice.
With deep love,